It’s easy to forget, with the noise and the hash cakes, that Notting Hill Carnival was created as an attempt to promote racial unity in an atmosphere of deep-seated intolerance and hatred.
The girl sitting next to you on the tube is taking pulls from a giant bottle of coca cola which, judging from the sharp smell, has been generously spiked with rum. Gripping the rail in front of you, three girls in hot pants share a can of Strong Bow, jiggle their gold-sequinned arses two inches from your face, and beat out a tinny version of some Basement Jaxx song on a pink iPhone.
Notting Hill Carnival 2014 goes down the same as it always does: rain and Red Stripe beer mix in London’s polluted black puddles; revellers with stringy wet hair pull you in to dance and grab at your camera; jerk goat is chomped and washed down with coconut water, and a man in a polythene poncho brandishes a little bag of weed (“£10, sister! You in?).
It hasn’t escaped your notice that almost every police officer is a white male, despite the fact that London is a majority (55%) ethnic minority city.
You watch one of the yellow-vested officers tell a guy in low-slung trousers to tuck his phone deeper into his pocket. Across the street, two paramedics tend to a vomit-spewing teenager, and the firefighters at North Kensington Fire Station have come out to say hello.
But it’s not all dance and laughter: men are peeing into the front gardens of multimillion pound Georgian stucco houses, rain-filled trays of half-eaten chicken wings are piled up on the kerbside, and several hundred revellers will leave without their wallet and mobile phone. Dozens will leave a few bruises richer and someone will probably get stabbed again. All the tube stations within a one mile radius have been closed to reduce stampeding, the police are using kettling to keep the crowds under control, and the loos have gone beyond the realm of disgusting.
It’s easy to forget, with the noise and the hash cakes, that the carnival was created as an attempt to promote racial unity in an atmosphere of deep-seated intolerance and hatred.
The Second World War had killed hundreds of thousands of British workers, and the government had encouraged immigration from the Commonwealth to fill the gap. Swathes of Afro-Carribean people settled in the UK, only to find that the “indigenous” people were hostile to their presence. Blacks were denied housing and access to some pubs and churches, trade unions refused to help them, and they were frequently the focus of racially-motivated violence. The police were institutionally racist and black victims would rarely get justice (with the Met admitting this in 1998 in the fallout from the botched Stephen Lawrence Murder Case).
How much have things changed since the first carnival in 1959?
A disproportionate number of ethnic minority people are killed in police custody (since 1990, 1,433 people have been killed in custody, with 0 convictions for the officers involved). Black people are up to 29x more likely to be stopped and searched than a white person, despite arrest rates being the same for both. Black students are the most likely to be excluded from school and leave unable to read or write, and least likely to attend the top universities– and the catalogue of inequalities just goes on.
The 2011 London Riot was more than a knee-jerk response to a (probably) racially motivated police killing, and it is also unhelpful to pin it on ASBOs succumbing to herd mentality. When we jettison our poor, doom their children to failure in our state schools and label them as benefits-scrounging chavs, why should we expect any less than an uprising?
The ravine between the rich and the poor in the UK is as large as it was a century ago. Our inequality is now worse than it is in India and Ethiopia to put that into context- and our cabinet of millionaires is using the demonisation of the Muslim community (Trojan Horse? Jihadi John? Ban the Burka?) as a distraction for our social and economic troubles. At Nottinghill Carnival’s inception, it was the black immigrant community who were being attacked and villified. Now it is the Asian and EU immigrant communities who are being hoisted as folk devils.
It is no surprise that the affluent inhabitants of Kensington and Chelsea have made several energetic attempts to move the carnival to the significantly poorer racial-powder keg of South London (the epicentre of the London Riots, as well as the 1981, 1985 and 1995 Brixton Race Riots).
How many of those inhabitants are ethnic minority? How many black or asian people do you see sampling wagyu beef tatare and Dom Perignon champagne in one of the artistically sparse restaurants on Westbourne Grove? Why is Social Mobility a delusion, and why are we content to ignore the glaring inequality in our society?
The music is so loud that your ear drums are tickling. The rain is falling steadily, but everyone is having a good time nonetheless. If you decide to pop-in next year, don’t take more than £20 and keep your phone in a secure pocket.