Julie Begum On Brick Lane
Prior to Phil Maxwell’s lecture with photographs at Waterstones Piccadilly on Wednesday at 7pm, telling the stories of thirty years on BRICK LANE, I spoke to Julie Begum to discover the story behind this picture from 1993.
When Julie Begum came to the launch for Phil Maxwell’s BRICK LANE recently, she was astonished to open the book and confront this photograph of herself, taken twenty years ago, which she had never seen before. “It was strange to see myself,” she admitted to me, “I was pleased but also sad, because I’m not that person anymore.”
The picture appears as part of sequence taken by Phil during the Anti-Fascist protests of the eighties and nineties, and I was struck by the dramatic tension in the photograph between Julie’s relaxed, generous smile and the approaching figure of the mounted policeman coming up behind in riot gear.
I know Julie from her current work with the Boundary Estate Women’s Group at St Hilda’s Community Centre, so I paid her a visit recently at her home just off Brick Lane to learn more about the background to this curious picture.
“It was at the time when Derek Beackon of the British National Party was elected as councillor in Millwall by just eight votes in 1993. I was one of a number who formed ‘Women Unite Against Racism.’ We realised we needed to do something, so we staged a conference at Tower Hamlets College and more than one hundred women from different backgrounds came along and we decided upon a plan.
Our aim was to create a women’s presence in the male-dominated protest movement and we made sure there was no cult of the leader in our group, and that many different people spoke at our meetings. We went door to door and encourage women to vote, because we wanted to give support to women who were too frightened to go out and vote.
The photo was taken on the day of a protest again the BNP in Bethnal Green, the police were there in huge numbers. It was important to have a mix of people, men and women, and young and old – because police can behave very differently if it is just young men they are dealing with. There was a lot of solidarity and it was nice.
The police had dogs and officers on horseback, and I remember the police wanted to set the dogs on the young men. So we women got in front to protect them and the police had to stop because we were women. I think it’s important not to give in to the sense of tension and excitement in these situations – we tried to keep everyone calm and peaceful.
It was a good time, even though we had sleepless nights. It was a year of madness but people came together from all walks of life and we felt we were part of the heritage of protest against fascism in the East End.”
Julie Begum at home
Julie Begum cooking with members of St Hilda’s women’s group
Julie Begum in her kitchen
Julie Begum (top right) with members of her women’s group at Geffrye Museum
Brick Lane photo copyright © Phil Maxwell
Recent photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie
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