Youth fight against Racism

This article explains the YRE’s role in fighting the BNP in Tower Hamlets during the 90s.

The YRE was formed in 1992 and its first activity was an international demonstration against racism and fascism in Brussels. There were a few of us from Tower Hamlets that went on that demonstration and in May of 1993 the YRE co-organised an 8,000 strong demonstration of Black and white youth which marched on the BNP’s headquarters, following the murder of Stephen Lawrence.

In Tower Hamlets YRE members decided to organise a campaign against the BNP in our borough, particularly their “paper sale” in Brick Lane, where the neo-Nazi movement had had a national “paper sale” on and off for about 20 years.

The reason they targeted Brick Lane, which was in the heart of the Bengali community in Tower Hamlets and had previously been a largely Jewish area, was to try to intimidate the local Asian and Black communities and incite racist tensions and violence.

We spent the whole summer of 1993 campaigning to explain, in particular to young people, the threat of the BNP, what they represented and why their activity should be stopped.

We went to the youth clubs, organised open-air estate meetings and spoke to the young people on the streets. We visited every youth club in Tower Hamlets, but concentrated our resources on the ones closest to Brick Lane, which we visited at least once a week throughout the summer to ensure we were up-to-date with what was going on and speak with the young people using the clubs about how to organise the campaign against the BNP.

This campaign of dialogue and explanation was absolutely essential in building the mass movement that eventually succeeded in driving the BNP off the streets of Tower Hamlets. While racist attacks were an issue that young people felt strongly about, most hadn’t connected the presence of the BNP to the number of attacks that were happening. We had to explain what the BNP were and expose the link between the BNP’s activities and the rise in racist attacks locally.

Stephen Lawrence

The racist murder of Stephen Lawrence in Eltham (near the BNP’s Welling HQ) in April 1993 had a big effect on young people in Tower Hamlets. There was a general increase in discussions about racist attacks and the mood shifted: people were beginning to look for reasons for the attacks that were happening.

YRE members were able to explain that the BNP, who many young people didn’t know much about, was a racist party that believed white people were a “master race” and stood for deporting all non-white people from Britain. We also explained that they were also out to smash any democratic rights and would attack anyone who stood in their way: in late 1992 BNP supporters had broken into and vandalised a trade union office in Tower Hamlets, causing thousands of pounds worth of damage.

We constantly went back to discuss new events and how to organise to drive the BNP out of Tower Hamlets with local young people. We knew that, while YRE members could help organise the campaign and put forward a strategy to stop the BNP’s “paper sale”, the campaign would only be effective if young people who lived locally were actively involved.

During the campaign hundreds of young people joined the YRE in Tower Hamlets, many of whom became YRE organisers in their local areas. However, by explaining why it was necessary to stop the BNP and organising the campaign, YRE members were able to mobilise thousands more young people. This mass involvement is what decisively defeated the BNP.

During this campaign of explanation we publicised a YRE meeting at the end of August to discuss what to do next. Due to the increasing alarm about racist attacks and the hard work we had done, 60 young people (mostly Bengali) attended. Because of the possibility of attack from the BNP we organised stewarding to protect the meeting and everyone who attended it. This impressed many of the new people who attended as it showed that we were serious about defending ourselves and anyone who came along to events we organised against attacks from the fascists.

The meeting agreed to organise a demonstration on Brick Lane on September 19th with the aim of stopping the BNP’s activity there.

Quddus Ali Attacked

On 8th September BNP members returning from electioneering on the Isle of Dogs, another area of Tower Hamlets, carried out a vicious racist attack against Quddus Ali, a young Bengali student. He sustained severe injuries and was in a coma for several days afterwards.

At a YRE meeting of 100-150 mainly Bengali youth the day after Quddus Ali was attacked the decision of the previous meeting to demonstrate against the BNP’s paper sale on Sunday 19th September was strongly approved.

Hospital Vigil Attacked

The meeting also agreed to support a vigil outside the hospital in Whitechapel where Quddus Ali was being treated, which had been called by the Anti-Nazi League. There was an angry mood on the vigil. Because there was no properly-organised stewarding, however, the police were able to provoke the crowd and used the throwing of stickers at them by some Bengali youth as an excuse to attack the protest and arrest a number of local young Bengalis.

YRE members agreed that we would stay with the young people on the vigil and make sure no-one left on their own, and played a big role in stopping more young people from getting arrested.

Youth Connection

Many local youth were very concerned about their safety going out onto the streets at night. In the aftermath of the BNP members’ racist attack on Quddus Ali and the police attack on the hospital vigil, many of the Bengali youth gangs that had been battling with each other decided to come together to form an alliance to try and change the situation.

Youth Connection, a Bengali youth organisation, was set up as a result. YC was set up partly because the elders weren’t doing anything and the youth didn’t have any faith in any of the “community leaders” that they were seeing, but also it was set up because there had been quite a bit of gang fighting and there had been some previous meetings to set up a truce. Obviously when the BNP got a councillor elected these meetings became politicised.

When Youth Connection was set up, YRE and YRE members were encouraged to take part in their activities and meetings and were seen by the youth as a very useful ally in the struggle against the BNP and the racism that was widespread within the borough.

YRE supported Youth Connection from the beginning as an important step forward in the battle against the BNP. By organising together, local Bengali youth — who were most under threat from both the BNP and police racism and harassment — were able to unite against these problems and become stronger.

We were seen as an ally even though many of the Bengali community elders were keen not to have the involvement of the YRE — which had members who were white, Black and from other parts of Asia — in what was seen to be a Bengali gangs-only organisation. Opposition to YRE even reached the extent where the elders attempted to prevent YRE speakers from participating in some of the meetings that formed Youth Connection.

However this wasn’t allowed; the YRE was welcomed by the young people because of its record and because of the experience YRE members had developed over a relatively short period of time in organising successful anti-racist campaigns and demonstrations. Our ideas of mass action, proper stewarding to ensure protests were disciplined and peaceful, and our slogan of “jobs & homes not racism”, went down very well.

BNP wins by-election on Isle of Dogs

In the meantime the BNP won a council by-election in Millwall ward on the Isle of Dogs on Thursday 16th September; their candidate, Derek Beackon, was elected as a councillor.

The next day council workers on the Isle of Dogs took strike action against Beackon — in defence of their own position and to make sure the BNP didn’t intimidate them or the public.

The Isle of Dogs is isolated from the rest of Tower Hamlets geographically, and is seen as separate from other parts of the borough by most Islanders and others. Most parts of the Island are less racially mixed, though there is still a substantial Black and Asian population living on it.

Derek Beackon’s election was due mostly to a number of specific local issues, but had a big impact on Tower Hamlets as a whole as BNP members’ and sympathisers’ new-found confidence spilled over into a wave of racist attacks and violence and intimidation against anti-racists.

BNP kicked off Brick Lane

The Sunday after the by-election, YRE arrived at Brick Lane early in the morning and occupied the site where the BNP normally sold their newspapers. When the BNP arrived they had to take a more exposed spot on the other side of the road. Through word of mouth this occupation of the BNP’s usual site by about 100 anti-fascists and members of the YRE really quickly became a mass demonstration of local youth 1,000 strong.

This was possible not only because of the mood of anger against the BNP and the racist attacks they encouraged, but also because of the campaigning work done throughout the whole summer.

The BNP were hemmed in by the demonstration and soon were pushed off their second site by the crowd. In following weeks the campaign of mass demonstrations continued to ensure the BNP didn’t come back. Today, nine years later, the BNP have still not re-established a regular public activity anywhere in Britain.

Youth Connection Demo

On the 3rd of October Youth Connection organised a demonstration to reclaim the streets for young people in the borough back from the BNP and to prevent the levels of police intimidation and harassment that had been taking place.

More than 3,000 young people attended the demonstration, which YRE stewarded jointly with Youth Connection. The successful organisation of the stewarding ensured the demonstration was confident, noisy and defiant, and peaceful, as the police were unable to provoke violent confrontations in the way they had done previously.

This joint demonstration also raised many of the political demands that were required in the circumstances, in particular many of the YRE’s slogans for example “jobs and homes not racism” echoed through the streets of Tower Hamlets. This not only gave a lead to the youth, but also gave a warning to the police that racism wouldn’t be tolerated.

It also was used to try and convince local people that racism wasn’t the way forward and that if we were going to struggle to eradicate racism in the borough we also had to have a struggle against the unemployment, poverty and appalling housing/living conditions that ravage Tower Hamlets.

School Students’ Strike

The number of racist attacks locally increased by 300% between Derek Beackon’s election in September 93 and January 94. Many of the victims of these attacks were school students. In one particularly bad incident a newspaper delivery driver had slashed one school student with a knife, racially abused them and then driven off.

YRE members went down to the school where this attack had taken place and discussed with the school students what to do. At a meeting with them we agreed to try to organise a school students’ strike in Tower Hamlets against racist attacks.

YRE members and school students leafletted schools across Tower Hamlets asking students to come to an initial meeting to discuss organising a school strike. Students from six schools came, and in that meeting it was agreed that the young people would go out and call for a one-day strike against racist attacks to take place across Tower Hamlets schools.

These school students — from Sir John Cass, Central Foundation, Stepney Green, Morpeth, St Paul’s Way — formed the core group of students who organised for the school students’ strike.

The school students wrote and designed leaflets and, with the help of the YRE, leafletted all the secondary schools in the borough. Sometimes the school students and YRE members faced hostility from headteachers, who tried to stop them leafletting schools. However, where this happened we were able to approach the National Union of Teachers locally and ask them to intervene in support of the students.

In each school the school students found out who the NUT rep was and asked for their support for the strike. YRE members also approached the local NUT branch for support and organised for some of the school students to go and speak at one of their meetings. With support from the NUT in Tower Hamlets and other teachers in schools, the idea of the strike was able to get quite a good hearing.

Regular meetings were held during the month leading up to the school strike, open to all school students, to bring the young people from different schools together and organise the strike.

These meetings helped the school students overcome some of the problems they faced. As well as hostility from some headteachers, many of the Bengali community elders were opposed to the strike and put huge pressure on young people not to take part, both through the mosques and through their families. One community leader even turned up to the strike meeting point for one school and went around trying to stop young people taking part in the strike.

However, even despite all these problems, on the day 3-400 school students marched through the streets of Tower Hamlets against racism and against the gang fights that had been taking place. Because of threats and intimidation many students who wanted to participate didn’t, but the strike had massive support from school students right across the borough.

That was a brilliant prelude to the trade union-organised demonstration of 40,000 that marched through the streets of Tower Hamlets two weeks later.

TUC Unite Against Racism March

After the number of successful demonstrations that had happened in Tower Hamlets Bill Morris, general secretary of the Transport & General Workers’ Union, made a public call to the Trades Union Congress (TUC) that they should organise a demonstration in the borough.

The trade union leaders had come under considerable pressure, not just from the young people in the area who had already started to organise their own events, but also from the trade unions (particularly UNISON, and many other unions) to organise a public show of strength, a trade union show of strength, against racism in the borough and to help defeat the BNP.

That demonstration, called by the TUC, took place in March 1994. The huge demo was a real show of solidarity of trade unionists and youth against the BNP. It was also the major mobiliser prior to the council elections in May 94 for people to vote against the BNP and defeat them. It was in these elections that Derek Beackon lost his seat.

Although in these elections the BNP got a higher vote, the votes against the BNP (particularly for the Labour Party) increased even more. Across the whole borough the threat of the BNP was felt so strongly that the turnout in the local elections that year was the highest it had been for many years. On the Isle of Dogs it was the highest election turnout ever in the area.

Community Campaigns against Cuts

On the Isle of Dogs, where Derek Beackon was the BNP’s councillor, YRE members had been concentrating most of their efforts in building a campaign to save a local community centre from closure. The Alpha Grove community centre, which provided services for all sections of the local community – from mother and toddler groups to youth clubs and elderly welfare services – was threatened with closure because of cuts in funding.

YRE members were able to successfully argue for the Alpha Grove campaign to support the idea of increased funding for all community facilities across the Isle of Dogs with a “people’s budget” for the Island, and helped ensure the BNP were not able to become part of the campaign.

The Alpha Grove campaign held the only public meeting on the Isle of Dogs to be organised while Derek Beackon was a councillor there. It also played a key role in bringing together community groups across the Island, helping organise a conference with representatives from 20-30 groups representing community centres, pensioners’ groups and youth clubs to fight together against cuts in funding.

This community conference drew up a budget for community groups on the Isle of Dogs and a petition, which were presented by representatives from the conference to a full Tower Hamlets council meeting in March 1994.

The strength of the campaign and the support and publicity it generated succeeded in not only saving the Alpha Grove community centre but also helped to cut across racism and support for the BNP, by showing a positive alternative to their politics of hatred and division.

Organising Community Defence

We’ve also been involved in Tower Hamlets in making sure that the BNP are not able to use elections to actively campaign in public. The reason again is because of the intimidation these people unleash when they come onto ordinary working class estates.

We always aimed for the YRE to be an organisation that could help local youth and communities get rid of the BNP, rather than trying to do it all ourselves. While we had members in most local communities, we knew that we wouldn’t always have an organised YRE campaign in every area and for a campaign to stop the neo-Nazis long-term it is essential for the local community to organise themselves.

Wherever we organised community defence, we made sure that we had plenty of discussions with young people locally about how they felt about the threat from the BNP and what they wanted to do. When this had been decided we gave practical advice and help with organising the campaign.

Shadwell by-election, August-September ‘94

In one particular council by-election in a largely Bengali area the BNP was standing and threatened on a number of occasions to come into estates and do leafletting. We organised in advance to have a campaign of explanation aimed at the young people on the estate of what the BNP stood for. We then made sure that when we went onto the estates we said: if you are going to prevent the BNP coming onto your estate you’ve got to do it properly.

We used whistles as an alarm system so that if the BNP were going to come onto an estate, people blow their whistles and people would come down to their front doors, to their front gates, to make sure to stop the BNP even from getting onto the estate. So we organised that but to make sure we did it properly we organised some trial runs as well, to make sure that people knew the drill and were prepared for the BNP if they came down.

On one of the trial runs in Shadwell somebody rang the police to complain and two police came down and asked us to stop. The young people in the area suffered a lot from police harassment, stop and search, etc. However YRE members stood their ground in front of the police, pointing out that nobody was breaking the law, that we had the democratic right to do what we were doing and therefore there was nothing the police could do. The police were forced to leave empty-handed, which was seen as a victory by the young people involved in the whistle alarm campaign: “that’s the first time the police have left without getting what they wanted”.

The whistle alarm campaign was so successful that the BNP never dared to come onto many of the estates in Shadwell, and complained to the local paper that they were being “intimidated”. The word spread and people on other estates began to organise similar campaigns themselves. In many areas BNP leafletters were chased off by local people.

In the end the BNP restricted their leafletting to between around 11pm and 6am because they found that the only time they were able to push leaflets through people’s doors without being chased away was when the majority of the population were asleep.

Conclusion

The campaign against the BNP in Tower Hamlets wasn’t easy. Among the problems we faced were: police harassment, media attacks, intimidation and violence from the BNP, long-standing divisions among Bengali youth, particularly based on gangs, opposition and sometimes open hostility from Bengali “community leaders” and figures in authority such as some headteachers, as well as suspicion towards an anti-racist organisation that was racially mixed.

However, by consistently putting forward the ideas necessary to defeat the BNP and by proving in action again and again that we were serious and that our ideas worked, YRE members in Tower Hamlets were able to build mass movements which inflicted a serious defeat on the BNP.

In May 94 Derek Beackon got 2,041 votes and two other BNP candidates got 1,775 and 1,713 votes in Millwall ward (28% on average). The BNP candidate in Holy Trinity ward, about a quarter of a mile from Brick Lane, got 755 votes (19%) . Although we had a successful campaign we couldn’t completely stem the ideas of racism and the BNP immediately.

However, the defeat we inflicted on them has led to a massive drop in their votes and activity in the borough. In a by-election in the Holy Trinity ward in June 01 the BNP received 74 votes (3.6%), the lowest vote received by a neo-Nazi candidate in that ward for over 20 years.

In June 02 the BNP only attracted 87 votes (4%) in a by-election in Blackwall and Cubitt Town, a new ward that contains about half the old Millwall ward and includes many of the areas that supported the BNP most strongly in 1993-94.

That is a testament to the campaign that was waged way back in the 90s. Now we need to apply the lessons of that campaign to the struggle that needs to be waged today.

by Hugo Pierre, Tower Hamlets YRE

http://www.yre.org.uk


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