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Artillery Row

Notting Hill Carnival needs to clean up its act

The street party shouldn’t be above criticism

If you had newly landed on our shores, then heard that there had been eight stabbings and 75 attacks on police officers (including sexual assaults) at a major public festival, you might imagine it would be some kind of national scandal. You’d be doubly shocked, though, because you’d find a large part of fashionable opinion suggesting that the criminality was “no worse than at Glastonbury” and not even worth talking about, given the oft-quoted number of “two million people” attending. Relative to other events, they claim, the Carnival is safe. Critics of the street party are accused, inevitably, of racism.

I do not recall any music festivals interrupted by gangs wielding machetes

None of this, inconveniently for those desperate to defend the event, is actually true. The “two million” number is a zombie statistic, trotted out across multiple articles for over 20 years. The Carnival’s own web page offers a more cautious estimate of over one million attendees. Even if Glastonbury (an event that is three days longer, more heavily secured and policed, in a contained space, which pays for the majority of its own policing costs) did have proportionately as many arrests, they are largely for drug charges — not stabbings and assaults on police officers. I do not recall any music festivals or football matches interrupted by gangs wielding machetes brawling in the streets.

The event is so fiercely defended by many because the festival, a celebration of Afro-Caribbean culture and music, has come to be seen as a symbol of London’s diversity. When a Tory mayoral candidate, shortly before the Carnival, said that it was dangerous and reflected “problems with crime” in the black community, David Lammy described her views as “offensive”. He trotted out the establishment line:

In London, we’re proud of our diversity and it’s something we celebrate and see as a strength, not a weakness. London has been shaped in many ways by black and Caribbean culture and heritage, and there is no greater celebration of this than Notting Hill carnival, which is famous around the world.

For someone running to be mayor of London to express these offensive views about Notting Hill carnival and London’s black communities is astonishing. But it’s just another example of how the Tory candidate is a hard-right politician who is out of touch, does not share London’s values.

We are not allowed to criticise the Carnival, because to recognise it has a problem is to also recognise that London in general, and Afro-Caribbean communities in particular, have a problem. Ironically, it is a problem well recognised in these communities themselves, with one local mentor for troubled children in Luton speaking of “gang crime and gang war, where certain people from certain areas can’t go to certain areas because of the fear of being beaten up, being stabbed or even worse”. He pointed the finger to the collapse of local services and clubs. Luton Borough Council, in response, “stressed that Luton was one of a few councils that passed a Black Lives Matter action plan, which includes unconscious bias training for staff and increasing the proportion of council employees and managers from minority ethnic backgrounds”. It also pointed to the £110,000 spent “on events that celebrate black culture — such as Carnival, Afrofest and Windrush”.

Labour in London has stopped being a radical party that confronts deep social and economic problems. Under the leadership of Sadiq Khan, it engages instead in mindless boosterism in which London is a diversity success story. Anyone who questions the narrative is accused of being racist, out of touch and failing to “share London values”.

The left in Britain is at least as mired in romantic myth and sentiment as the right. It still sees Notting Hill Carnival as a cheerful local celebration, even as it crows about millions attending it. The claim echoed on the official website, that it is a “community-led” event, is now a hopeless lie. It’s a “street party” that terrifies the people who actually live on the streets involved. Local residents complain of anti-social behaviour, such as people urinating in their gardens. The great majority feel forced to leave their homes during the Carnival, and many board up their windows. The same is also true of local businesses, many of which are forced to close for the duration. The council actually has to pay for elderly residents to take a holiday. Whilst the event occurs, a third of the Met’s resources are devoted to policing it. What kind of “community-led” event drives out and terrorises the community in which it occurs?

Critics of the event have said for decades that it is too large to safely be held in the narrow streets of Notting Hill. Proposals have long been on the table for it to be moved to another location, such as Hyde Park, where it could be more easily policed and would not make residents’ lives a misery.

No reactionary has ever proposed returning to mediaeval murder rates

The Carnival’s association with violence and criminality is not an aberration, either. It is a reflection of the deep antipathy between London’s Afro-Caribbean community and the police. The original Carnival was illegal, and it has been the sparking point for numerous riots. The introduction of riot shields to the Metropolitan Police was in direct response to violence at the 1976 Carnival. The number of assaults on police officers reflects a component of the event that those who want to paint it as an irenic if exuberant festival of diversity do not wish to confront: it provides an occasion to defy the law.

More radical defenders of the carnival not only recognise this fact, but actively celebrate it. Professor David Dabydeen praised it as a revival of Mediaeval carnival, with its “juggling, pickpocketing, whoring, drinking, masquerade”. According to the good professor, “It allowed people a space to free-up but it was banned for moral reasons and for the antiauthoritarian behaviour that went on like stoning of constables. Carnival allowed people to dramatise their grievances against the authorities on the street … Notting Hill Carnival single-handedly revived this tradition and is a great contribution to British cultural life.”

If stoning constables is a legitimate way for people to “dramatise their grievances”, then how about hitting, punching and spitting on police? What about sexually assaulting them? Conservatives are often accused of wanting to romantically return to the British past, but even the most befuddled of reactionaries has never proposed returning to mediaeval murder rates (twice those of modern day El Salvador, if you were wondering).

Behind a great deal of the rhetoric about police and black communities is a barely concealed bourgeois anarchism, one profoundly detached from the actual realities of living in a community ravaged by crime and stripped of local services. Political radicalism is regularly projected onto acts and individuals who are destroying and marring community life, whilst those who point to problems are accused of being the problem themselves.

There is a particularly nasty and pernicious sort of racism, especially popular amongst “tenured radicals”, which goes beyond merely denying the criminal violence that destroys too many black lives, to covertly celebrating and romanticising that violence. Rather than engaging with actual communities, it engages with black culture as a cypher for diversity, a flattering mirror for liberal Londoners to admire themselves in.

When it comes to Notting Hill Carnival, I’m shamelessly on the side of the modern. Let’s sanitise, police and rationalise it. When it comes to mediaeval carnival, we should keep the dancing — and lose the stabbings.

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