The Blog

East End's Legacy Of Fighting Bigotry Since The Battle Of Cable Street

In post-Brexit Britain when there will be natural economic uncertainty, our political class and media establishment have an historic obligation to keep our country safe from bigotry by being positive, robust and wise in their discourse.

On the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street many Britons are looking forward to a revival of fighting spirit against bigotry, particularly anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, in their midst. The story of this 'battle' is indeed inspirational: On 4th October 1936, Sir Oswald Mosley's uniformed Blackshirts decided to march against the Jewish people who had fled from the pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe and settled in East London. The East Enders - Jews, trade unionists, Labour party activists, Irish Catholic dockers and many ordinary people - joined together and stood up to confront Mosley's fascist brigade with barricades and refused to let them march through their streets. Ordinary East Enders succeeded in their goal!

October is also the Black History Month in the UK and throughout this month the African diaspora not only remembers the important individuals and events in their history, but also renews their pledge to fight against contemporary bigotry and racism.

The East End of London had opened its door to many communities - that started with the French Huguenots in the 18th century, then the Jewish community from the 1880s through the early part of 20th century and the Bangladeshis in the 1970s; in recent years the Somalis have been arriving in big numbers. But one thing has been common in the area - the East Enders had all along been determined to fight against all forms of bigotry.

The next test came when Bangladeshis settling in East London, particularly in the Bricklane area in the1970s, were facing bigoted local thugs from the white skinhead gangs. Residents began to fight back by creating committees and youth groups, with many anti-fascists from the mainstream society joining them. On 4th May 1978, a 25-year-old Bangladeshi garment worker, Altab Ali, was brutally murdered in a racist attack as he walked home from work. This led to over 7,000 people, mostly Bangladeshis, marching in a demonstration against racist violence and walking behind his coffin to 10 Downing Street. His murder was the trigger for the first significant politically organised attempt against racism by local Bangladeshi activists.

In recent years Islamophobic groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First (a far-right nationalist political party formed in 2011 by former members of the British National Party) took advantage of the post-7/7 anti-Muslim sentiment and became emboldened to corner the Muslim community. The EDL orchestrated a number of violent demonstrations against mosques in major UK cities. But when they threatened a big demonstration in front of Britain's largest mosque, the ELM in Whitechapel, in summer 2010, Tower Hamlets' civil society groups amassed 5,000 local people in a counter-demonstration. Once again, this great victory against bigots was a huge moral boost for the East End communities.

In the midst of the waves of refugees crossing the Mediterranean, mainly from Syria with thousands dying in capsized boats, many EU countries are going through political and economic uncertainty in recent years. Some countries have seen the big rise of narrow nationalism, with the rise of political far right. Europe is now more polarised and divided than it has been for the past decades. A chilling wave of xenophobic attacks on immigrants and refugees has created fear and uncertainty to the Muslim, Jewish and other vulnerable communities. Occasional Daesh-inspired "lone wolf" terror acts are further generating xenophobia. Right wing political rhetoric and lurid media headlines are giving succour to bigots across the continent. Far right political parties are gaining electoral successes; some countries like Hungary are defiantly erecting high walls to keep away people in desperate need.

The result of Britain's EU Referendum, Brexit, on 23 June has exacerbated the uncertainty further. In Britain itself post-Brexit anti-foreigner sentiment and increased violence is causing huge concern, while historic anti-Semitism and Islamophobia appear to be leaving the two communities more fearful of their future.

However, in Britain the distinctive legacy of anti-fascist and anti-racist fighting spirit, particularly in the East End of London, has continued over the decades. On the occasion of the Battle of Cable Street and in this historic Black History Month, the proud East Enders and Britain's well-organised anti-racist groups have now regrouped once again to face the new challenges that are affecting community relations. They recently organised a number of events, including one in the historic Altab Ali Park in Whitechapel, to strengthen solidarity among people in the area and beyond.

In post-Brexit Britain when there will be natural economic uncertainty, our political class and media establishment have an historic obligation to keep our country safe from bigotry by being positive, robust and wise in their discourse.

Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is an educationalist, parenting consultant and author. He is former Secretary General of Muslim Council of Britain (2006-10). You can follow him on Twitter @MAbdulBari

The views expressed in this article belong to the author only.

Before You Go