This year’s world famous Notting Hill Carnival, the biggest and most successful popular cultural event introduced to Britain by its Empire Windrush generation, the 49th, was historic for a number of sociological and political reasons. First, it visually marked a passing of the baton, from traditional mas players to a younger, more raucous generation who just had its own ideas of celebrating black culture. It was also more integrative, in the sense that there were as many other minority (and majority) ethnic participants as young African-Caribbean people who took part, many arguably for the first time. But the event still brings out the contradictions in most Britons, and new communities, if not in Londoners.
In the main, middle class Britain has no intention of ever understanding carnival; it does not fit with their interpretation of ‘culture’, therefore it plays second fiddle to the Edinburgh Festival, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the Edinburgh Tattoo, the Reading Festival and the much earlier Glastonbury Festival, even if it attracts many more people. Above all else, carnival is street theatre, it is a celebration of music, costumes, dance, which, unlike its more mature cousins in Brazil, Trinidad and Southern Europe, is disconnected from religious meaning but was invented by Trinidadian Claudia Jones simply to cool passions, to temper the racial hostility that scarred that part of Ladbroke Grove in the mid-1960s.
So, to understand and describe the Notting Hill Carnival, which used to be the West Indian Carnival, one has to understand its pre-history: from the brutal murder of Antiguan Kelso Cochrane in 1959, to the Mosleyites, to the terrible anti-black policing which came out of the Notting Hill and Notting Dale police stations. It must also be remembered that nearly every police commissioner after Sir John Waldron had had some experience of policing in Notting |Hill – an experience now transferred to Brixton in South London – before reaching the top of the greasy police that is commissioner of Scotland Yard. It is this background that makes the popular interpretation of carnival a policing event, rather than one of theatre.
For these reasons, carnival has always been an event which allowed the police to put in to practice their latest crowd policing theories. This became particularly so after the first flare up in 1975, when police were caught unawares and were forced to use dust bin lids as shields, forcing them to return in 1976 fully armed with patent riot shields, extended staves, and vehicles with protective bars across their windshields. It was the introduction of para-military policing to the streets of London. It also gave the police an opportunity to devise new methods of command and control – from the manipulation of the press and management of the news, to new applications of street patrol as the event unfolds throughout the day; from jolly, mature traditionally uniformed officers dancing with plump elderly women or, this year, three officers showboating for YouTube, to the paras with their plastic handcuffs, baseball caps and hidden numbers creeping out after dark.
This year, for the first time, the police used the ‘kettling’ method, frequently used against animal rights campaigners and other protest groups. So, for an event that the police themselves officially and grudgingly had to accept was relatively peaceful, there was still the pre-planned aggressive policing, with the para officers stopping groups of young men, out for a day’s fun with their mates, to search them and take their details. These bits of gossip will eventually find their way on to some computer and will emerge later as so-called intelligence, which will no doubt go towards feeding further anti-democratic laws and regulations based on the myth of security and anti-terrorism.
The Media and Carnival:
The Notting Hill Carnival, the signature cultural event for Caribbean people living in Britain and the nation’s biggest street festival, presents an enormous challenge to the British media – and has always done. Due to a combination of police manipulation and the willingness of the press to represent black people as criminals, the media find it difficult treating the carnival as a cultural event, with colourful, theme-base, creative costumes, or just a massive public gathering at which criminals – in the main young black men – run riot (often literally).
But by far the great barometer of the acceptance of Caribbean people is the response of the press. The most telling media non-story about this year’s carnival was its treatment by the BBC, both television and radio, the voice of Britain, the organisation funded by taxpayers. BBC local radio and television behaved differently, and have always done. Nothing on the early or late national television news, nothing on radio and, on Radio Four’s Today programme on Monday bank-holiday, the flag ship programme which purports to be the eyes and ears of cultural developments, there was not even a mention of the number of arrests.
But, for the great decision makers, the policy wonks, the politicians and informed middle classes, that are the Today audience, there was an item about the new tattoo on pop singer Cheryl Cole’s bottom. This is what the producers of the day and the senior broadcasters working with them thought was the most important cultural event of the day. The liberal Independent (Monday bank-holiday) gave a better report on page 10, focusing on what is called ‘colour’, basically fluff about how wonderful the costumes were designed, the weather, patronising drivel about smiling people, but with the expected number of arrests.
Again, there was no expert view on the creativity of the costumes, the themes behind the bands, the quality of the steel band playing, nor the street parades. The Daily Mail (bank holiday London edition), the day after the Sunday, a publication that likes to see itself as the voice of ‘middle’ Britain, could not even find space for a picture caption about carnival, but a full page, complete with eight pictures of Cheryl Cole’s tattoos. The message quite clearly was no violence, no coverage. The Tuesday edition, following the usually exciting Monday event, again did not even carry a picture caption; it was the Daily Mail at its political and quietly hostile best. The Independent on the same day, restricted itself to a small picture caption with one of the iconic carnival pictures, even if the words were just again waffle. The Daily Telegraph (Monday) also restricted itself to a cliché picture caption and again on Tuesday, going for a Brazilian samba shot. The Guardian (Tuesday) ran a full centre page spread with five pictures, with the main one that of a Brazilian samba queen.
One of the smears on the black British community, one that has survived since the 1950s, is that we are a drug-using culture. True, in the 1950s and 60s, as a young, male dominated community, there was a regular use of illegal substances, in particular marijuana, encouraged by a large number of US military personnel based in the UK. Carnival quite often is seen by the more popular press as a collection of drug users, even if there is now a shift in popular opinion.
By coincidence, a report in the Independent (29/8/13) of a study by Release, the drug advocacy group, and the London School of Economics, and well timed for carnival, said: “Hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money are spent every year on arresting and processing people for possessing drugs, with no discernible impact on drug markets or levels of use. “Meanwhile, thousands of otherwise law-abiding people receive criminal records, and many poor and minority communities deal daily with the feeling that the police are unfairly targeting them.” Carnival brings all these biases in to a single geographical area. But we know the true story of drug abuse, from the so-called legal highs to the casual use of cocaine. All we have to do is read the confessions by the pop ‘stars’, actors and their hangers-on. Of course, none of this abuse is reflected in official crime statistics since police and law enforcing agencies rarely touch these mega-rich people, preferring instead to arrest the Rastas, unemployed teenagers and boys on the block.
Those of us who have been there know the drill: the late calls telling us about a raid and inviting us to accompany them; the television cameras, the photographers, reporters, the briefings, the paramilitary-style knocking down doors; the highlights on the evening news; the fear of ordinary people that drug gangs are invading their quiet neighbourhoods. It comes back to the old criminological statement on criminal justice: whose law are the police enforcing, and, what justice? In reality it is all public relations, a battle for the hearts and minds of ordinary people, while the high and mighty get away scotch free.
Festival of Food:
At the heart of the event is a festival of food, one of the highlights of which is the incredible display of foods from almost every ethnic group in Britain. It is this display of street-corner food that highlights the economic potential of carnival, along with the numerous other opportunities it provides to enterprising local people, from privately run toilets (one man was charging £2 to use his) to commodity sales and distribution, marketing, logistics, transport, just to mention a few. The carnival is estimated by the Daily Telegraph to bring £100m in to the local economy. Of that, it can be safely said that the Caribbean community gets minimal benefits from this, either as small entrepreneurs or as consumers. This is based on a crude calculation of one million people attending on each of the two days and spending about £50 per capita. One reason for this business failure is the lack of organisation and business enterprise: an inability over the last near 50 years to set up a permanent organisational structure to mange carnival and negotiate on behalf of the community. Another failure, one that is replicated across the Caribbean, is the refusal of professional people to step forward and provide the community leadership the event badly needs.
With the exception of the Barbados high commission, few Caribbean high commissions play an active role in the London carnival. Again, a politically-misguided lawyer aside, most of the organisation behind carnival has been clouded with voluntarism, petty nationalism – the Selwyn Baptiste (Trinidadian), Louis Chase (Barbadian) saga of the 1970s, and the intervention of such community activists as Darcus Howe and others on various occasions. “Carnival is we t’ing” became the signature tune for a reactionary nationalism that chose to ignore the social and political circumstances that led to founding of the carnival. It is the same rallying call is giving birth to a Brazilian take-over on the basis that Brazilians are world-class organisers of modern carnivals – just go to Rio. Compare this, however, with the inner citry youths of the US, marginalised by the society, kept out of meaningful jobs and criminalised, yet they went away and created a multi-billion dollar rap and hip-hop industry, which now dominates popular world music.
Analysis and Conclusion:
National media and the police have had forty-nine years to get it right over carnival, and they are still lost like kids in a maze not knowing if to recognise it as a criminal event or art. Even given the historical infighting and bad organisation of carnival, there is very little to excuse the Metropolitan Police for its historical prejudiced policing of the event, and the media for their bias and blatant contempt.
In the old days, the 1970s and 80s, at least the main attraction of carnival was the predicted showdown between young muscular policemen, and fierce, determined young black men. It was a show of strength, a battle as to who controlled the streets, and black youths knew that the police had most of the tools, from arrest and custody, to being legally heavily armed, to the courts and the loyalty of the press. All these young men – and a few women – had on their side was moral strength and courage, the right to go about their legal business unmolested, a right to enjoy themselves in a free and democratic society.
It is to fill this knowledge vacuum and lack of interest, that the dominant white community defines carnival by the metric of criminality, the number of arrests, the reasons for those arrests (300 this year for petty offences like urinating in public view, possession of marijuana for personal use, etc. In the meantime a death occurred at the Reading festival and few, if any, drug arrests took place at Glastonbury), and the number of officers policing the event. Even people who under normal circumstances will describe themselves as ‘liberal’ see carnival through this fractured and distorted prism. Those African Caribbean young people who feel that they have fully integrated in to British society, that they are now part of the social furniture, either have to turn away from this crude reality, or pretend it does not exist.
In many ways, the English reaction to carnival at home betrays the deceit of claiming to be madly in love with the Caribbean and its people when on a tourist visit. Cultural symbols are important as they signal the status of the group within the wider society. That our social and political leaders choose to disassociate themselves from carnival sends a message that carnival is not socially acceptable.
In the final analysis, newspaper coverage of carnival and official responses to it are but walk on parts in a wider moral drama: do Caribbean people, especially those from the former colonies, have any culture that we as English people should respect? Haven’t we already defined Caribbean people as petty criminals, educational failures, creative dunces, moral reprobates?