“A guard against apathy” – my experience of Activating Newham by Allissa Tai

Friday, 22 November 2019

(c) Kay Stephens

Over a period of 8 months, Create London hosted a series of talks and workshops centering on the history and work of anti-fascist activism in Newham. I was excited to learn more about this history, not only due to my own interest in social justice, but as a lifelong resident of Tower Hamlets. I was already vaguely aware of local movements against fascists, such as the Battle of Cable St in 1936. However, the extension of this history into the recent past was something I was still unaware of. 

At the first session, the participants discussed our desire to learn more about local histories. We were a group made up primarily of women of colour, with personal commitments to politics and society. We spoke of having a deeper and broader understanding of modern American history with regards to anti-racist activism, with figureheads such as Martin Luther King dominating the public imagination. This highlighted two issues – the failure of education within the United Kingdom, as well the US-centrism of race discourse. This is bolstered by the investment the UK and Europe have in externalising the ‘problem’ of racism, thus deflecting attention from domestic institutional racism. Our history lessons may cover Tudor monarchy, but the silence around an important part of British history was deafening. We knew of Rosa Parks, and we knew about Henry VIII’s wives – but what of those who were on the frontlines here, in our own backyards? How do we begin to rectify the erasure of those who fought for rights and protections? I saw this project as the beginning of an answer, and the lessons imparted as an ongoing dialogue between the present and our contested history. 

Newham has been home to Asian and African-Caribbean communities since the 1950s. Following the end of the Second World War and the break up of the British Empire, the UK saw an influx of migrants from former colonies. South Asian and Caribbean communities could be found throughout the country as the economy relied heavily upon their labour. Despite their importance to postwar recovery, Asian and African-Caribbean people were subject to racial discrimination in all spheres of life: housing, employment, education, social life and the streets. 

Discrimination was institutional, woven into the structures that provided the basic requirements for living. For example, in 1975, Newham councillor Bill Watts openly admitted that Newham council had changed their housing policy in order to avoid housing Asian families. In our first session, two members from the Newham Monitoring Project told us of the rampant violence that Asian and African-Caribbean people faced, all within the near vicinity of where we were gathered at Old Manor Park Library. We learned of how the police and judiciary system worked to deny that racism motivated the violent attacks and murders of people such as Akhtar Ali Baig, the Virk Brothers, or the 10-year-old Kennith Singh. Self-defence against racist violence received sentences harsher than convictions of racist murders. It was up to local communities to come together and effect change.

The murder of Akhtar Ali Baig sparked a huge community response. The Newham Youth Movement formed, and around 2,500 people marched in protest. A second march had 5,000 people in attendance. Eventually, the judge serving on the Ali Baig case finally admitted that racism motivated the attack. As part of the series, we had Unmesh Desai and Jasbir Singh, both of whom were involved with these movements to come in and talk to us. This was a reminder of how recently these events occurred. 

Jasbir Singh, Liz Fekete and Unmesh Desai at Activating Newham Event © Leyla Reynolds

But what of the role of women in local activism? Without an understanding of gender injustice, anti-racist movements will always be lacking. However, during this era of rampant activism, feminists fought to meet the specific needs of Asian and Black women. Gulshun Rehman, as part of Asian Women’s Project was instrumental in opening the first Asian women’s refuge in the country (Lambeth) before opening the second in Newham. She delivered a talk alongside Lola Olufemi, a member of Sisters Uncut. Sisters Uncut had taken over the visitors’ centre of the closed Holloway Prison in order to protest the land being sold for luxury homes. Sisters Uncut repurposed it as a community centre, which remains occupied today. This serves as a reminder both of the efficacy of direct action, but also the constant and ongoing fight for women’s rights, and how they’re connected to many other issues – domestic violence, the carceral state, homelessness, poor housing policy.

Throughout this series Daikon and OOMK ran workshops. As part of this, we made alternative blue plaques. This was a response to the blue plaques that can be found around London, denoting areas of historic significance. We also had the chance to learn how to making risograph collages from photocopies of ephemera provided by the Institute of Race Relations. These workshops provided a space for discussion and memory as we reflected together over the materials.

It is important to know the history of where we are – it helps guard against apathy and activist burn out. When remembering what has been achieved, it is a reminder of how powerful grassroots politics is and still can be.

-Allissa Tai (2019)

Activating Newham is a Create London project, in partnership with the Institute of Race Relations and Rabbits Road Press.  It has been supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund.