The East End has a long history of standing up to hate. This historic role in defining London as a place that draws strength from its diversity is why Brick Lane was a target of the 1999 London nail bombings, along with the black community in Brixton and the LGBT community in Soho.
Three people were killed in the three attacks, including a pregnant woman, and 140 were injured, four of whom lost limbs. In Brick Lane, 13 people were injured and surrounding buildings and cars were severely damaged. It could have been a lot worse if the bomb hadn’t been put in the boot of a car by a concerned passerby.
I was a Tower Hamlets councillor at the time and remember the feeling of shock and fear it caused in the heart of our community. It’s important that we all remember and learn from the history of our great capital city. Tower Hamlets has a proud tradition of being a welcoming borough. The East End has been where Huguenot, Jewish, Irish and Bangladeshi communities have arrived in London and made it their home. Whether fleeing persecution, economic hardship or political upheaval, this area has been a refuge and a melting pot of cultures.
I’m very proud that today we are home to Banglatown and thriving Bangladeshi and Somali communities, as well as many from Eastern Europe and a growing Chinese population. This diversity – the very thing the Brick Lane bomber sought to attack – has contributed so much to making the East End the vibrant place it is today.
But there has always been a hateful minority seeking to divide us. We have been challenged and sometimes faced great pressure, whether from the fascists who targeted the East End’s Jewish community in the 1930s, the National Front and others who targeted black and other minority ethnic residents, particularly the growing Bangladeshi population, in the 1970s and 1980s, or the election of a BNP councillor in 1993.
In each case, external agitation sought to divide us and preyed on the view that change was a zero sum game which produced loss. In reality, the East End has always come through strengthened, powered on by innovation and cultural energy, and pulled together to fight extremism.
In 1936, Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists thought they could pass through the East End, but the community came together to stop them. In the 1970s, the racist murder of Altab Ali in Whitechapel again provoked community uproar and solidarity, which we mark each year on 4 May. It was a watershed moment that led to marches and a campaign against racism. We also saw off the BNP in the early 1990s, and continue to fight off racism in whatever form it takes, from the Football Lads Alliance to the spike in hate crime following the Brexit vote.
Twenty years ago, the nail bomber wanted to start a race war. He failed. Walking along Brick Lane today you see people from all around the world who have made the area their home or who visit to enjoy one of the capital’s best curries or a late night bagel, taking in the modern street art or visiting the vintage shops.
On the 20th anniversary of the Brick Lane, Soho and Brixton attacks, the best way to honour those affected by them is to celebrate the multiculturalism that has made our capital city the envy of the world and renew our collective resolve to fight racism and intolerance wherever we find it.
John Biggs is the Mayor of Tower Hamlets. Photos courtesy of Tower Hamlets Council.