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Brick Lane 1978: The Turning Point—photographs that reveal a hidden anti-racist history

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A new exhibition draws attention to the mass militant resistance mounted by Asians against the National Front in 1970s Brick Lane, writes Sarah Bates
Issue 2809
An image by Paul Trevor shows a sit down protest of mostly Asian people outside Bethanl Green Road police station. It is on display at the Brick Lane 1978: The Turning Point exhibition

Paul Trevor’s photographs in Brick Lane 1978: The Turning Point show the presence of the National Front in east London’s Tower Hamlets and the mass resistance that beat them back

In this small but mighty exhibition, Paul Trevor’s collection of photographs capture a critical moment for the fight against racism in Britain. Brick Lane 1978: The Turning Point focuses on Bengalis living in the east end of London.

The fascist National Front casts a shadow over the area, and for Bengalis the threat of violence is ever-present. Smashed windows and swastikas can be seen throughout the pictures in the exhibition.

In May, the racist murder of 24 year old Altab Ali shocked the local community—and they rose up to declare, “Here to stay, here to fight”.

The pictures in the Brick Lane exhibition showing the many thousands that marched behind Altab Ali’s coffin are extremely moving. Their faces set firm in defiance, it’s a slice of raw working class history so rarely on display anywhere else.

Alongside the photographs are posters, political newspapers and campaigning leaflets from the time. So there’s a poster from that year’s Rock Against Racism Carnival Against the Nazis in Victoria Park.

What the Brick Lane exhibition does brilliantly, though, is draw attention to other parts of the movement that are perhaps less well known.

One solution to racist violence, said the Greater London Council, was for Bengali people to live on certain estates that could be made safe for them. But the pictures showing a 500-strong east end residents’ meeting that rejected the segregated housing plan are very powerful.

And a letter from the Bangladesh Youth Movement called on the GLC to abandon the plans. It said it would “ruin existing and developing relationships between the communities, and isolate the Bengali community as a target of violence.”

The reaction to Altab Ali’s murder fed into longstanding resistance to the National Front, which tried to claim Brick Lane as prime newspaper-selling territory. Mass resistance, including thousands-strong sit-ins and protests, helped push the fascists back. In these photographs, you really get a sense of what a pitched battle it was.

Throughout this wonderful series of photographs, you get a piece of local Brick Lane history that undoubtedly has national importance. Make sure you visit it if you can.

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