Remembering a community’s response to racism towards immigrants in East London

In Dr. Gina Netto’s recent post on this blog, she writes:

“Extensive work needs to be undertaken with existing communities, including investing in new accommodation for the local population and with community development in order to avoid racial hostility and tension. Local communities should be prepared for the arrival of refugees. Awareness of the reasons for forced migration should be raised. Local residents should also be assured that they would not be disadvantaged through increased pressure on services. The allocation of housing to refugees in these areas should be gradual, allowing existing residents to become accustomed to new arrivals over time.”

The importance of these considerations is evident when looking at the Isle of Dogs in the borough of Tower Hamlets, East London during early 1990s. Due to a sense of unfair housing policy and opportunist scapegoating by the extreme political right, a period of outright social conflict occurred. A councilor for the British National Party (BNP) was elected and a nasty spike in racially motivated hate crimes occurred. As a child growing up on the Island with parents involved in the movement against racism, some of my earliest memories were formed during the campaign to stop the BNP.

Context

The Isle of Dogs is surrounded on three sides by the Thames and on the northern edge by the artificial water of Docklands, so it’s a tucked away pocket of the city. Historically, Docklands was an important hub for Britain’s imperial trading system and for many island residents a reliable source of work, but the docks closure in 1980 lead to increased local unemployment. Thatcher’s solution was to develop Docklands into a financial district and up went the skyscrapers in Canary Wharf. In particular, there was a constraint on housing. The Conservative’s ‘Right to Buy’ policy had reduced the housing stock in Tower Hamlets between 1981 and 1993 by 28%, a factor which combined with long housing waiting lists created competition for and pressure on public housing. My dad, who was an Anglican vicar on the Isle of Dogs from 1988 to 1995, recalls that it’s “a place that’s been governed by things from outside that have had an impact on the local community and local people that they’ve not been in control of.”

Enter ‘Outsiders’…

During the 1980s Britain received an influx of Bangladeshi families fleeing armed conflict in their homeland. In Tower Hamlets, many Bangladeshi families were awaiting housing whilst living in harshly inadequate or overcrowded conditions, in some cases with settled relatives in the north of the borough or in some cases outright homeless. When these people were moved into social housing on the Isle of Dogs, local people who had been waiting for housing several years were aggrieved. The perception arose that these ‘outsiders’ received underserved preferential treatment. Motivated by more than simply fear or prejudice towards foreigners – although these were partly evident – the hostility was a result of a failure to communicate and justify that council’s housing policy allocated homes based on the highest need, rather than length of time on the list.

Extreme politics  

The perceived injustice was exploited by the BNP – a spin-off of the neo-nazi National Front – who stirred up the housing issue by overplaying its ethnic dimension. For the BNP, practically every problem relating to Island life was brought back to immigration. It was vulnerable ethnic minorities, rather than policy-makers, who became the scapegoats and faced harsh discrimination. And in September 1993, thanks to a split in the vote to the left, the openly racist British National Party were able to gain their first ever election victory by winning a council seat. During this time numerous acts of racist hate crime took place, including violence and arson. Indeed between January 1993 and January 1994, reported attacks on the Isle of Dogs increased by 300 per cent, 71% of the victims being Asian. Sadly, for some people the electoral result legitimised the discrimination. My mum, who was a secondary school teacher, remembers that following the election “it became OK to be racist. It was like a cloud hanging over the Isle of Dogs.”

Community response

School Uniform with Rainbow Ribbon – 1994 © Edward Werb

In response to an openly racist elected councilor and an increasing sense of a divide community, a broad based alliance of community institutions joined together, which included faith institutions (such as my dad’s church), unions, housing associations and community groups. The struggle was to come together around the agenda of social inclusion and challenge the discriminatory BNP whilst simultaneously addressing legitimate concerns about social alienation.

A community peace group was co-founded by my mum, which, as an act of positive symbolism, distributed thousands of little rainbow ribbons for locals to wear in support of multiculturalism. The group’s slogan was ‘Celebrate the Difference’. My mum says “head teachers allowed students to wear them and they loved making their uniforms more interesting. Teachers and the doctors wore them too. The ribbons changed the mood on the island- Bangladeshis could see they did have support.” The following year a higher voter turnout was mobilized and, in what was widely seen as a victory for campaigners, the BNP lost their seat at the first opportunity.

 Lessons

This case is an instance of how housing and immigration can combine to spark tension. A key lesson from the Isle of Dogs is that transparency is essential. Policy-makers and local government must communicate clearly what they’re doing, be understood and in return listen to local people’s views, especially when minority groups receive priority. Another lesson is that the role of civil societies institutions – in particular faith institutions, who tend to have both a physical and relational presence in every community – working alongside local government can be instrumental in achieving social cohesion. Furthermore, the success of distributing rainbow ribbons amongst the community shows a positive, visible way of rejecting discrimination and showing solidarity with newcomers. Is it time for those working to integrate today’s refugees to wear similar symbols of support?

Sources

Foster, J. (1999) “Docklands: Culture in Conflict, Worlds in Collision.” London: UCL.

Holtam, T. (2009) “How were the British National Party successfully warded off the Isle of Dogs after their local by-election victory of September 1993?” MA Thesis, Sussex.

Mayo, S. & Holtam, N. (1998) “Learning From the Conflict. Reflections on the struggle against the BNP on the Isle of Dogs.” Jubilee Group.

Phil

Phil Holtam

Recent Sustainability Science graduate based in Copenhagen

Disclaimer: The views expressed on this site are those of the authors of the blogposts and do not reflect those of the International Federation of Housing and Planning.

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