The countdown to Notting Hill Carnival, for those who live and breathe the culture that shapes it, begins the moment the summer sun sets up camp in our typically grey skies.
When the most conservative of drivers take to proudly blasting their favourite feelgood hits down the road, when the maxi dresses, loud prints and shirtless men come out, carnival – with its rich mix of soca, dancehall, dub and more – is sure to follow.
For the revellers, it’s a time of release; for the police, it seems to have morphed into an annual opportunity for arrests, harassment and presenting the case against the event happening at all.
This year, like most years before it, the police have announced plans to up their anti crime efforts at Notting Hill Carnival. Stop and search powers have been extended, reportedly in response to the spike in crime we’ve seen in recent months. And for the first time, knife detection arches have been installed at several entrances to the festivities, to “ensure [the carnival] is a safe environment where people can come to enjoy themselves”, according to the Metropolitan Police spokesperson for the event.
Like a testing site for Orwellian technology, the carnival has become home to intrusive policing measures like these over the years. Last year it was facial recognition – a system later proven to be not only inaccurate, but also discriminatory, given the tendency for the technology to misidentify black people, as well as ongoing tensions regarding police abuses of power.
When plans for that technology were announced, they were also presented as a simple means of making sure the carnival was “a safe and enjoyable weekend for everyone”. But for those who have to reckon with such “safety measures”, that’s often not the case.
Crowd control is often inexplicably poor – last year, on the children’s day parade, I witnessed multiple examples of police so consumed with identifying criminals on their watchlists, they refused to open barriers to empty – and in previous years open – streets while children, with less and less space by the second, were squashed in front of them. I have also seen, year after year, what these measures mean for people like me, namely black men, who also want to “enjoy themselves”.
As is widely observed, in a bid to protect the abstract majority the police deem worthy of having a nice carnival time, officers often – as they have promised to do again this year – subject hordes of black men to rigorous searches the very minute they enter the street festival.
If freely basking in cultural festivities – the entire point of the carnival – is threatened by profiling, people know attempting to find comfort in the knowledge police are supposedly on their side, is extremely difficult.
Where are the reassurances for people like us? The ones burdened with keeping the spirit of carnival alive while being targeted? The ones whose relatives before them brought the spirit of the Caribbean to the streets of London in the first place? How do we simply get on with things while, year after year, numerous authorities refuse to let go of the idea large, predominantly black gatherings are inherently dangerous and unworthy of preservation?
We’re still knee-deep in the Windrush scandal, as well as several others, thanks to the Home Office. Instead of working to keep alive one of the few remaining homages to that generation of Caribbeans who toiled and resisted deeply entrenched hostility at every turn – and who, decades later, are still facing the same malice – the police, local authorities and residents who consider their distaste for the event a big enough cause for its closure, have opted again and again to listen only to themselves.
Is there potential for crime and violence at the carnival? Of course. But there’s a threat of trouble at any large public gathering. A great number of which, when they aren’t explicitly tied to black culture, have far more lax security.
I’m just about old enough to remember the last remaining years of freer, longer lasting and less heavily policed carnivals, and I long for those days to return. And they can, if the powers that be allow it.
There’s also more commercial interest in the carnival now than ever, although whether or not that’s a good thing is up for debate. From large, celebrity fronted commercial stages like Casa Bacardi at Powis Square, to older sound systems like Channel One, it’s clear people’s appetite for a good time, through dance, music and drink, has not waned. The sooner the police embrace that, and us as the communities of colour who make it happen, the better for everybody.
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