Mr. Terry Fitzpatrick
Mr. Terry Fitzpatrick
Interview date: 01 _ Jun _ 06
Interviewed by: Jamil Iqbal
Mr. Fitzpatrick worked as a builder in the early ‘70s. He is regarded as the champion of the Bengali community in fighting anti-racism in East London and started the squatting movement around Brick Lane to accommodate people in empty flats.He is still very active in the anti-fascist movement and probably one of the few activists from the 1970s who stayed most constant to that cause. He speaks fluent Sylheti (Bengali) and is a regular contributor to ‘Searchlight’, a monthly magazine challenging racism and fasism in Britain and around the world.
In 1974 I moved to East London. I was previously living on the coast near Brighton. I knew people up here and moved up as a change. As housing was very difficult to get, I began squatting. At that time there was a very well developed squatting movement in East London, going back to 1968-69. As a result of this, Bangladeshis had begun to squat on their own or with the assistance of well meaning Whites. I quickly sort of gave up full time work. I began squatting in early 1974 and towards the end of 1974, I was spending more and more time along with other people helping to expand the movement as we saw it. At the time in Tower Hamlets, there were 60 councillors and all were Labour; it was completely Labour in the whole of the borough. The power was divided between the Jews and the Irish; they were known as the Kosher Nostra and the Murphia. A small core of councillors and council officials ran the borough. There was no democracy. I am not saying there is particularly now, but certainly it wasn’t then. It was blatant corruption, particularly in housing. In Tower Hamlets at the time was the greatest concentration of publicly owned housing outside of the “Iron Curtain” (I mean this side of Eastern Europe). About the 90% of all housing was state owned--by the GLC or London Borough of Tower Hamlets (LBTH). Through their control, the Labour Party operated a virtual sort of ghetto system. The Bangladeshis, you could get housing, if you were registered. You could only register, if you had a family here, so single Bangladeshi men couldn’t even register for housing. In order to get their family here, they had to have housing, otherwise the families wouldn’t be allowed in. So people were doubling and tripling up, sleeping on people’s floors and flats where they shouldn’t be. There wasn’t very much private housing at all. What there was, was around Spitalfields, Cannon Street Road and that end of the borough, massive over crowding! But at the same time the council was operating very inefficiently. Not only were they corrupt, they were extremely inefficient. And I remember writing a leaflet, saying that, there were 3200 empty council owned residential properties in the borough, which would be enough to clear the entire housing list. For various reasons, the council just couldn’t bring them into occupation. The sort of thing they did was-- there was a perfect little block of flats in Bow, built in the 1920s, but something called the Parker Morris Standards in terms of room heights and widths, said the rooms weren’t sufficient, so they emptied the block and left it empty and so it was squatted up by largely Whites. But there were whole streets of houses, some of them were not in very good condition, which gradually began to be occupied by Bangladeshis, with the assistance of White squatters especially after I got involved, because I began to work more and more with Bangladeshis. At that time an organisation called Race Today had taken over-- basically the British end of the Black Panther movement.
When the Black Panther party collapsed in the late 60s and early 70s, the group around it in Britain, which was Darcus Howe, Faroukh Dhondy, Mala Sen and some others, managed to get control of the paper of the Institute of Race Relations, which was called Race Today. They began to promote a notion of Black self-organisation. Looking back on it, the whole thing was completely impossible, but this was the early 1970s, so all kinds of weird and wonderful theories were sort of being bandied around by various groups. They heard about the growing squatting movement and got in touch with us. Beginning in late 74 and early 75, Tower Hamlets Squatters’ Union, that I had helped set up, and Race Today began actively to campaign amongst the Bangladeshis over the issues of housing, saying there is open discrimination. I took one Bangladeshi family who was under attack in Poplar, and pointed out to the [GLC] housing department down in Aldgate, that there was flat in Kingwood House which has been empty for a year or something. I was told it was reserved for White people. Kingwood House, the new Chicksand Estate, was at the time virtually all White apart from a few West Indians.
We had no difficulty whatsoever in getting Bangladeshi people to squat. There was always a massive queue. There was always a huge list of people who wanted to break into places. At that time the National Front was organising in Tower Hamlets. Racial attacks did not directly, very often, came about as a result of National Front itself. It was the National Front’s influence that created a climate of fear, if you like. One of the things that I remember about the 1970s was these huge violent confrontations on the streets. There was massive battle in Birmingham, one in Wood Green, one in 1977 in Lewisham and the National Front could put a thousand people on the street for a march. They had the policy in 1974 of creating a well organised Nazi machine with which they were going to kick their way to power. And they saw that the way to raise racial tension was through activity on the street-- totally the reverse of what Griffith and the BNP are doing now. That was all been completely scrapped-- “off with the boots on with the suits”.
I can’t think of single National Front member who was ever convicted before the courts, of instigating a racial attack. But what they did was they created an atmosphere, in which “A Paki family moved in there, let’s go and kick them out”; “Let’s go and smash their windows”. So the others, apart from the homeless Bangladeshis, who wanted to squat, the other phenomenon we had was, where Bangladeshis had been given a tenancy, say, in very unpopular estates on the Isle of Dogs. This is totally before Docklands. In Poplar and around Bromley-by-Bow people had just given up their tenancies, saying shit was pushed into their letter box, kids couldn’t go to schools, women would have their saris pulled off in the streets. People were just abandoning their tenancies. I have even lost the count of the number of rent books I have taken back to the council and said, “Here is another one gone”.
We [squatters] were then scattered. There were dozens and dozens in council flats all over the place. There were some streets of squatted houses: Aston Street in Stepney, there was Nelson and Varden Streets just of New Road. But in 1976, we found a block of flats just behind the Montefiore Centre, which was called Pelham Buildings. There were 60 habitable flats, and there were about 7 or 8 tenants left. The building was due to come down and it now has been knocked down. We then decided to do a mass occupation on Easter Saturday 1976, with myself, Faroukh Dhondy, four or five Bangladeshi activists, because by this time some of the younger guys started to come into the movement. In space of two years, somebody would hear somebody had broken into a flat in so and so, and he just wanted some advice. Our people would come round and say, how to change the lock; what’s the law if the police turn up; we’d give them a letter saying if anybody turns up that’s the phone number of the Law Centre, that’s the phone number of Race Today, that’s the phone number of the squatters in Aston Street. They would say, OK, and go off and break into it themselves. So they were getting confidence. So on Easter Saturday, we broke into Pelham Buildings, with the first seven or eight families. There were two very long hot summers in ‘75 and ‘76. By the end of 1976 we had 300 people in the building. The last tenants moved out and there were more or less 300 Bangladeshis and me. I then moved into Pelham Buildings, and we used the flat opposite my one as the centre or an office. The old guard leadership, who were running the Bangladesh Welfare Association, were the ones who used to go and see the MP and Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), and negotiated this or that. Their type of politics had had its day. But we used it for self defence. We coined all sort of phrases like: “Self defence is no offence” and Mala drew one up: “Blacks pay tax for roof with cracks”. These were the slogans and they were catchy things for demonstrations.
There was a whole lot of internal politics. Varden Street and Nelson Street were owned by the London Hospital but we had about a good 150 people in the two streets. Tower Hamlets was going to buy the site, but they said to the London Hospital, “We want vacant possession”, meaning for the London Hospital, ‘You’ve got to kick the Bengalis out’. So we then occupied the council chamber when there was a housing committee meeting going on in 1976. We all assembled in the gardens by Bethnal Green. About 100 people marched up to the Town Hall which was in Bethnal Green then. And we got the council to back off. By 1976, with the National Front at its height, and street violence everywhere, there was little chance really that a Labour controlled council could be seen slinging Bangladeshis and Asians onto the streets. But there was an element within the grass roots Labour Party, which was totally racist and wanted to see the evictions take place. But they never did; we never lost a single squat, between 1974 and 1979 or 1980, when it came to a sort of end. We had now got 1000 people, men, women and children.
In January 1976, we formed the Bengali Housing Action Group (BHAG) and everybody was formally brought into that. Pelham Buildings was the last big seizer of all which GLC controlled. Really by the end of 1976, in two years we squatted just about everything that was empty. Then we had to be careful. We were squatting flats which were allocated to people, originally Whites. Obviously, if there was a flat empty, I was going to break in. Then some Bangladeshi would turn up with the rent book, which started to cause friction with local Whites and also with Bangladeshis. Also what happened was, by the end of 1976 and early 1977, we had reached a complete stalemate.
We had the whole serious of demands. One of the demands was, ‘Bangladeshis have the right to live in areas where they feel safe’. It cannot be with the whim of the housing officer, “You have to go down there” and this person who you haven’t elected, who nobody has elected, who nobody has any control over, can make momentous decisions on your behalf”, “you will live here, you got one offer. You don’t take it, get out; you are homeless”. That cannot be right. So we had the stalemate whereby the borough was saying, Tower Hamlets was saying, and the GLC, well, we cannot have you dictating housing policy. And we were saying, well, we are not dictating housing policies, this is what our members are saying, this is what the Bangladeshi community is saying: “We don’t want to live in some racist estate in the Isle of Dogs”. Poplar is now very Bangladeshi, and I am looking at how the whole issue of racial attacks has changed. The majority of racial attacks in Tower Hamlets are now by Bangladeshis on other races particularly Whites, and also Afro-Caribbeans.
So by the early part of 1977, we had too many people; we had put down deep roots in the community. We even got to the stage where I let it be known that we were going to barricade Pelham Buildings, and we moved in sand bags, corrugated iron for the defence. If they [GLC] called the police, you can’t have the woman and children fighting the police, but it was bluff. We started moving in timber, rolls of barbed wire, lots of bricks, so that we fight. This was still under the Labour government. Don’t forget this was just off Brick Lane, and (the) press had started to take a real interest. There were now articles about this. In the May elections of 1977, the Conservatives took over the GLC, which previously (had) been Labour-- once again the Labour old guard. They had been councillors for 30 years and reactionaries. We thought that we were going to have problem, and, out of the blue, the GLC announced they were going to have a squatters’ amnesty. The GLC was not concerned about the parts of London where the squatting was going on, because they didn’t vote for the Tories. Their support was in outer London, where there was no squatting going on. It was an inner London phenomenon and it was a Labour Party problem, so they didn’t care.
The guy who was Chair of Housing, George Tremlett, he actually said, he admired squatters because they were very enterprising; they hadn’t waited to be housed, they gone out and done it for themselves, like fix places up, and he saw it as entrepreneurial in the conservative spirit. We then started negotiating with the GLC. We wrote to them and said “We represent X number of people who have squatted in your property, we want a meeting”. We then were invited to a meeting with the GLC to discuss the whole thing of Bangladeshi squatters and the rest of it, and thought we are going to get a fight. We went to this meeting. They called it the re-housing squatters, the special exercise or something like that, just like the Nazis-- the final solution to the squatting programme! We met the GLC officials. They just said, “Yeah, anything you like, where do you want to live”. And it was agreed. We prepared a list of estates which was acceptable to our members. Everybody squatting a GLC property would receive one offer of accommodation in those estates. We walked out and we were gob-smacked. We never expected it! They just said “You say to us where you want to live and we will give you a flat”. Squatting was not a Tory problem, It was not happening in boroughs which were voting Tory, it was happening in boroughs which were voting Labour. They didn’t care, “Give them a council flat, we didn’t care”. So we went back with a whole series of meetings in Pelham Buildings with people from Varden Street, Nelson Street and Aston Street, with poor people from all over. Prior to that, myself and some others in the group had gone around and we had a huge map of Tower Hamlets on the wall of my flat, and we went round all the estates. We pulled up 13 estates, we added a 14th later, where we said, “No reasonable offer of accommodation will be refused”, and we went back to the GLC with that. Starting at the end of 1977, the GLC started to clear all the old properties but the local office tried to sabotage it [the agreement on re-housing offers]. But we then went over their heads back to the GLC and said, “Look, they are offering somebody housing in Poplar, we are not having it”.
As a campaign we ran out of steam. There was no more empty property, also the core group was absolutely exhausted. It was seven days a week. There were splits and arguments in the group, because BHAG had become a centre of power. A lot of Bangladeshis didn’t like to see non-Bangladeshis in the leadership of it. We never intended it to happen, but it just happened. But I was ready to move to other things, so was Mala and Faroukh. We had an argument with Darcus Howe and he pulled out. So all of us were really in the centre. We were glad that it was coming to an end. Gradually the re-housing went on. There were still rows. The London Electricity Board (LEB) came down and cut the electricity off in Pelham Buildings and pulled the fuse out. LEB would not give separate meters for everybody in the building. They said the wiring was unsafe. But it was unsafe when all the Jewish tenants were there. It was the same wiring but they wouldn’t give us meters. So there was one meter in the basement and every month we got the bill, which we then tried to divide between everybody in the building. And everybody was saying, “I am paying too much, I am paying too much”. So that led to arguments and splits and fights.
I was trying to reconnect the electricity in the June of 1978, and blew myself up and ended up in the London Hospital. Basically things just carried on. Eventually the Tower Hamlets capitulated over Varden Street and Nelson Street, and they bought the two streets and turned them over to a church housing association, Springboard.
The established Bangladeshi leadership had the policy of seeing and meeting the MP, Peter Shore and the police, when for example a family was being kicked out by racists in Poplar. But the younger ones were saying, “No, we have had enough of this. We are going to fight these people”. So what we did in early ‘76 was, we had a Bengali Housing Action Group. The Bangladesh Welfare Association formed the first Bengali youth group, the (Bangladesh) Youth Association, which had people like Jalal (Jalal was the founder of Bangladesh Youth Movement not Youth Association) and others-- all the ones that went on to make careers. They were 17 or 18 years old then. We then began to organise vigilante patrols and I was the co-ordinator of it. We used to meet up in Brick Lane. Getting cars, we went patrolling looking for gangs of Whites. We also flagged the idea of having a big demonstration about it. We are going to force the state to recognise what was going on. June the 12th, we got the Naz Cinema, we had people informed, and we had leaflets distributed with ‘Big meeting, big meeting’ and we “will have a demonstration”. We decided that on the day, if we could get two or three hundred people for the meeting, then we will have a demonstration. If it was very poorly attended, we weren’t going to march, otherwise it will look stupid. What the old leadership wanted to do, was to march to Westminster. We said: “What’s the point. If you march in the West End, you will have lots of tourist taking photographs. Jim Callaghan is Prime Minister; he doesn’t give a toss about you. He is probably not there anyway”. The route was down Brick Lane, down Leman Street to hand in a protest to the Police Station there. Back along Commercial Road, up New Road, Vallance Road and back to Brick Lane. On the day the Naz cinema was packed. We had the Bishop of Stepney-- he was very important, because he had been the Bishop of Johannesburg, and he had been slung out by the South African government over politics, and he knew Mandela. And there were two or three other people who were quite big at the time. We got them out on the street. Darcus Howe was the chief steward, but he was busy politicking, and I was the number two. So we got everybody lined up and that was actually a massive demonstration. There were a couple of thousand people and we had big photographs of it. We had already made it clear to all the left groups that, if you want to turn up and support, fine, but you are not bringing your own placards. All of a sudden, I saw all the placards going up. There was a distorted photograph of Enoch Powell’s face and it was the SWP (they were called the International Socialists then). So I got the stewards and we started taking the placards off the Bangladeshis and throwing them at one side, blatant opportunism! It was Chris Harman, Paul Holborough, the same little crew. Where the police station is in Brick Lane now was then just corrugated iron. They picked the placards up and started handing them out again. We broke the sticks and were throwing them over the tin. Next thing, this guy, Chris Harman, comes running at me waving his arms, trying to hit me. So I went bang [punch] and he was down on the floor, out of it! The next thing the police had jumped on me and arrested me. So I spent the demonstration in Bethnal Green Police Station. But after that the Bangladeshis started to turn on them. There was a row. So they, International Socialist, then walked around holding copies of their magazine, “Socialist Worker”. They are really pathetic people.
That big demonstration, the fact that BHAG was involved in setting it up, was a real signal to the state that, if they were going to try any evictions, then it was likely to be quite violent. We were capable of organising this big demonstration and we were capable of organising the vigilante groups. Could the Labour Party be seen, nationally or locally, to be evicting Asians at the time when the National Front was a real political threat? They were making noise about it, but were not making negations with the squatters. As a result of this, in 1977 the SWP could see, recently as they saw the anti-war movement, that capital could be made. You could recruit people in the party. So they then began to move in the Trade Unions, even in the Labour Party, in a big way from the early part of ‘78. As we were getting re-housed as a political force, people were saying; “Ok, I have been re-housed”. Pelham Buildings was being emptied. The more successful we were, the weaker we got. The membership had been re-housed; it wasn’t there anymore. Bangladeshis weren’t just being re-housed in Poplar anymore. It was just the gradual move to Stepney and Stepney Green and further a little bit and a little bit.
Really by the middle of 1978, the Trade Union/SWP circus had come to town, and was really running things. Demonstrations were at the top of Brick Lane every Sunday. What people don’t realise, by that time, actually by mid 1970s, the National Front was in decline. It had peaked at about ’75. What drove its membership up was the whole issue of East African Asians. It was formed in 1967. It bumbled along really until 1970, and didn’t do anything very much. And then with the whole issue of East African Asians, NF membership actually escalated from about two or three thousand members to seventy and a half thousand in about a year. Martin Webster in 1974 got 16% of the vote in Leicester in the March general election. Then what happened was Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative Party. Internally, within the National Front, what happened-- one of the reasons why it [NF] imploded so rapidly was, especially around the West Midlands, Leicester and Birmingham and places like that, a lot of Conservative Party members had either torn up their Conservative Party cards and gone into the National Front or they had dual membership. Over the issue of the Asians, over the East African Asians, Edward Heath is still seen as a traitor by honouring their passports. But when Margaret Thatcher came in, she made a speech about people feeling their culture was being swamped. Many Tory party members (and these are the people who know how to organise a branch; they are not skinhead yobs; they know how to organise a campaign; they can put out literature with, like, full stops and commas and capital letters, in sentences and they appear to be respectable) were always unhappy with the Nazi elements. They go along to a meeting and people were selling pictures of Adolf Hitler. They didn’t like Asians, they didn’t like immigration, but they were unhappy about Hitler as so many of these guys [Tory] have been through the war in the armed forces. So when she [Mrs Thatcher] made the speech about swamping, they thought, because their natural home was the right wing and the Conservative Party, not being actually fascist (and people don’t realise the real differences), they thought it’s our party again, it is returning to its roots, and they began to drift away. They began to leave and go back to the Conservative Party again. And really Webster, who was the NF’s activity organiser and who was the best organiser they ever had, what he had to do in order to keep up the momentum, were these high profile street activities, which then resulted in battles and which ultimately was bad publicity. And the vote was declining. By the time the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) was formed in 1977, the National Front was a spent force. But to hear the SWP version of it, they were about to take power, until the SWP came along and formed the ANL. It’s just a lie. And they had these pop concerts, which ‘defeated’ the National Front. How? How does a rock concert at Victoria Park….? It’s like we have these rows now with United Against Fascism. They claim to about 55 pop concerts around the country. They are just liars. They lay claimed that they had 50,000 people in Trafalgar Square, couple of months ago. They actually had 3,000 people. People who go to pop concerts, most of them are under the age of 18 and cannot vote anyway. And how is that going to stop anybody in Barking and Dagenham voting for the BNP? Kids go there [concerts] to listen to the music, they are not there for politics. The split is still going on between all the Searchlight organisations around the country and United Against Fascism. United Against Fascism is now just a rump organisation. Certainly it did not do anything in Barking and Dagenham.
So really by the end of 1978, the housing thing, I mean it is bad now, but we went as far as we could. If there are no more places left to squat, you can’t sustain your movement. Unless you continually grow, you are stale mate, and internal splits and rows occur over, like, somebody’s got a flat, it shouldn’t have gone to him, it should have gone to my relative, and a lot of arguments, over which village you come from. A lot of the leadership of the group was from Shiramishi [in Sylhet] and there was the hostility from those from … Fatimapur and …, we don’t like them and they don’t like us.
By then there was Spitalfields Housing and Planning Rights Services (SHAPRS). We also had Spitalfields Housing Co-op. But people who were involved in both these said it was really the squatting movement, that gave the impetus for the state to come in and get started doing something about housing. SHAPRS worked more with, say, tenants in Brunswick Buildings, people who couldn’t get repairs done, which was [council property] acquired by the GLC. To a certain extent in 1974, at the beginning, the community was unrecognisable. By 1980 it was recognised as it is now. It was being taken seriously. If there was a demonstration or a row threatened, somebody would come and listen. Whereas in 1974, all you had was Tassaduq Ahmed, in the Bangladesh Welfare Association, and Fakruddin, and they said, “No! No, don’t do anything, we are going see the MP and police commissioner” and so on.
By 1980, everyone had been re-housed. At the end of those six years we could say two things: one about housing offer-- you don’t have to except that and if a block of flats was empty and you are homeless, you don’t have to except that. Get a few people together, the kids, the mattresses, let’s get the tin off and get in there. But it had this roll- on effect. Once somebody started it and they got away with it, you think, “Well I can do that, I will get away with it”. So I get my brother and my cousin and we will go round and break into the empty house there. And there were as many people just squatting on their own as these were within the group. As I said, people were coming down and saying, we are going to break into this house, what’s the law? We said here’s the phone number and here’s your right, if you get any problems come back to us. The next thing, we drive past somewhere and all the tins have been pulled off and the saris hung out in the windows to dry. But what happened by 1980, was the ‘jobwallas’ as Faroukh called them. The money was starting to flow, because if the state sees something happening, it has to control it. You can’t allow this movement to be unchannelled. So Jalal and the rest got jobs as coordinators, outreach workers, an advisor here and an advisor there. Really by 1980s, the spontaneity had gone out of it, as these things always will. But in terms of generating action, it was 1974-80 that shaped the community the way it is today, without a shadow of a doubt. Had that not happened, I don’t know what would have happened. Some thing would, but it might just have come later. Bangladeshis are very different from other Asian groups. Sikhs over in Southall tend to be very entrepreneurial in business and a wide range of businesses, whereas the Bangladeshis were always very restricted. You see this now with this huge unemployment, and those who really can’t speak English. They are functionally illiterate and the only jobs they are ever going to get are shelf-stacking in Sainsbury.
Q: Do you see the Altab Ali’s murder case the turning point for the political consciousness of the Bangladeshi community?
It was a gradual process. I can’t say it started here or there. It is a gradual process all the way through. A lot of the youth will talk about the big demonstration of 76, which was the biggest one in the East End until then. But the Altab Ali demonstration (while we carried a coffin it rained all the time; it rained all the way from Aldgate to Downing Street) that was the one that was organised by ARCAEL (Anti Racist Committee of Asians in East London), which was a short lived organisation which Bengali Housing Action Group was involved in, with a lot of the youth groups and Bangladesh Welfare Association. It was formed in May ‘76. It came out of the racial attacks, as racial attacks were increasing. But the impetus for this committee came from Bengali Housing Action Group. We saw it as an extension of squatting. OK, it’s alright squatting, it’s alright running a vigilante patrol and rest of it, but you have got to have a big political statement that people will take notice of. But what happened was the Bangladesh Welfare Association was never happy with that. They were never happy with this mass organisation of thousands of people on the street. Because their line was, ‘We are the elders of community, we will go and negotiate and you will be heard’, with Peter Shore, the MP or this one or that one or the Commission for Racial Equality, which just came into existence, and which condemned squatting by the way.
They said it was illegal. The CRE actually saw it as nothing worse than criminal, even taking over other people’s property. It was that march that the SWP really decided that, there was something here that they could use to recruit. But Faroukh published a book called ‘Come to Mecca’. It is one of the reasons why he was not liked by lot of the Bangladeshis. It is a very wheezy story about a bunch of young Bangladeshi guys who hang around the cafés of Brick Lane and how a political organisation, a White Left political organisation, comes down and tries to get them join the party. They get all the pretty girls come down and try to sell all the papers. While the boys were not interested in politics, they were interested in the pretty White girls. It is the Mecca in the West End, in Leicester Square. They are all selling the papers. They get enough money and throw the papers over the corrugated iron, get off the tube in the West End. The SWP and Anti-Nazi League, they were just a totally opportunistic bunch of shit who moved in because they saw they can recruit to the party. They are still convinced that the revolution is just round the corner. One last push and we are there, which is totally non-sense.
Q: Were you ever involved in any racial confrontation, with the National Front or any one?
Yes, I was involved. There is a book which might come out by Nick Ryan, who wrote ‘Homelands’. He spent 6 years inside the far right in Europe and in the States. It’s called ‘Songs from the Ghetto’, and is going to be about the East End. He has done a massive amount of research and he has interviewed me at length.