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A history of The Met Police’s hatred of Carnival

Locking up hundreds who may not have even attended Notting Hill Carnival only proves that there’s always been bad blood between the event and the state

Since August 11, the Met Police have made more than 300 arrests in what has been dubbed a “pre-Notting Hill Carnival crackdown” where over 190 knives and 18 firearms have been recovered. This arresting spree culminated in the force proudly tweeting that “in the run up to #NottingHillCarnival they had seized a kilo of uncut heroin in Catford”. Social media users were quick to ridicule the police for being out of touch in what looks like another example of the state’s attempt to demonise the event.

This public display of force is a clear farce: heroin isn’t exactly a party drug, Notting Hill is over an hour away from Catford and the journey would be near impossible if you were off your tits on heroin, and a Met police spokeswoman has since admitted that they “don’t know that these people (316 to be exact) were going to turn up at carnival” in the first place. When Stormzy asked “How many drugs did you lot seize in the run up to Glastonbury or we only doing tweets like this for black events?” he touched a nerve. The police have done this every year.

“If Carnival is seen as inherently violent, this might lead to greater controls being imposed upon it, and these controls might cause the violence they’re supposed to avoid. If Carnival is seen as inherently harmonious this might lead to complacency,” says the narrator of a recently resurfaced Open University documentary from 1994. The video has been retweeted thousands of times to support Stormzy’s tweet, and while the hairstyles and fashions of the crowd may look dated the sentiment is as relevant as ever.

For Carnival, approximately 2 million people descend on the neighbourhood along with 9000 police officers. The Met Police have always stood in opposition to the event. The early years of Carnival had their roots in celebrating Caribbean culture after a string of race-related attacks on Notting Hill’s West Indian community and continued to grow in popularity as attendees saw it as an opportunity to display cultural unity. But as the event did not have any local authority involvement in the 70s, police crackdowns focussed on stopping it from taking place altogether rather than maintaining public order which lead to clashes. Riots and stabbings that happened in the 80s and 90s mean the reputation has never fully recovered.

The Open University documentary includes an impassioned statement from a 15-year-old named Natalie Stewart aka Floacist, whose words echo the Twitter backlash against the police. “They’re watching you as if to say you’re here to do badness and all that. We’re not here to do badness, we’re here to enjoy ourselves and that’s how it's gonna go and the only way we can feel free is if the police calm down and enjoy themselves as well,” she says in the footage. “I’m sure we can get them a techno float or bring Take That here or something”.

The viral clip shows how police have always been hostile towards Carnival’s visible blackness and police the event under the misapprehension that people are there to start trouble. The police and press remain strangely incapable of contextualising the crime rate of Notting Hill. Coverage of Glastonbury often focuses on the lineup, the weather or outfits whereas the press shows an insatiable hunger for Notting Hill crime stories. This year the festival had 71 arrests and this was considered low according to local news reports despite an apparent rise from previous years. Since there are 135,000 attendees that figure represents only 0.05 per cent of festival goers.

But last year Police officers called for a review of Notting Hill policing after “record arrests”. The Guardian reported that officers “dread” the event where they made 454 arrests in 2016 despite this being a measly 0.02 per cent of the overall crowd. Dave Musker, the commander in charge of policing carnival, also noted that the number of arrests had been inflated by the new Psychoactive Substances Act meaning some of these arrests were probably over people using or selling laughing gas that was legal just a few months prior. 

“They have wanted to remove or cancel Notting Hill Carnival for many years. We can't play into the hands of fear” – Sandy Primrose

It is fair to say that tensions may be running slightly higher this year with the charred remains of Grenfell Tower still visible, the police killing of Rashan Charles, London’s recent terror attacks and the troubling spike in acid attacks in the city. Since Ex-Kensington MP Victoria Borwick went on LBC to tell Carnival goers not to “bring their acid”, rumours have circulated online that boys are taking acid with them to spray on girls who reject their advances. This has lead to people using Twitter and Facebook to warn women against going. Many have said the risk has completely put them off going, with one tweeter warning: “Ladies pls whine your waist in your living room this year. Carnival is not worth it.”

But how factual is this acid threat is and why there is a heightened sense of fear around acid attacks as they aren’t exclusive to Carnival?  They could, unfortunately, happen anywhere. Young Londoner, Zeus Diamond, says he grew concerned when he overheard young people in his area talking about acid. "They told me that there's going to be a lot of opposing gangs that go to carnival in the hopes to catch each other, and they won't be bringing guns or knives ,instead they will bring drink bottles filled with acid, I haven't gone to the police personally, as the youths that told me are not involved in that activity, but I know a few people that have called it into the police and warned them after reading my Facebook status," he explained. "I definitely won't be attending, I haven't done for over 8 years. These youths have ruined it for everybody."

Yet beauty vlogger Sandy Primrose remains defiant. Her sister has decided against going but she believes that this only supports the distorted mindset of the police and council. “They have wanted to remove or cancel Notting Hill Carnival for many years so this plays into their hands. Carnival is more than just a big crowd of people, it's celebrating culture and is a big deal for black British people,” she explains. “We can't play into the hands of fear, I'm there to laugh and enjoy with friends and family.”

It is important we don’t fall into the trap that has already been set out for decades. Just as Greg Hands used Grenfell as an opportunity to call for Carnival to be canceled out of respect (and probably fear), the same happened after the 2011 riots and last year amid fears a Black Lives Matter disruption was planned, yet these were largely peaceful years. These debates always rears its ugly head in the run up to Notting Hill Carnival. And despite the annual pictures and videos of twerking policeman, the reportage of arresting figures connected to the event show the attitude towards Carnival as a crime-ridden event still remain. The rivalry between the police and Carnival hasn’t stopped it before, we mustn’t let it stop it now.