The establishment and the media are never quite comfortable with the Notting Hill Carnival, which is held this weekend, but they are generally happy to praise it as an annual celebration of Britain’s diversity.
People often forget that there was a race riot in this part of west London 50 years ago and that the first carnival was a defiant response from a besieged community.
In the early 1950s Britain was desperately short of labour and actively encouraged immigration. Many West Indians came to “the mother country” with high hopes, having been taught in colonial schools about Britain's tolerant values and democracy.
In 1957 prime minister Harold Macmillan famously said, “Most of our people have never had it so good.” But this was not the experience of either black or white people living in the squalid slums of Notting Hill.
By 1958 some 7,000 West Indians were living around the area. They faced a colour bar in jobs and housing and ignorance among the existing population.
One poll showed that 71 percent of people opposed mixed relationships. West Indians were shocked that the police were among the worst racists.
There was a lull in the post-war boom in 1958 and jobs became harder to find. The press was full of stories of black men running brothels, selling drugs and taking part in violent crime.
Outrageously George Rogers, the local Labour MP for North Kensington, said, “The government must introduce legislation quickly to end the tremendous influx of people from the Commonwealth... Overcrowding has fostered vice, drugs, prostitution and the use of knives. For years the white people have been tolerant. Now their tempers are up.”
Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement and other fascist groups were already leafleting, holding rallies and daubing KBW (Keep Britain White) on walls around Notting Hill.
Mosley’s newsletter announced, “We don’t want a colour bar of any sort. We want an end to the thing which causes the colour bar – the immigration of thousands of completely different people who take our homes and threaten our jobs.”
Through the summer of 1958 gangs of Teddy boys – Britain’s first teenage subculture – harassed black people in areas like Notting Hill.
Rioting broke out first in Nottingham. Around 1,000 white people rampaged around the St Ann’s area, apparently maddened because a West Indian man had “chatted up” a white woman in a pub.
The following weekend there was more rioting in St Ann’s, but the focus moved to Notting Hill in London.
On Saturday 30 August Majbritt Morrison, a Swedish woman, was attacked by a gang of young whites in Notting Hill because she was married to a Jamaican. They followed her, throwing milk bottles and shouting, “Nigger lover! Kill her!”
Later that night a crowd of up to 400 began a “nigger hunt” and the rioting began. Black people were attacked on the street. Stones and petrol bombs were thrown through windows. They were getting no protection from the police and they fought to defend themselves.
Baker Baron, a West Indian who participated in the fighting, said, “We organised a force to take home coloured people wherever they were living in the area. We were not leaving our homes and going out to attack anyone, but if you attacked our homes you would be met.
“I was standing on the second floor with the lights out as look-out when I saw a massive lot of people out there. I was observing the behaviour of the crowd outside from behind the curtains upstairs and they say, ‘Let’s burn the niggers, let’s lynch the niggers.’
“But when they saw the Molotov cocktails coming and they start to panic and run. It was a very serious bit of fighting that night. We were determined to use any means, any weapon, anything at our disposal for our freedom. We were not prepared to go down like dying dogs.”
Fighting continued nightly for five days. A journalist in the Kensington News reported on Monday, “I saw a mob of over 700 men, women and children stretching 200 yards along the road. Young children of ten were treating the whole affair as a great joke and shouting, ‘Come on, let’s get the blacks and the coppers. Let’s get on with it.’
“In the middle of the screaming, jeering youths and adults, a speaker from the Union Movement was urging his excited audience to ‘get rid of them’.”
While Notting Hill was a race riot, it was never true that all whites fought blacks, or even that all Teddy boys were racist. Both the Nottingham and Notting Hill riots started with racists outraged that black and white people were mixing.
Claudia Jones was central to the black response. Born in Trinidad, she moved to New York in the 1930s and became a lifelong Communist. She was deported in 1955 and came to Britain.
Jones launched the West Indian Gazette, the first newspaper printed in London for the black community, in March 1958. It was intended to build an active response to racism.
Donald Hinds, who worked on the paper, recalled the importance of having a paper that would discuss discrimination and how to respond when these things were ignored by the rest of the media.
He recalled her strength during the riots, “To people who had never before encountered racial conflicts, Claudia Jones was able to console and prevent what some people thought would turn into a stampede of selling out and returning to the countries of their origin. She had been through all this before.”
Another tragic event helped shape Notting Hill’s politics – a murder that showed the riot had taught the police nothing about challenging racism.
In May 1959, Kelso Cochrane, a 32-year old carpenter from Antigua, was stabbed through the heart by a group of white youths in Notting Hill Gate.
Police dismissed a racial motive. The detective leading the investigation told a newspaper, “We are satisfied that it was the work of a group of about six anti-law white teenagers who had only one motive in view – robbery or attempted robbery.”
Like Stephen Lawrence’s murder more than 30 years later, it became a turning point. More than 1,200 people, both black and white, attended Cochrane’s funeral.
That October there was a general election. Oswald Mosley stood in Kensington North, confident that increased racism in the aftermath of the riots would return him to parliament.
Instead he came last with 8.1 percent. It was a disturbingly high vote for an out-and-out fascist, but proof that the popular tide was turning against them.
The government and the police continued to see immigrants as the problem. The Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962 introduced the first controls on entry by British citizens – controls that in practice applied only to non-whites.
In January 1959, just five months after the riot, a carnival was held indoors at St Pancras town hall in central London as a defiant response to the racists.
Claudia Jones was central to organising it around the slogan, “A people’s art is the genesis of their freedom.”
It was made clear that proceeds “are to assist the payment of fines of coloured and white youths involved in the Notting Hill events” – which shows that not all whites arrested had been fighting for the racists.
Carnival became an annual event and moved to Notting Hill as an outdoor parade in 1965.
In the 1970s the Notting Hill Carnival itself became a focus for the police.
It had grown rapidly year on year and in 1976 up to a quarter of a million people attended.
Although there had never been any serious crime or disturbances, the police decided to crack down on this defiant counter-culture which did not accept their authority.
They flooded the area with 3,000 officers – ten times the number of the previous year. Young people at the carnival fought back, forcing the police into a humiliating retreat.
Though the police repeatedly demonised and attacked the carnival they never quite managed to stop it.
One of the organisers Chris Mullard said, “Carnival was always seen by the state and the establishment as something that they wanted to stop, because they saw it for what it was – a form of cultural resistance.”
Carnival had moved from being an assertion of pride in resistance to racism in general to a symbol of resistance to police criminalisation of young black people.
However much it has been incorporated into the system since, it is marvellous that a celebration of anti-racism remains the largest street festival in Europe.
Diversity on whose terms?
It is more than 30 years since the 1976 police riot. Carnival has come to be seen as a display of multicultural diversity more than a celebration of anti-racism.
Unfortunately this can mean it ceases to be a challenge to the racism of the system.
This year, amid the knife crime scare, 11,000 police are to surround the event with a “ring of steel”. They will attempt to use metal detectors on all those who enter the area.
The police can then argue they are dividing a “good” diverse carnival from the 'bad' oppositional one.
This kind of argument is something that New Labour is particularly keen on – “We will accept your diversity, as long as you distance yourself from the radical and the 'anti-social'.”
Despite the limitations of multiculturalism, socialists should always defend it against the ideas of “social cohesion” that the government promotes.
These always end up meaning one culture – the culture of our rulers – and denying all difference and resistance.