The Battle of Brick Lane 1978 by AK Azad Konor tells the story of how a community was galvanised by the murder of a young Bangladeshi textile worker, Altab Ali, in a Whitechapel park in east London.
Azad Konor, Rafique Ulah and others formed the Bangladeshi Youth Front (BYF) in response to the National Front (NF), who had moved its headquarters to the heart of the Bangladeshi community and were selling their papers on Brick Lane.
They led a march of 10,000 Bengalis and anti-racists from Brick Lane, carrying the coffin of Altab Ali, and went to Downing Street where they met then prime minister James Callaghan and demanded action was taken against racism.
The BYF confronted the NF every week on Brick Lane. When the police refused to stop the NF selling its papers the BYF slept out on the streets, supported by anti-racists, “the Anti-Nazi League and Socialist Workers Party”, so that they could claim the street before the NF arrived.
Local people would bring them food and drink. Their posters and slogans were “black and white, unite and fight”, “here to stay, here to fight” and “self-defence is no offence”. They also attempted to organise a local strike against the presence of the NF.
Konor says he wrote the book so that young Bengali people would know their history and take up the struggle today.
Thirty or more of the men involved in the BYF attended a conference against racism and book launch in Birmingham in September.
It was impressive to see how the movement that empowered a community still endures — all the speakers used lessons learnt in the Battle of Brick Lane to speak for the need to unite and organise against racism today.
From the perspective of a Muslim woman, migrant and anti-racist activist this book is incredibly important, lovely to read and inspirational.
It is well needed at this moment when Britain’s far-right is starting to gain confidence and grow in size, with thousands attending their mobilisations.
The unique thing about this book is that it is written from the Bangladeshi community’s point of view, as a then new ethnic minority migrant community, by someone who was young at the time and who was one of the people who took the matter into their own hands and organised along with anti-racists and socialists and fought back, winning some important victories.
There is a well detailed description of both state racism and fascist’s daily attacks, as well as the ill treatment and blatant injustice received from the police.
This book should be read by everyone who wants to appreciate the battle that this community fought to help create the Britain that we know today.
Hopefully because of this book more of the Muslim community will decide to get involved in anti-racist campaigns. If they smashed the National Front at Brick Lane in the 1970s we can do it again with the fascists now.
Epic struggles such as Brick Lane helped to bring in equality laws around discrimination, improved the lives and social standing of Asians in general and helped strengthen anti-racism in the trade union movement.
We can learn from the strategies and tactics used at the time and recognise that, despite the great dangers facing us today, important gains and advantages were won for us which we can continue to use.