Socialist Worker

Stopping us from dancing in the streets

Gary McFarlane looks at the authorities' attitude towards carnivals in Notting Hill and elsewhere

Issue No. 1814

THE BRITISH state, at best, has always had a two-faced attitude towards multiculturalism. On the one hand it likes to trumpet the supposed 'tolerance' at the heart of British culture.

On the other it does its best to undermine multiculturalism by its promotion of racism through immigration policy, policing and the routine institutional discrimination maintained in housing, education and the jobs market. Once there was a rising curve of anti-racist or multicultural events organised with the help of local councils. Today the number is falling dramatically. Hardly a week in the summer goes by without yet another event being cancelled because the authorities have come to see them as a nuisance.

In Birmingham the International Caribbean Carnival has been cancelled after the council pulled the plug, saying it could not afford the £200,000 it provided last year. In west London, Ealing council has cancelled the popular Mela festival due to 'traffic costs'.

In Dudley in the West Midlands the local carnival has been stopped from going ahead by the police who claimed, according to the Voice newspaper, that 15,000 gun-toting black people were going to turn up. The African Caribbean population of Dudley is only 3,500. The carnival would have been a great way of pulling people together in an area where the BNP Nazis have been trying to get a foothold.

As one angry local resident put it, 'The feeling in our community, particularly among our young black men, is that even when we try to conduct ourselves properly we are still classified as criminals. 'Black people have the right to assemble and the right to celebrate our culture like anybody else.'

And to cap it all the Anti Nazi League 'Love Music-Hate Racism' carnival to be held in Burnley has had to be moved to Manchester after Burnley's Labour council blocked it.

Of course the BNP was allowed to hold its Nazi rally a few miles down the road. Perhaps the attitude of the authorities is seen best through the history of the Notting Hill carnival. It began in 1964 as an intensely political affair following race riots in the area. It was, for many, a way of putting two fingers up to the racists in government and on the streets.

For years the authorities have indicated their displeasure at the continuation of an event now attracting up to two million people. It was and is an event that seems to be not just beyond their understanding but, more crucially, their control.

At last year's carnival 10,000 police were on duty at a cost of £5.5 million. It was precisely such swamp tactics that provoked riots in the past. In fact the history of carnival has shown that, given the number of people in attendance, it is generally a peaceful, friendly multicultural celebration. Last year there were only 35 people arrested, mainly for drunkenness.

Serious outbreaks of disorder, otherwise known as rioting, have only ever occurred in reaction to police provocation. But just as generally some of the press and politicians peddle the myth that street crime is rising because the police are not stopping and searching enough black kids, so there is also a demonising of the carnival.

However, last year a Greater London Authority working group headed by Lee Jasper proposed that the carnival should be radically rerouted. So for the carnival this time the circular procession will be changed to end up in Hyde Park. The GLA also came up with the fabulous idea of utilising waste ground near Wormwood Scrubs prison and of taking many carnival events out of the Notting Hill area altogether!

Many people fear that Ken Livingstone and his advisers want to strip the carnival completely of political overtones and grassroots community involvement. Lee Jasper, speaking on behalf of the GLA, said, 'It was felt by all that in recent years what began as a spontaneous celebration has grown into Europe's largest street festival and become a victim of its own success.'

It's all a far cry from Lee Jasper's days at the Mangrove Centre, a focal point for police harassment since the carnival's inception. When interviewed by Socialist Worker in 1989, he underlined how the carnival was controversial because it was anti-racist, and that it upset the police because it was ordinary people taking over the streets.

Get along to carnival and enjoy, but defending its future will require the ordinary people who attend such events to start to exert themselves politically. It is time for the anti-racist majority to get organised, not just to beat back the BNP, but also the racists in the corridors of power and those who refuse to confront them head on.

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Sat 24 Aug 2002, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1814
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