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Thursday, August 13, 2020

‘Time for action!’ – carnivalists demand change at Notting Hill


It is time to reclaim our carnival” was the strident demand on the pre-event flyers. For many of those gathered at the Tabernacle on Monday evening that means wresting control of Notting Hill Carnival from police, councils and an unrepresentative and ineffective organising body. There was fierce and sustained criticism of the Metropolitan Police, the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea (RBKC), organiser London Notting Hill Carnival Enterprises Trust (LNHCET) and its event manager, London Street Events/Street Event Co (SEC).

Despite real anger at the way the Carnival is being controlled, the meeting was orderly and restrained. It started after a minute’s silence in memory of the late Gloria Cummins, leader of Flamboyan Mas Band, and of the dead and distressed of the hurricane-ravaged islands of the Caribbean.

Professor Gus John, chair of the “ad hoc committee” that called the meeting, was flanked by Cecil Gutzmore, Clive ‘Mashup’ Phillip, Giselle Carter (who arrived too late to speak) and Michael La Rose. Many of the elders of Carnival were present among the 150 people in the hall.

Representing RBKC were Sue Harris, executive director of environment, leisure and residents’ services, and James Fitzgerald, interim head of culture. There was some surprise when LNHCET chair Pepe Francis walked in. He did not speak and left before the meeting ended at 9.30pm, thereby missing the chance to respond directly to a serious allegation of financial misappropriation.

Gus John began by stressing “We have no agenda; we are not on a mission to displace any organisation or set up ourselves as an organisation.” Nevertheless, given the level of anxiety about the direction Notting Hill is taking, “it is time for a grown-up conversation” about its future, he said.

Refuting the view that “Carnival is nothing more than a hotbed of crime”, Cecil Gutzmore maintained that the aim of the police is control. The Met’s approach veered from toleration in the early years to trying to police it into submission by flooding the streets with officers in the mid-70s. The result was that in 1976 the police got, in the words of the late Bernie Grant MP, “a bloody good hiding”.

Clive Phillip lamented Carnival’s decline from a mas-man’s point of view. “Police took control of the route, started blocking the route. We stood up for four hours – the beauty of the band gone. Some of the stewards didn’t speak English. At 6pm they started pushing people off the route.” Expressing a widely held frustration with LNHCET’s apparent inability to defend the interests of Carnival, ‘Mashup’ continued: “We have to claim back control of this thing… We have a committee there that does nothing.”

The dreadful delays suffered by many bands on the route this year roused Gus John’s indignation too. “It is oppressive; it is disgusting; it is fundamentally racist. I know of no other cultural event that is policed in such a vicious manner. You can’t pee when you want; the police determine when you leave.”

The media also caught some heavy flak: “The media has to stop supporting the police,” said Gutzmore; “The historical importance of Carnival as a people’s art never gets talked about in the media,” said Prof John.

Highlighting previous grassroots campaigns such as the Association for a People’s Carnival, Michael La Rose observed: “We have always struggled for Notting Hill Carnival.” Depressingly, “the Carnival bands then [in 1989] were talking about the same problems we had in 2017”. The community needs to show unity if it is to achieve anything: “If you don’t organise, mobilise, nothing will change,” La Rose said.

After these eloquent presentations by the panellists, the audience had its say. Common themes soon emerged, though often seen from different perspectives – community activists, mas band leaders, pannists, musicians and sound system operators, from elders who were “walking libraries” of experience to younger heads. It made for a fascinating and stimulating debate, all the more so because most tried to obey the chair’s instruction to be both brief and respectful.

Suggestions for improvement included commissioning research into the specifics of Notting Hill Carnival so a strong, evidence-based case can be made to the authorities (the RBKC representatives agreed this would be helpful). Local politicians should be brought on side – where was Kensington MP Emma Dent Coad, someone asked. Use your vote in elections to support those who will respect our culture was another suggestion. As it happened, two people involved in the fight to reduce taxes on flights to the Caribbean were in the hall and had used this tactic with great success in the anti Air Passenger Duty (APD) campaign.

More openness was demanded: “Police, SEC and RBKC should be invited to explain themselves to us the people. Every year they have their secret meetings when we don’t know what happens.” The way the event manager had been appointed infuriated some: “I was incensed to hear that LNHCET gave contract to an old-school racist police officer called Dave Morgan. LNHCET has to account for the money they’ve spent. It cannot be acceptable.”

Audience in attendance

The lack of respect paid to mas was a sore point. Chris Boothman said: “Masqueraders are put at the bottom of the heap – they’re the ones who pay.”

Mahogany Mas Band’s leader, Clary Salandy, stressed the urgent need for action – and for certainty on Carnival day: “When I bring my 200 people I need to know where we’re coming in.” The hold-ups and confusion on the route are damaging participation, she said; “The new people we’re nurturing are so badly treated.” Peter Winchester of Dragons felt that more should be done for the children. The adults’ route should be enlarged and a smaller route created for the children (in the past, children’s bands did indeed take a shortcut down Golborne Road).

A big part of Carnival’s problems is ignorance, some maintained. “Carnival has lost its way,” said one. “How about we go into the schools and tell them about the history of Carnival, history of steelpan and African resistance,” proposed a former masquerader. Another supported getting steelpan back into schools. The point underscored the lack of young people in the hall – “Young people need to be engaged,” said one masquerader; “A young person isn’t heard because of their age,” fumed another.

Carnival has always been firmly rooted in the streets of North Kensington and Notting Hill, but has it lost that vital connection? Some thought so: “There’s nothing in Carnival for the local community,” said one, while another asked: “Is this festival relevant if it doesn’t benefit the community?”

And who exactly benefits from the estimated £100+ million a year Notting Hill Carnival generates for the UK economy? Not, it seems, the mas bands, nor the steelbands, nor the calypsonians, nor the residents, nor the stall-holders who have to pay RBKC £1,000 – £1,200 for a pitch.

Former Carnival Arts Committee chair Wilf Walker said: “We should talk to people seriously about revenue. All steelband musicians should be paid the Musicians Union rate. The money we generate every year could be used to support Black arts.”

When RBKC’s Sue Harris said carnivalists should do more research to support their case it brought an angry riposte from Gus John: “I’d like to think the borough has got some of this information; these records didn’t go up in the Grenfell fire. It’s incumbent on RBKC to do some research on what its role has been and to provide that information to the community. The borough needs to know what our aspirations and frustrations are. Do the work yourselves.” Michael La Rose added: “You can start on the stalls and have a strategy to return the money to the Carnival.”

A representative from Heritage Mas Band made the point: “Power answers to power. We are going to control our culture.” In his concluding address, Prof John asked: “How do we reclaim our power? The mas bands and steelbands, the musicians do the work but see nothing of that money. In a disciplined way we should raise some questions and register some demands.”

And if no one responds to those demands, what then? Prof John had a startling, if high-risk, message for RBKC, the Mayor and the police: “If we don’t hear from you there will be no Carnival next year. We give our power away. But the power rests with us. We can make this decision. You have to change your ways or there’ll be no Goddammed Carnival.”

As the meeting closed at 9.30pm, Michael La Rose had the last word: “This is time for action.” The battle lines seem to have been drawn. In the coming weeks, the campaigners will be sharpening their demands ready for a showdown at the Tabernacle at 7pm on Monday 30 October. LNHCET chair Pepe Francis and representatives of RBKC and the police will be present at a post-Notting Hill Carnival 2017 residents’ meeting – an event that one attendee told Soca News consists of Francis standing up and being yelled at by people who accuse Carnival of doing nothing for the community! This year, the meeting is certain to be packed, so anyone planning to attend should arrive in good time.

Soca News will bring you more details of the meeting and the campaign nearer the time.