Divide or unify? How Notting Hill Carnival and Black Lives Matter UK influence Britain’s race relations

Yesterday morning (6 September 2016) 9 people belonging to the Black Lives Matter UK (BLMUK) movement lay on the runway of London City Airport, disrupting dozens of flights and causing delays to people’s holidays, business trips, and journey’s home. As police attempted to remove them from the runway, reports of the groups reasons for the protest were shared; climate change and its effects on poorer, non-white communities, the refugee crisis, and the wealth of the people using City Airport.

This year alone, more than 3,120 known migrants have died trying to reach safety on European shores, fleeing conditions that they did not create. If they can’t fly, then the rich won’t either.”

Despite some initial confusion over the reason for the protest, the event drew coverage from numerous media outlets, and evoked mixed reactions from the public. Some reacted with humour to the protest; whilst others like MP Caroline Lucas, were not hesitant in showing their support for the movement.

Regardless of whichever side of the fence you are on, the protest shone a light on the status of race relations in Britain today, including elements that some feel should be considered when trying to positively influence discussions around it. This is especially poignant during a time when there is a feeling that the idea of unifying communities is no longer a priority amongst political leaders in Britain. Writer Chimene Suleyman for example, describes her experiences leading up to the EU Referendum vote that happened in June 2016:

Yesterday a man with deep lines across his forehead called me a “Paki” outside what was once my local pub in Finchley, the neighbourhood in which I grew up.”

For non-Brits living and working in the country, a post-Brexit world might feel like a grim one. There has been an increase in racially motivated attacks since the Brexit vote went through, which many have attributed to the anti-immigrant rhetoric being shared in the months before the vote. And looking back a little further in our history, from the rise of the British Empire until now, it is clear that racial tensions have always existed in British society; but we have always counteracted the trend with efforts to improve and elevate race relations. One of the arguably lesser known ways that race relations have been tackled, is via the Notting Hill Carnival, which celebrated 50 years this August Bank Holiday.

The Carnival is more than just a street party; it represents the socio-political environment of the present day, and has its roots in healing racial tensions within Britain. The first occurrence of the Notting Hill Carnival came after the 1958 race riots that lasted for several days and saw mobs of white Brits (particularly Teddy Boys) face off with black Caribbean’s; breaking into the homes of any West Indian they could find, with petrol bombs and glass bottles.

In 2002 police witness statements from the 1958 riots were released to the public for the first time, detailing the terror that was spread throughout those five nights:

PC Richard Bedford said he had seen a mob of 300 to 400 white people in Bramley Road shouting: “We will kill all black bastards. Why don’t you send them home?”

Tensions at the time were palpable, and in 1959, Claudia Jones, a Trinidadian political activist decided to put on an indoor carnival, “…to build unity among people by showcasing Caribbean arts and culture.” Just a few short months later, a 29 year old black man named Kelso Cochrane was murdered on his way home from hospital by three white men, which reignited racial tensions in London, and equally spurred on the need for an event which brought all communities together again.

However, it wasn’t until 1966 that the Notting Hill Carnival became what it is today – a technicoloured, multicultural, vibrant street party that is open to a myriad of cultures and ethnicities, looking for a shared space in the capital to celebrate their differences. Britain has come a long way since 1958, but this year’s Carnival was surrounded by reports of 454 people being arrested, 43 police officers being injured, and 5 people getting stabbed . In addition, arrests at the Carnival have almost doubled since 2014, but the Police Commander, Dave Musker, explained that the increase in arrests is due to “the recent change in legislation around Psychoactive Drugs,” which has “resulted in a high number of drug related arrests and high volume seizures, including Nitrous Oxide.”

This singles out Carnival-goers using Nitrous Oxide (commonly known as Laughing Gas), unaware that it was made illegal in May 2016. Nevertheless, the Carnival has continued to draw crowds of 2 million these past few years. And despite racial issues remaining in Britain, they still appear less pronounced in comparison to more prominent race issues in the US.

The Black Lives Matter movement has taken it upon themselves to tackle race relations head on in the US. They describe themselves as:

An ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.”

Due to their growing public platform and calls for social and political reform, some Brits have recognised similarities in their own social struggles, which spawned the UK chapter of the Black Lives Matter movement in August of 2016. It was the 5th August when the UK chapter staged their first nationwide #Shutdown protest, that saw disruptions to planes, trains and automobiles across the country. In echoing the racism experienced by their American counterparts, Natalie Jeffers, Co-founder of BLMUK explained their reasons for the protests in Britain:

We have dozens of British families left fighting for justice over their loved ones suffering state violence, so we know there’s a problem in the UK”

To hammer home the point, the protests were purposefully executed to mark the five-year anniversary of the death of Mark Duggan, the 29-year-old man who was shot and killed by police on 4th August 2011; an event which sparked the London riots over the next few days.

Yet things have changed in the last five years, but BLMUK activists may not agree that it is for the better. Their actions to some, are unifying, to others, divisive and disruptive; not unlike many people’s feelings about the Notting Hill Carnival. Following the events of this year in particular, there have been calls for the Carnival to move to a park area, out of the now affluent streets of West London.

No one can be sure of what the future will look like for events like the Notting Hill Carnival, or even activist movements like BLMUK. One could argue that they are both rooted in similar positions, whilst taking a different approach to dealing with race relations – the Carnival as a street party with an open door policy, and BLMUK activists trying to shut down every day systems in order to get people to stop and think. Either way, both unify and divide the public, and both have the ability to influence race relations in the UK, hopefully for the better.

Written for The Metropolist September 2016

Published by

Maame Blue

Writer| Poet| Blogger| Ghanaian by heart, Londoner by nature

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