THE targeting of Brick Lane may have a twisted logic for Saturday’s bombers.
If there’s one area that has shown the ability of Londoners to welcome and absorb incoming cultures it’s Spitalfields, as wave after wave of immigrants have settled in the area and each added their unique ingredients to the strong cultural mix of the East End.
But if there’s one lesson the politicians of hate haven’t learned from history, it’s that centuries of attacks against the Irish, Huguenots, Jews and now Bangladeshis don’t drive people away, they just make them stronger.
Even before immigration began in earnest, the area had a reputation for religious and cultural diversity – and it was always a haven for refugees and free-thinkers.
In 1675, when there were 1,300 new buildings crammed onto the old market gardens, it was seen as a centre of non-conformity, as citizens resisted the authority of the established Church of England. In fact the first Baptist church in England had been built there in 1612.
And organised opposition to incomers is nothing new. Back in the early 1700s, there had been protests in the streets of Spitalfields as the newly built-up area was settled by Huguenots, refugees from religious persecution in the Low Countries.
Fine weaving skills
They had come, under the protection of the English crown, bringing with them their skills of fine silk-weaving to settle around Fournier and Elder Streets. Many locals resented their new ways, but soon the incomers were bringing wealth and jobs to the area, as Spitalfields became famous for fine cloths.
Then, in 1780, Lord George Gordon played on Protestant fears of Rome to stoke up the Gordon Riots. Many Irish people had settled on the eastern fringes of the City, looking for work and escaping religious persecution, poverty and starvation back in their home country.
On June 2, Roman Catholic chapels in Spitalfields were burned to the ground and the mob made for Downing Street. Most of them never got there, having sacked Langdale’s Brewery in Holborn and poisoned themselves as they gorged on alcohol. Their eccentric leader was arrested for treason and saw out his years in prison.
For many East Enders, their proudest defence against the forces of fascism came in the wake of the Jewish immigration of the late 1800s.
The Jews had come in their thousands, escaping the pogroms of Russia and Eastern Europe. Jewishness is an essential ingredient in the rich recipe that is today’s East End, whether it be the humour, the numerous charitable schools and settlements the incomers established, or the world-famous Brick Lane Beigel Shop.
But for some, richness, newness and diversity is itself a threat. In the 1930s Oswald Mosley, another rabble-rouser who pitched for people’s fears, led his Blackshirts on provocative marches around Brick Lane and Club Row.
The fascist challenge culminated in the Battle of Cable Street, on October 5, 1936, when East Enders decided once and for all that the racists would not pass.
The Blackshirts were broken, as was their leader, who had marched his troops up the hill and down again – and achieved nothing. He drifted from influence, a forlorn and half-forgotten figure.
Back in the 1970s, Brick Lane was changing again. Most of the Jewish population had moved on, and their place was taken by a new wave of refugees, Bangladeshis – many fleeing the war that led to the secession of the new Bangladesh from Pakistan.
Walk along Brick Lane today and you will see that some mosques carry a Star Of David above the door – testament to their previous lives as synagogues and the capacity of the area to welcome and absorb new religions and cultures.
On Brick Lane though, the Sunday morning market was a magnet for the new fascists of the National Front and, later, the British Movement and British National Party to hand out their literature of race hate.
But, just like in the 1930s, a new wave of defiance rose to meet them.
The late seventies saw the birth of the Anti Nazi League, Rock Against Racism and the anti-racist movement that eventually forced them off the streets.
The last ten years have demonstrated just how good the East End is at absorbing new religions, cultures and ideas – and how much the area gains from it.
As for the fascists – they’ve yet to learn the lessons
The recent nail bomb attack on Brick Lane confirms the activity of far right neo-Nazi groups in Tower Hamlets.
Although race hate incidents seem to have subsided recently, the East End is not without its fair share of race- related violence.
The British National Party (BNP), which hit the headlines in 1993 when it secured a council by-election victory in Millwall ward, is believed to be a major player in creating racial tension.
Anti-fascist magazine Searchlight gave us details of the BNP’s history and the origins of other organisations focused against Asians, blacks, Jews and other ethnic minorities.
“Formed in 1982, the BNP spent much of the 1980s in the shadow of the National Front (NF),” said the magazine.
“The BNP’s Millwall victory was achieved after several years of activity. “Campaigning under the slogan Rights for Whites, the BNP successfully galvanised electoral support with a public that had become disillusioned with the main political parties.
“However, the election victory was secured at a heavy local cost. The Rights for Whites campaign, launched in 1990 heralded a massive increase in racial violence throughout east London. While BNP members were personally responsible for only a fraction of these incidents, their political activity and direct scapegoating, coupled with equally racist national media contributed to an atmosphere of racial tension.”
“It was also in the early nineties that the Nazi group Combat 18 emerged out of the BNP’s stewarding group.”
“The 1,500 strong BNP now accepts that the majority of British people totally refute Nazi and anti-Semitic ideas.
“But the party is playing with words rather than substance and as night follows day, Nazism, and violence follow the BNP.”