Notting Hill Carnival: How Celebration Turns Into Stigmatisation

With its usual mixture of vibrant costumes and clanging calypso drums, Notting Hill Carnival took to the streets of London this Bank Holiday weekend. It went off largely without a hitch: nearly a million revellers enjoyed the Afro-Caribbean food and music, and there were touching tributes to those killed at Grenfell Tower.

Leading up to the event, though, the emphasis across much of the news and social media was not on community cohesion nor the planned commemorations, but crime. The Met Police announced that they were “disrupting gang crime, drug supply [and] knife crime”, while former Kensington MP Victoria Borick urged carnival-goers “don’t bring your knives, don’t bring your guns”.

Ultimately there were 313 arrests – 58 for weapons possession, and 112 for drug offences – but this was down from 454 last year. If this is a sign that increased police efforts prior to the event were successful in deterring those who’d planned to attend for the wrong reasons, perhaps the police should be applauded. Given that a report in January claimed the carnival could pose a “real risk to public safety”, a level of vigilance is both understandable and necessary.

However, it’s hard not to notice that this heavy focus on crime is directed at a traditionally black event. There may have been 313 arrests, but that’s less than half the number of arrests made at Glastonbury last year. Were police tweeting about knives in the run-up to that festival? Were politicians urging folks in Sussex to leave their guns at home?

Most notably, the Met Police tweeted about seizing a kilo of heroin in Catford in the run-up to the carnival, without stating whether the two events in two different boroughs were actually related. This underlined just how excessively the carnival is linked with crime. It crowds out the hundreds of thousands who go to have fun and celebrate diversity by instead focusing on stereotypical narratives of gangs and drugs.

Policing is still plagued by accusations of institutional racism

Clearly, these stereotypes are still embedded in public consciousness. Of course crime happens at Notting Hill, just as it happens whenever large groups of people get together. There’ll be drugs and thugs whether it’s a million people at a carnival, or a few hundred people in your average town centre on a Saturday night. Yet lingering bias paints crime at Notting Hill Carnival as somehow more threatening – black youths there are seen as gun-toting gang thugs, while white middle class teens snorting MDMA at Glastonbury retain their sheen of respectability.

This double standard has ramifications beyond the streets of Notting Hill. Policing is still plagued by accusations of institutional racism, with black people far more likely to be stopped and searched.

When we look to the US, we see even more potently how myths of black criminality destroy lives. In her Oscar-nominated documentary 13th, Ava DuVernay traces the justice system’s long history of disproportionately targeting black people, painting mass incarceration  as a modern continuation of slavery and Jim Crow laws.  

There’s also the countless black citizens killed by police, sometimes after being stopped for things as trivial as running a red light or selling CDs on the street. Numerous officers then defend themselves by saying they felt threatened. Even if you’re unarmed and compliant, simply being black can be enough to make you a threat in the eyes of the law.

Given this wider context, it’s sad to see an event as fun and joyous as Notting Hill Carnival receiving such a skewed portrayal. Over 50 years since its inception, it is still being forced to counter tired stereotypes, leaving Afro-Caribbean communities to fight stigmatisation at an event that is supposed to celebrate them. 

More about the author

About the author

Harry Mason likes to call himself a freelance writer, even if his tax forms say he's technically a waiter. He graduated last year from the University of East Anglia, and writes predominantly about social politics and film. He looks forward to the day when he's able to grow a beard; until then, you'll just have to blame his so-called 'bleeding heart lefty views' on youthful naivety.

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