NOTTING HILL CARNIVAL | POLITICAL & CULTURAL FORCES
ESSAY BY NELTA KASPARIAN, 2019
Notting Hill carnival and police
Notting Hill Carnival started as an ‘English Fayre’ in the 1960’s and was centred around polytechnic amity (Jackson, 1987). The first few years of Carnival were characterised by community and co-operation especially between West Indian immigrants and British working class natives.
Rhaunee Lalett, who was the founder of Carnival described her vision as “taking to the streets using song and dance to ventilate all the pent-up frustrations born out of the slum conditions”, naming the first carnival a ‘Celebration of poverty’.
Carnival was established with the deliberate aim of reversing Notting Hill’s declining fortunes as the area had become associated with poor housing, prostitution,and particularly after 1958 with racial conflicts.Over August bank holiday weekend of 1958, Notting Hill was the scene of one of the worst race riots ever witnessed in Britain. For several days, white mobs when on so-called "nigger hunting" resulting in numerous hospitalisations, attacks and arrests. These events were to set the stage for the West Indian community’s relationship with the police.
Anxious to play down their significance at the time, Metropolitan police officers tried to dismiss the Notting Hill race riots, as they tried to convince the then home secretary that there had not been a racial element to the rioting (Travis, 2002), blaming the violence on pure ‘Hooliganism’. This was the birth of a legacy of black mistrust of the Metropolitan police that still exists today. Consequently, during the period 1960-1975 Notting Hill carnival evolved into an organising mechanism for protest an opposition, shifting from a cultural movement to a politico-cultural one.
Carnival became almost exclusively West Indian in its leadership, art and attendance. For the West Indians, Carnival became a symbol of emancipation, resistance, protest and triumph.This illustrates the two-dimensional nature of Notting Hill Carnival, a continual interplay between cultural forms and political relations (Jackson, 1987) The Carnival riots of 1976 marked a turning point between the history of conflict between the police and Notting Hill Carnival. In the 1970’s the younger generation of West Indians immigrants started to attend Notting Hill Carnival, however at the time, the production of Carnival was heavily reliant on traditional Trinidadian roots.
Mas bands and steelpan didn’t really resonate with the younger West Indian generation, a generation described as ‘alienated and disillusioned with British Society’ (Jackson, 1987). In a bid to modernise carnival and make it more resonant with this younger generation, stationary discos which later will become sound systems were introduced to carnival.
This had the consequence of boosting 1975’s carnival attendance to a quarter million attendees. In such a crowded gathering, there was a significant number of petty crimes: cases of pickpocketing, illicit sale of alcohol, damage to residential gardens… only a few policemen were present and could do little.In 1976, the police presence at Notting Hill carnival was significantly increased, over seven times more policemen were present than the previous year. With over 1500 policemen present, 1976’s carnival turned into violent altercations between the police and the carnival goers.
Carnival riots of 1976 have been described as a watershed in the history of conflict between blacks and the police in the UK (Jackson, 1987). Some defend that the Met police provoked the riots due to the sheer number of officers present at the event. Given the relationship between the West Indians and the police, such a manifestation of force coming from the authorities has been dubbed “an error of judgment’’ (Pilger, 1976).
In his work, which focuses on understanding the relationship between the political and the cultural at Notting Hill Carnival, Cohen (1980) defends that that one of the reasons the youth resorted to such violence was because they had no means of active artistic participation in Carnival. The introduction of the stationary discos had increased attendance however it had been unsuccessful because it split the carnival into active mobile processions, and passive, fragmented, stationary record playing discos. Thus, from 1976 leadership and production efforts went towards developing carnival, introducing new themes and new artistic forms and thereby changing the structure of the event. It is this fusion of Trinidadian carnival traditions (Steel pan, Calypso, Mas) with the growing Sound System culture and its music genres: bass, reggae, and later grime which propelled Notting Hill Carnival to a global, internationally recognized event.
Until today, Notting Hill Carnival’s relationship with the London Met Police is based on contradictions. Each year, London Met Police claim that Notting Hill Carnival should be banned for police officer safety.In 2016 the met police conducted a “pre-Notting Hill Carnival Crackdown” with over 300 arrests, knives and firearms confiscations. As part of this operation, the Met Police tweeted “in the run-up to #NottingHillCarnival we have seized a kilo of uncut heroin in Catford”.
This tweet has been perceived as yet another attempt to demonise the event. There is no proof or reason to believe that this seize, which happened 12 miles away from Notting Hill, has anything to do with Carnival. Heroin has hardly ever been associated with carnival culture, sound system culture or west Indian culture. Another controversy regarding the met police’s action towards Notting HiIl carnival is their decision to use, for the first time in the UK, facial recognition technology.
Civil liberties group defend that scanning faces of thousands of revellers has no basis in law and is discriminatory. News articles report that police use of facial recognition technology during the event led to mistaken arrests and false matches (Dodd, 2017).
Each year, headlines about Notting Hill Carnival systematically refer to violence and crime. In comparison, the coverage of Glastonbury often focuses on the line-up, the weather or the outfits. (Dazed, 2017). In 2017, police arrests at Glastonbury were of 71 for 135000 attendees, making the crime rate at Glastonbury 0.05%.
The same year at Notting Hill Carnival, with 2 million attendees, the crime rate represented 0.02% of the overall crowd. Despite these figures, the focus is always on the crime and the violence.
Notting Hill carnival and leadership
The riots and the violence of 1976 caused a rift in the organising body of carnival over weather Carnival was to become a cultural or a political movement. On one side, the CAC (Carnival and Arts Committee) argued that Carnival should be a political event to be used as political lever to press for reforms and concessions (Cohen, 1993).
The CAC also argued that Carnival held important economic possibilities for West Indians, that it could be promoted as a tourist attraction and a base for related industries, providing employment and income for West Indians. These views were rejected by the other members of the Carnival committee, mainly leading artists in steel bands, mas bands and calypsonians who re-established themselves as the CDA (Carnival Development Committee).
The CDA argued that the Carnival was an artistic and creative event of its own kind, of value in its own right and that any attempt to exploit it would destroy its political impact. They defended that only if it was overtly non-political could it be politically efficient (Cohen, 1980).The conflict was resolved in favour of the CAC in 1981, when the Arts Council intervened to change the funding arrangements for the carnival (Farrar, 2004).
In a critical review of Cohen’s book, David Roussel-Milner argues that the CAC was formed in order to divide the Notting Hill Carnival movement, and that the Arts Council used the existence of two committees as an excuse to withdraw support. He strongly implies that there was a conspiracy between the police, the Arts Council and the local authorities “to take control of carnival” (Roussel-Milner 1996).
In the late 1980s the Metropolitan Police demanded a seat on the Carnival organising committee. The CAC leadership refused, consequently, in 1988 a “vitriolic smear campaign in the mainstream press was unleashed on the non-compliant CAC” (Connor and Farrar, 2004).
Almost simultaneously, the police conducted a drug raid on the Mangrove Restaurant, the informal community hub and the office of the Carnival and Arts Committee which resulted in the arrest of members of the CAC and the seize of records and documents. A “scathing report” was written on the CAC's competence (Connor and Farrar, 2004). Not a single charge was ever proved but this was the end of the Carnival and Arts Committee. When the CAC collapsed in 1988, the Carnival Enterprise Committee took over, chaired by barrister Claire Holder who introduced major changes to the organisation of Carnival.
The CEC’s approach to Carnival was much more pro-business and pro-police (La Rose, 2017) A new framework was imposed by the police, which included strict enforcement of an early end to the event; a 75 percent reduction in the numbers of sound systems allowed; prevention of dancing behind the mas bands; intensive video surveillance and interception of black youths and strict adherence by the procession to the agreed route (Connor and Farrar, 2004).
In 1989, the Carnival Enterprise Committee became a limited company, the 'spirit of carnival was to be accommodated to the enterprise culture'. Claire Holder planned to negotiate a path for the carnival that would allow it to assume a multi-cultural London identity while staying true to its West Indian roots (Carver, 2000).
However, the period of 1995-1999 was characterized by important commercial sponsorships of carnival which as defends Carver, led the carnival to lose its identity. Increasingly contained both physically and ideologically due to its sheer scale, but also due to the position it had come to occupy, Carnival’s status as Europe's largest street festival meant its preparations requires professional, well-orchestrated planning, but also marks it had to deliver a
It was crucial for carnival to attract headline sponsorships, this meant orienting it towards its harmonious and cathartic functions while eliminating its radical or revolutionary potential (Carver, 2000),the CAC (Carnival and Arts Committee) argued that Carnival should be a political event to be used as political lever to press for reforms and concessions. The CDA argued that the Carnival was an artistic and creative event of its own kind, of value in its own right and that any attempt to exploit it would destroy its political impact.
They defended that only if it was overtly non-political could it be politically efficient (Cohen, 1980).In 1995, 1996 and 1997 the Carnival was re-branded “The Lilt Notting Hill Carnival”. In 1998, it was supported by Virgin Atlantic and it 1999 it was rebranded the “West Union Notting Hill Carnival”.
In his paper, Carver demonstrates how the commercial sponsorships of carnival negatively impacted the event and more broadly the institution of carnival. He defends that sponsorships caused carnival to become a commodity, especially because of the name change. The original name ‘The Notting Hill Carnival” suggests that the carnival is a “local production of participatory pleasures in opposition to the imposed pleasures of the culture industry’. However, the change to ‘The Lilt Notting Hill Carnival’ suggests a change in authorship and ownership.
This has the effect of turning carnival’s ownership to a “very specific corporate body rather than to a demographic and social context, and redefines the struggle for the streets as bureaucratic negotiation rather than political contest.
Through their sponsorships, brands depoliticised the carnival, to their own advantage. According to Carver, Lilt’s interest resided on the spectacle element of carnival rather than its context, the latter being both irrelevant to the product and possibly damaging to its identity. Therefore, Carnival was presented not as a social utopia but a permanent sun-drenched holiday- people dancing in the streets, a festival of street art and a general celebration of popular creativity rather than a wholly culture-specific event. (Carver,2000).
Brands were trying to push this spectacular, fun, “exotic” street party image of carnival, and it was becoming increasingly popular nationally and internationally. However, this decontextualisation of Carnival did not reduce the crime and violence that had been a constant since the 1976 riots.
The uprising against the police, which in 1976 were given context and associated with a rebellion against the status quo, was now reduced to mindless criminality. As quoted by Carver “without the breach or weight there appears to be no context for social crisis; crisis simply does not fit with the Lilt culture”.Increasingly, there was considerable press coverage which focused on the disorder and the crime at Notting Hill Carnival.
Until today, it is felt that the press took and is still taking an unfairly negative and one-sided view of the carnival. The event also lost popularity with the Royal Bough of Chelsea Kensington ‘who declared war’ on the Carnival Enterprise Committee (The Telegraph, 2001). The CEC was also facing internal issues and financial scandals. Consequently, due to this negative reputation brands dropped out from sponsoring Carnival.
In 2003 Carnival’s sponsorship income had been reduced to £150,000 from over £400,000 in previous years (Marketing Week, 2003).In the last decade, brands have slowly made their way back into Notting Hill Carnival, without, however, ‘headline sponsoring” the event. Instead, brands such as Puma, Adidas, Converse and Red Bull have been hosting their own ticketed events inside of Carnival.