Socialist Worker

Notting Hill: Carnival of Unity

This weekend the streets of Notting Hill in west London will be packed with people enjoying a multiracial festival. Even the police will pretend to enjoy themselves. But the history of Carnival shows it is more than a party

Issue No. 1865

Not so long ago the right wing press and the police tried to ban the Notting Hill Carnival. When all else failed, they physically attacked it. From its beginning they have hated it because it is a symbol of black resistance and black and white solidarity. The Notting Hill Carnival survived because of the resistance by black, and many white, people. The carnival was a response to the vicious race riots in August 1958.

Black people were excluded from many workplaces, pubs and clubs and racist attacks were common. The police constantly harassed and arrested black people. In 1958 in Nottingham, white youths rampaged through areas like St Ann's night after night. They surrounded black people and threatened to lynch them. In London, fascists stirred up racist gangs to attack blacks with knives, guns and petrol bombs. The 7,000-strong West Indian community in Notting Hill was terrorised for four days and nights.

A local black man, Ivan Weekes, described what happened in his street: 'There was a pitched battle in Powis Terrace where I lived. The street was alight, fires, Molotov cocktails. And blood was everywhere – it was awful.

“By that time, the situation had become so bad that black men used to come from surrounding areas knowing the whites were going to hit this particular street, this particular night. They would come in solidarity. Many black people felt if they're going to kill us, we won't be passive about it. The next morning the street was like a battlefield, with burnt out cars and the rest of it.'

The police claimed the riots were 'the work of ruffians, both black and white'. But secret papers released last year showed they knew the violence was caused by 'Keep Britain white' mobs, at times thousands strong.

The carnival came out of ordinary people's desire to combat racism and celebrate multiracialism. In January 1959 London's first Caribbean carnival was held. One of the organisers, Claudia Jones, said, 'We needed something to get the taste of Notting Hill out of our minds.'

For the first generation of black immigrants, Carnival was a protest against racist mobs that besieged their community in west London. In the 1970s the next generation of black people saw it as a symbol of resistance to the police's criminalisation of young black people.

As one black activist explains, 'Anybody who knows Carnival, now a joyous occasion, and its wonderful food and music and people wearing policemen's helmets, better go back to 1976, and '77 and '78, when the negotiations with the police were about whether the carnival was going to happen at all.'

Reggae music inspired and gave confidence to the new generation. During the 1970s the police became increasingly hostile to the carnival. A police officer explained, 'Carnival was their day. For the rest of the year, police would be stopping them in ones and twos in the street, where they would be in a minority. But for one weekend they were in the majority and they took over the streets.'

In 1976 the police hyped up safety fears about the carnival. A police chief told the press, 'The carnival has outgrown itself and it is no longer suitable for Notting Hill or any London streets.'

Huge numbers of police turned up to the carnival and began trying to arrest people. The crowd united to stop them. When police rampaged through the carnival, lashing out at men, women and children, they fought back. The Financial Times stated, 'Those who steal or assault must be classed as criminals. But those who crowd around to prevent the police from arresting them must surely be seen as expressing a kind of social or political anger.'

An officer admitted, 'The police had taken a beating and were determined it wouldn't happen again. So when the next one came around, there was some desire for revenge.'

The following year there were renewed calls for the carnival to be restricted. The police wanted revenge. When a few stones were thrown, they waded in. Sandra Knight and her young child were attacked by baton-wielding police. Her husband told Socialist Worker at the time, 'They just hit her over the head. One policeman went for the baby. He aimed for her head. If he had hit her, she would have been dead.'

Sections of the right wing press and the police continued to attack the carnival. They tried to fit up key organisers like Frank Crichlow of the Mangrove Club. In 1988 Frank spent six weeks in prison awaiting trial before a jury threw out charges related to drug dealing.

In 2001 some 10,000 police were on duty after officers warned that gun-toting gangsters would terrorise the event. Only 35 people out of the two million that partied were arrested – mostly for being drunk. In 1991 Lynda Lee Potter, Daily Mail columnist, described Notting Hill Carnival as 'a sordid, sleazy nightmare that has become synonymous with death'.

Despite all this they couldn't stop the carnival, because of its huge popularity amongst ordinary people. In recent years, there has been talk of moving the carnival off the streets and letting corporate sponsors take over, which would rob the carnival of its unique atmosphere.

Amid a series of rows, the London Notting Hill Carnival plc was established to seek sponsorship and franchises. Frank Crichlow, a key figure in Notting Hill, says the talk of sponsorship 'means selling out to big business people. Carnival belongs to the community. When the entrepreneurs move in, the little people go out of the window.'

Ken Hinds is vice-chair of the Mas Bands Association, which makes carnival floats. He says, 'The people who come to Carnival don't come to see the police or the officials-so why are they telling us how to run our event?

The first Caribbean carnival was held in Trinidad in 1834 to celebrate the abolition of slavery. In 1881 Trinidad's former police chief described how the tradition evolved: 'After the emancipation of the slaves, thing were materially altered. The ancient lines of demarcation between classes were obliterated and, as a natural consequence, the carnival degenerated into a noisy and disorderly amusement for the lower classes.'

Carnival has lost none of its power to rock the establishment, as journalist Gary Younge explains: 'Massive in size, working class in composition, spontaneous in form, subversive in expression and political in nature-the ingredients for Carnival are explosive. Add to the mix the legacy of slavery and it soon becomes clear why so long as there has been Carnival, the authorities have sought to contain, control or cancel it.'

Cities across Britain have Caribbean-style carnivals. Leeds hosts what organisers claim is the biggest carnival outside London, with an annual parade of tens of thousands dancing its way to the West Indian Centre in Chapeltown. It has been going since 1967.

Birmingham held its first carnival in 1984. Over 50,000 turned out to take part in last year's event. A Caribbean carnival has been held in Nottingham since 1970. When it was cancelled in 1998 the outcry was so great it was reinstated and organisers claim this year it was the biggest ever.

But the fight to defend our right to celebrate multiracial Britain continues. Only last year Dudley police forced the local carnival to be cancelled, claiming 15,000 gun-toting black people would turn up.

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Sat 23 Aug 2003, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1865
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