Fifty years after the squatters’ movement in east London, the Bengali community is once again under threat
In the 1970s, hundreds of Bengali families in Spitalfields, east London, responded to discrimination and racism in housing and on the streets by forming a squatters' movement and occupying empty homes.
Although Abdul Kadir had lived in London since 1957 and his father before him had worked on English ships, when he applied for social housing for his young family in the early 1970s, he was kept waiting for years. In the mid '70s, desperate, he decided to take matters into his own hands: he broke in and squatted an empty flat on a council estate in Spitalfields.
Within minutes of entering the building, Kadir and his wife were pelted with bricks and rocks thrown through their windows. When the police eventually arrived, it was not to defend them against the violence, but to try and force them out - even though squatting was not a criminal offence at that point.
Kadir remembers arguing back: "Where have I got to go to? If you gave me somewhere, we wouldn't need to do this. Until I have somewhere else, I have to stay here." He and his wife refused to be moved.
At the time, ideas in the UK around housing, belonging and access to social resources were deeply and overtly racialised. Popular and political narratives erased the long history of the Bengali community in east London, instead depicting them as alien, inferior and encroachers on white territory. Local government housing rules disadvantaged Bengali applicants, while housing officers used their discretion to direct any Bengalis offered a tenancy to the worst estates.
The fight for homes that started with squatting by a few individual families snowballed into a wider movement when Black Power activists from the Race Today anti-racist collective decided to add their support. Activists such as Darcus Howe, Farrukh Dhondy and Mala Sen brought their campaigning and organising expertise and helped Bengali (and white) squatters in the area to form the Bengali Housing Action Group (BHAG).
"We had to do something together for the Bangladeshi community," says Khosru Miah, a former squatter now in his seventies. Like many others, Miah connected his fight for housing to the wider struggles of migrants and the Black working class in the UK.
The movement that developed was not just about securing a 'home' in the domestic sense, but establishing a sense of safety and belonging. As Bengali squatter Helal Abbas explains, vigilante patrols were set up to resist the National Front, reacting to police indifference with "low-level guerilla warfare".
The Greater London Council, one of the main housing providers in Tower Hamlets, eventually capitulated to the squatters' demands following a campaign by the BHAG. By the end of 1978, an amnesty was announced: Squatters were either rehoused or given tenancies in the properties they had occupied. For most Bengali migrants there was a sense that their ambition to make home had been won.
Almost 50 years later, many of that same community face another, less tangible pressure. The stealthy violence of gentrification is not new, but in the wake of Covid-19 and the cost of living crisis, the inequalities are hard to disguise. The displacement of working-class and minority ethnic communities feels almost unswervable.
Tower Hamlets, ranks at the top of the gentrification tables for London boroughs. Regeneration has delivered considerable change and many benefits, but, as local campaigner Said Osmani points out, those benefits are not necessarily shared by local Bengali people.
"Sometimes where the area's expanding or changing, where there's a 'pocket park' popping up and so forth, it tends to be for the affluent new incomers," he says. "The existing community is not necessarily seeing the benefit."
The local, working-class Bangladeshi community continues to experience stubborn levels of income inequality, overcrowded housing and poverty. These factors played directly into the community suffering one of the worst death rates in the UK during the Covid-19 pandemic and now experiencing the UK's deepest levels of poverty in the cost of living crisis.
And although Tower Hamlets scores well on delivering 'affordable' housing, the lived experience of those developments is often less affordable - and less hopeful - than promised. As one young person of Bangladeshi heritage told me, "Those houses aren't really for us, I don't know anyone who can afford them - they're for white people."
East London's Brick Lane, long known as 'Banglatown' for its Bengali community, has recently been refreshed with a mural depicting images of rural Sylhet, where many local families have their roots. It's entitled Mateer tan - "the land is calling". But perhaps the nostalgia is not just for the land left behind - perhaps it's for a Bengali Brick Lane that is also fast disappearing.
Tower Hamlets remains home to the UK's largest Bengali community. But Brick Lane's curry houses have been disappearing since the mid-2000s, while artisanal coffee shops and expensive boutiques are thriving. Some business owners support the major and ongoing redevelopment of the Truman Brewery, which straddles the street, seeing it as the only way to increase footfall and save their livelihoods.
Save Brick Lane activists, by contrast, have campaigned against the redevelopment, arguing that it's another threat to local Bengalis' sense of home. "We're talking about the literal exclusion of the local community," says activist Fatima Rajina. "Whenever I walk down Brick Lane and I enter these new food businesses, not a lot of them serve halal meat, which is quite interesting because you're bang in the middle of Tower Hamlets, where every other customer of yours is likely to be Muslim."
Bengali squatters in 1970s east London strengthened their community organising efforts by building solidarity across migrant and Black working-class communities, drawing on their shared experiences without universalising them. Today, we operate in a different legislative landscape. Squatting is criminalised and direct action is neutered by the threat of criminal prosecution.
But today's campaigns, like Save Brick Lane and Justice for Tower Hamlets Community Housing are also asking questions about who has the right to belong - and on what terms. The squatters' movement has much to teach us about building solidarity, and about how to keep our cities as welcoming spaces, and as home for multi-ethnic, mixed communities.
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