30 August 2023

Notting Hill Carnival is a wicked problem for public order


Some qualified good news for residents of London’s W10 and 11 returning to their homes after this year’s Notting Hill Carnival. Westminster council have generously offered to clear their gardens of festival clutter for free! Unfortunately, those returning to an outdoor latrine where their garden flat was are excluded. If that’s your lot, get on the Marigolds. Shit happens.

That sentiment, expressed in various degrees of sophistry, seems to be the default response to anyone who questions the sacred right of the Carnival to take place, whatever the toll in human waste, garbage, incivility or violence. On social media, the reactions to 275 arrests and 75 assaults on police over West London’s three days of bacchanalian excess divide along familiar lines. Supporters of the event point out that this is one of Europe’s largest street festivals with an estimated 2m people attending. Armchair statisticians speak of an acceptable level of risk when compared with other events like Leeds or Reading festivals with higher violence rates per capita. Why, they wonder, is this Afro-Caribbean focused community street party, born out of solidarity against racism in the 60s, singled out for special attention? 

Claims of racist motivation are stoutly rejected by most detractors from this point of view. Carnival is unique in that it takes place on city streets, not through controlled perimeters. This means that imported trouble is almost inevitable, and we’ve all been shocked by the video imagery of a man rampaging through the streets armed with a zombie knife. There are other disquieting videos circulating that appear to show the meek, almost complicit, behaviour of Met police officers being squirted with unknown liquid, urinated on and, in one example, what looks like a sexual assault being committed against a male officer by a twerking reveller. 

As usual, officers on the ground at such huge and politically loaded events are in an impossible position. Despite a huge annual operation that consumes over £8m of the Met’s strained budget, they are completely outnumbered, so enforcement of the law must be pragmatic. But it is interesting that the Carnival’s Gold Commander said that, ‘Officers were asked to be vigilant and alert but to be approachable, respectful and sensitive at the same time’. That might be a good mission statement for a lifeguard at a wellness retreat – but is it up to the task of assertive policing in an environment where trouble is historically present? Does it go any way to explain the humiliation of police officers who looked powerless in the face of ridicule and even sexual assault? When the Met reported approvingly that Carnival’s ‘children’s day’, the parade of youngsters that launches the festival passed off with ‘no major incidents’ except 85 arrests, we have gone beyond parody. 

This is the real takeaway for me. I’m instinctively against bans and I dislike the way that a small but serious outbreak of violence has been appropriated by the far right to advance racist views. The fact they have room to manoeuvre here depends on the immediacy of the social media age and, let’s be very clear, an environment where anyone who contradicts the narrative of cultural enrichment is lumped in with Britain First. Notting Hill Carnival is a wicked problem for public order. It is also the culmination of an extraordinary labour of love by thousands of people who spend months creating costumes, floats and dance routines that dazzle and give joy to the huge crowds drawn not by the prospect of violence, but a great day out. 

But how could this event be policed better? An uncontrolled crowd in densely packed, narrow streets at a free festival over a bank holiday weekend is a recipe for trouble. You can’t shoehorn 2m people into a park and make them pay for the privilege without destroying Carnival’s iconic cultural roots. You can’t hold organisers to account for trouble when they can’t realistically control who goes there. You can’t tell residents who have to board up their homes and often leave for the duration that it’s priced into their choice of locality. You can’t expect a Mayor who obsesses over identity politics and anti-car policies to have the headspace or will to confront the violent impunity that is endemic here. This is not simple. 

But I think there must be a price to be paid for insisting that Carnival stays where it is. That requires a change in approach by organisers and police. Firstly, there’s no precedent for such a vast event in the public realm being organised by a charity of enthusiastic amateurs backed up by too few police officers with such potentially catastrophic risk at play. The professionalisation of the event management was called for years ago. This must be fully realised, with the Mayor’s Office becoming directly accountable for performance as well as funding, perhaps some kind of voluntary public levy.

Secondly, Commissioner Rowley needs to be given the resources and, just as importantly, the political cover to remove those intent on causing harm from the picture altogether. At the moment, disorder, antisocial behaviour, drug dealing and knife violence are woven into the cultural fabric of the experience. This is vividly illustrated by the indifference of the crowd to overtly sexualised behaviour and the casual violence of men equipped with fearsome machetes. The unacceptable has become normalised.

There may well be bigger social dynamics at play here but asking the police merely to try to contain the worst behaviour (and turn a blind eye to much else) creates a zone of impunity which will expand until it meets decisive resistance. But as ever, taking back lost ground to restore the reputation of this iconic pageant as a safe place to visit for all will meet resistance from those who profit from the chaos. 

The glorious show must go on – but it’s time to close the curtains on criminals who exploit it. 

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Professor Ian Acheson is Senior Advisor to the Counter Extremism Project.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.