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The Brick Lane Bomb: A street scarred by years of racial conflict

Jane Hughes,Hilary Clarke
Sunday 25 April 1999 00:02 BST

TO EASTENDERS, it is known as "Banglatown", home to the largest Bengali community outside of Bangladesh.

For over 20 years Brick Lane has been the scene of conflict between local Asian residents and neo-fascist groups, although in recent times far-right extremists have made only sporadic attempts to recruit disenchanted white youth in the area. Even so, within minutes of the blast residents were convinced it was the work of a far-right group, possibly Combat 18.

Brick Lane and its surrounding streets house some of the poorest people in Britain, yet within a few hundred yards to the west lies the City of London - the richest area of the UK.

The narrow lane is lined with cheap ethnic restaurants, clothing stores selling saris and fake designer jackets, warehouses and sweatshops which evoke the street life of the Asian subcontinent. Local streets have signs in both English and Bengali and lamp-posts are painted in the red and green of the Bangladeshi flag. Record shops blast out the latest hits from Bollywood and there is even a Bangladeshi publican.

There have been signs of economic regeneration as tourists have discovered the attraction of the area and arty types, exemplified by the painters Gilbert and George, have moved in. Around pounds 10m of European Union and government funds have been earmarked for the area. Yet despite the gentrification attempts, Brick Lane remains almost exclusively Asian.

The area has always been a haven for persecuted minorities. The imposing houses and warehouses of the area were originally built for the Huguenots fleeing intolerance in France, and at the end of the last century it was the first stop for Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia and Poland. A reminder of the Jewish past is the long-established bagel shop which attracts late night clubbers. Indeed, the local mosque began life as a synagogue. It is an area where violence has long been commonplace and which has seen many racial attacks. As a destination for newly arrived immigrants, Brick Lane was a landmark which attracted skinheads from all over east London to indulge in "Paki bashing". The council still fits flats with fire-proof letter boxes to prevent arson attacks on Bangladeshi homes.

The brutal stabbing of a 25-year-old machinist, Altab Ali, in Whitechapel in the late Seventies was the catalyst for the beginning of a fightback from the Asian community.

In May 1978, 7,000 people marched behind his coffin to Downing Street to demand police protection. And, by the end of the year, after a campaign of sit-down protests, the National Front was forced to leave its headquarters in the area near Brick Lane.

The Anti-Nazi League and the Rock Against Racism movement were born out of these events, leading to splits within the National Front, then the dominant racist group. Recent years have seen the emergence of a new militancy among Asian youth disillusioned with what they saw as the "passivity" of the older generations. They have become prepared to physically resist the far right.

Over the past couple of years, however, there has been an upsurge in- fighting between local Asian gangs. This has caused much heart searching within the community, as has the willingness of some youths to indulge in and, in some cases, trade in drugs.

n The extreme-right British National Party is targeting lorry drivers protesting about rises in fuel prices and road taxes.

The BNP leadership has instructed members to recruit "as many people as possible" to capitalise on dissent about foreign drivers working in Britain.

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