The sensitivities around hosting the Notting Hill Carnival in the same borough as Grenfell Tower has dominated coverage in the lead-up to Saturday’s event, but even that unrelenting controversy has done nothing to obscure the long-standing prejudices tainting its jubilance.
“People see the way that Carnival is portrayed in the same way that many black communities always have been, and still are, portrayed,” carnival veteran Maurice Mcleod told HuffPost UK.
“It’s dirty, it’s violent, there are problems, you need to police it really heavily, it’s always at risk of breaking out or this year there are going to be riots because these people are angry. That’s how black communities are portrayed so that’s how Carnival is portrayed.”
Notting Hill Carnival has drawn an unusual amount of attention before it’s even kicked off this year, largely due to it now taking place in the shadows of Grenfell tower where a fire rampaged on 14 June, claiming at least 80 lives.
Yet, the same old stereotypes have continued to rear their head.
On Wednesday Grime artist Stormzy reignited the controversy by hitting out at police who had trumpeted their success in disrupting apparent gang and drug crime at the event with a series of preemptive raids across south and west London.
The Met made more than 26 arrests, predominantly for possession with intent to supply drugs, and claimed the busts were aimed at ensuring the “safety of the weekend”.
Stormzy, along with dozens of others, questioned why and how police were linking the raids to the street festival.
Coverage of Notting Hill Carnival is always dominated by mentions of violence, crime and cries of commercialism.
Type the event into Google news and you’ll instantly be met with headlines such as: “Notting Hill Carnival CARNAGE”, “Four stabbed as violence erupts on Children’s Day” and “Police on high alert for gang violence at Notting Hill Carnival”.
But is it fair?
In 1958, riots swept through Notting Hill, following escalating racial tensions in the area between white working class residents and newly-arrived black immigrants. Things came to a head on the night of 29 August, when a mob of 300 to 400 white people, many of them Teddy Boys, attacked the houses of West Indian residents in the area. Unrest continued for more than a week. That summer, west London experienced some of the worst race-based violence the UK has ever seen.
In response, the following year saw the beginning of carnival-style celebrations in the neighbourhood, with a “Caribbean Carnival” held on 30 January 1959 in St Pancras Town Hall. This was a show of unity and also a way to celebrate and commemorate many residents’ cultural heritage. By 1966 the first outdoors event was being held, and things developed from there.
But even now, decades later, crime continues dominate discussion around the carnival, which has grown to become the second biggest in the world, after the Rio Carnival.
The 2016 carnival saw 454 people arrested - the highest number in more than a decade - although the Metropolitan Police said there were contributing factors to the increase, including the change in legislation around psychoactive drugs resulted in a high number of drug related arrests and high volume seizures, including nitrous oxide (laughing gas).
Some years have seen more serious trouble, 2008 being the most recent when there was rioting towards the end of the weekend. There have also been five deaths from stabbings over the carnival’s history.
But both Mcleod and carnival organisers think its reporting is out of proportion to the actual problem. He said: “It’s reported in a very different way to crime at Royal Ascot, which had load of punch-ups this year. They’re reported as ‘hey, look at these posh people having a bit of a jape, oh isn’t it funny?’
“If you remember that you’ve got two million people on the streets of London for free, over a two-day period, compared to 50,000 people or whatever it is at Ascot, in terms of scale, carnival has much less trouble than Glastonbury, than lots of other events, it’s regarded differently and I can’t help thinking that’s because of the perceived demographic, even though carnival is very diverse.”
He’s got a point. Those arrested at Notting Hill Carnival last year make up 0.02% of attendees, while 71 Glastonbury arrests at this year’s Glastonbury festival out of 135,000 revellers gives it a higher proportion at 0.05%.
In the eyes of some elements of the press, those sorts of people in a space... is always going to be about crime, it’s always going to be about drug use. Maurice Mcleod
The carnival’s creative director, Debora Alleyne De Gazon also compared it to events such as football matches, adding: “What the media usually do is use the crime and disorder as a foundation for the carnival. It’s like the carnival emerged from that sort of rebellious or riotous behaviour, which isn’t true.
“Carnival is about identity and heritage of the community of the area in which it’s held.”
She added: “Our numbers [of arrests] in comparison to other events is not large at all.”
Many have also pointed out that the cost of policing the event, estimated at around £6 million, has to be in context, given the event brings approximately £93 million to London’s economy annually.
Mcleod, who is director of Media Diversified and vice chair of social policy research organisation Race on the Agenda, sees the way the event is reported by the media as part of the problem, suggesting there is a hangover of old-fashioned views, perhaps from the time the carnival first began.
He explained: “In the eyes of some elements of the press, those sorts of people in a space, especially if it’s an event that they don’t themselves go to, those sorts of people in a space is always going to be about crime, it’s always going to be about drug use and what they perceive to be negative effects because that’s how they think of those communities.”
Mcleod added he would like to see reporting on the carnival done by those who have actually attended: “You can’t make opinions and share opinions about stuff as the media does if you’re not someone that goes.”
He added: “Part of the problem is that the neighbourhood has changed and evolved. So as much as carnival has traditionally always been there, there are people in those areas now who don’t feel as connected to the history of carnival and see it as a nuisance and these people are often quite powerful and wealthy, let’s face it. So their voices are more likely to be heard so that’s part of the conflict that’s going on at the moment to be honest.”
It’s like the carnival emerged from that sort of rebellious or riotous behaviour, which isn’t true Debora Alleyne De Gazon, Notting Hill Carnival's creative director
Even one local resident, who makes no bones about her dislike of carnival, said the crime aspect is not something she has ever been particularly concerned about.
The resident, who wished not to be named, told HuffPost UK: “I never really experienced that, I only read it in the paper. It doesn’t feel violent to me. It’s just a bunch of people who don’t know what they’re here to celebrate, they’re just there to get drunk.
“It doesn’t seem violent to me, it just doesn’t seem like a great celebration.”
For her, however, the problem is the disruption around the area and the behaviour of some of the revellers.
She explained: “I’ve been living in that area for 17 years now and really in the thick of carnival for about 15 years. The first couple of years I went because I think ‘oh cool, a neighbourhood party’. There was a lot of conflict even then 15 years ago, people debating about and you didn’t want to be one of those grumpy people who didn’t like having a party.
“But probably about 10 years ago it started to get really grotesque. It didn’t feel like a party to me, it felt like a bunch of people coming to get drunk and take drugs and be squashed in together on the streets. So for me it became un-fun and part of it was because I lived there and it became such a mess, but it just doesn’t feel like a jolly celebration of Afro-Caribbean culture, it feels like a bunch of people, most of whom aren’t even Afro-Caribbean (although I know that’s not the point), coming together and getting drunk and peeing everywhere.”
She explained that she now leaves her home every year over the Bank Holiday weekend. She said: “I want to be in my home but I just hate being there during carnival, it’s horrible, it really is. There’s just something that’s so violating about someone coming into your garden and peeing on your house. Every five minutes if I just sat in my window and watched, there would be someone peeing.”
One possible solution floated by some is to move the carnival, perhaps to an area such as Hyde Park, as suggested by former Kensington MP Victoria Borwick.
Borwick, who lost her seat in this year’s General Election, wrote to Sadiq Khan about the issue and said that “over recent years the carnival has become an excuse for a rave, criminal acts and lewd behaviour that do not show London at its best”.
It doesn’t feel violent to me. It’s just a bunch of people who don’t know what they’re here to celebrate, they’re just there to get drunk. A Ladbroke Grove resident
De Gazon said this was simply impossible and completely unnecessary.
She said: “There’s no need for that sort of drastic step to be taken. It’s not as simple as that. It’s like trying to move a glacier from the North Pole down to the South Pole. It’s not that simple, there’s a lot of logistics that go into the this and as you can see, it has grown, so you can’t just move it to a park. It’s impossible to move it to a park.”
For Mcleod, moving the event would be as good as cancelling the carnival all together.
He said: “It’s nonsense, it’s the same as saying ‘kill it’ to be honest. Carnival really is about the walking down the middle of the street, the spontaneity, the organic nature that it’s grown. To stick it in a park or make it some ticketed affairs just turns it into another Caribbean festival or something. It’s not the same thing at all. It’s not even near the same thing.
“People that suggest that aren’t understanding what carnival is. It’s not just a place to go and listen to music and eat some jerk chicken and dance with a police officer, it’s a cultural expression.
“It’s an expression of freedom and it’s supposed to be down the streets. If you go to any of the Caribbean islands and look at the carnivals, that’s what it’s supposed to be, it’s not supposed to be in a paid-for park. That’s wonderful but that’s a different type of event.”
Some have also suggested the carnival should move given the tragedy which struck at the heart of the west London community in June, when at least 80 people died in a fire at Grenfell Tower.
The carnival parade itself will take place under the shadow of the scorched shell of the high rise block but Mcleod said locals don’t think this is an excuse to move it.
He said: “Ask the communities there, ask the Grenfell community and Ladbroke Grove community. They absolutely want carnival to be there this year. They know how the rest of the community feels about them and how we see this as an opportunity to come and express our feelings about what happened. To move it from there would be terrible, it absolutely has to march past that building.”
Concerns have also been raised that the weekend could prove something of a flashpoint, as tensions which have been building over the weeks since the fire could boil over.
Speaking at a meeting of the Grenfell response team earlier this month, Clarrie Mendy, who lost two relatives in the fire, said the “whole world” will be watching the carnival and that it was important to “commemorate our people”.
She said: “I can see that if we’re not careful and strategically plan, there are going to be problems.”
Comparing the sight of the tower to something you might see in war-stricken Syria, Mendy said: “What is going to be unleashed when people see the tower?”
But organisers are convinced that instead of a flashpoint, Carnival will prove to be a chance for the community to unite.
It brings joy, it brings different cultures together and it’s going to do the same. It’s going to be a soothing moment. Debora Alleyne De Gazon
De Gazon said: “I think the power of the arts is what’s working here and carnival has always been - despite what’s in the press - a virtual space of peace, unity, togetherness, community cohesion. It brings joy, it brings different cultures together and it’s going to do the same. It’s going to be a soothing moment. So yes, there’s love of music and so on but it’s something different which helps to ease the pain because carnival has a therapeutic side if you really want to tap into it.
“We feel hurt just like everybody else because this was a catastrophic situation that took lives. A lot of families are grieving. We respect the victims of this event and we do not intend at any point in time to use them or increase the hurt and pain that they feel.
“Grenfell is on the outskirts of the carnival route and what we will do to show our respects is by in everything we do on those two and three days of carnival, we will remember them.
“For example we have the minute’s silence at 3pm on Monday afternoon that is meant to be coordinated for the entire carnival route to shut down. On the Sunday morning we have the opening ceremony of the parade where we will once again do something symbolic to show that respect again, so hopefully we will have a presentation, a tribute to them in song, along with a symbolic gesture.”
Mcleod said he understood the anger but remained convinced that carnival would actually be a “homage to Grenfell”.
He said: “Tensions will be high, I can’t deny that. As I walk past Grenfell, my tensions and emotions will be high. Emotions will be very high at carnival. This carnival will be a homage to Grenfell and those people.
“But I hope and I actually trust that the wise heads in the community and among the revellers will keep a lid on things. We need to keep the anger but we need to direct it in the right direction, in ways that actually effect change and demand a voice for those people who have been voiceless.
“As much as I’m sure there is a visceral enjoyment even in getting one over on the police, smashing something, I understand where that comes from, I’ve been young, I know what that feels like. But it’s destructive and in the end the people that suffer are the people thrown who get arrested and whose lives are further blighted, it’s just not the way to go.
“The authorities need to be aware that they can’t just keep ignoring these people, so the fact that there’s concern, well yeah there should be some concern because people are angry. But I really hope there isn’t any unrest. I really don’t think there will be, I think it will be an emotional and passionate carnival but it will be a peaceful carnival.”