Historians' Watch

Police, Press & Race in the Notting Hill Carnival ‘Disturbances’

On the 7th May 2020, at the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK, news broke that this year’s Notting Hill Carnival would be cancelled. Set to take place this August Bank Holiday weekend, the cancellation was a first in the Carnival’s more than fifty-year history. A few weeks after this announcement, the Black Lives Matter movement experienced a resurgence in support and publicity in the UK following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Many in Britain began to reflect critically on the UK’s own history of race and racism. In some parts of the country, statues and memorials that paid homage to Britain’s colonial past were torn down by activists, and BLM protestors drew attention to Britain’s own history of police brutality, including the assaults on and deaths of Cynthia Jarrett (1985), Cherry Groce (1985), Joy Gardner (1993), and Sheku Bayoh (2015). But amidst this renewed discourse on Britain’s history of race relations, Notting Hill Carnival and the Carnival ‘Disturbances’ of 1976 have received little attention.

Claudia Jones’ programme for Carnival 1960. The British Library.

The first Notting Hill Carnival took place in St Pancras Town Hall in 1959 as a response to the 1958 Race Riots in Notting Hill and to help mediate the grief of the black community following the racist murder of Kelso Cochrane in 1959. In 1966, it took the shape it still has today: a procession modelled on the Trinidadian carnival, made up of masquerade dancers, floats, music and street food. And yet despite these roots in community building, the 1976 disturbances not only brought to a head the underlying disillusionment of young Black men in 1970s Britain, but also set in place the toxic racialised stereotype of the ‘Black male youth’ that still persists in British media and society today.

The Disturbances took place in the afternoon of the Bank Holiday Monday that concluded the 1976 Carnival, after police confronted a small group of alleged pickpockets and some onlookers came to their defence. More police officers arrived with truncheons, and violence soon broke out. Figures vary, but around 250 people, including around 120 police officers, were hospitalised and 60 arrests were made. Similar disturbances broke out a year later at the 1977 Carnival. Since then, more notable and fatal incidences of inner-city disturbances in 1981, 1985 and 2011 in cities such as London, Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester have garnered public attention, but it is still those of 1976 that loom largest in the memory and history of the Carnival. What was so special about that year?

While the 1976 unrest caused relatively little damage, the incident was a watershed moment in the development of the visual and ideological construction of a criminal ‘Black male youth’ in Britain, the source of racialised moral panic and anxiety in the 1970s and 1980s. During this period, a generation of Black Britons, burdened by unemployment and discontent, came to maturity. Many were searching for a sense of identity, adrift from the Caribbean heritage of their parents whilst also feeling distinctly unwelcome in a hostile Britain. Zadie Smith gave shape to this identity clash in her novel White Teeth (2000), whose young protagonists are at cultural loggerheads with their tradition-focused, migrant parents. Historians such as Simon Peplow and Sebastian Klöß have since confirmed the notion that young Black Britons in the 1970s and 1980s were let down by the state’s failings and unable to participate fully in a society still marked by colonial racism.

This reality of unemployment, racism and unbelonging for young Black Britons had created a climate of unease simmering below the surface by 1976. The year saw the release of Horace Ové’s film Pressure, which showed the alienation of young Black men (along with controversial scenes of police brutality), and the reggae hit ‘Police and Thieves’ written by Junior Murvin and Lee ‘Scratch Perry’, which would become an anthem at August’s Carnival. In the weeks leading up to the event, Black community leaders had warned the police of potential unrest, and the police had responded with an eight-fold increase in the daily number of officers at the event, from 200 in 1975 to around 1600 in 1976. Some residents and community leaders believed that it was this excessive use of police force that antagonised local young men, who were increasingly disenchanted with the police, while the press tended to side with ‘heroic Bobbies’ who were ‘just doing their job’.

Following Monday’s Disturbances, the Daily Mirror printed photographs of officers nursing their injuries or helping carnival-goers. The Daily Mail also focused on presenting the police officers in a sympathetic light: ‘SWEAT pouring down his face, his tie almost ripped off, a young policeman emerged from the Battle of Notting Hill tears of anger in his eyes’. The Mail laid the blame at the door of young Black men, reporting on their front page that ‘hundreds of Black youths fought a series of running battles with police’. It was only on a later page that they commented that, in fact, ‘some white youths’ had also taken part in the violence, somewhat mirroring the violence that the white ‘Teddy Boys’ inflicted on Black homes in the Notting Hill Riots of 1958, connections the press had not picked up on.

These descriptions were coupled with paradoxical photographs of Black men being arrested or scuffling with the police, and white men being carried to aid. The broadsheets were also culpable of racializing the event. In its coverage, The Times made sure to mention that the initial alleged pickpockets who sparked the unrest ‘were said to be black’ and that, during the attacks, the ‘streets were filled with running figures, most of them Black teenagers’. Some television footage was filmed from the perspective of the police, following them as they took cover or chased after Black teenagers, who threw glass bottles and stones at them. This editorial line across the national media fed into the cultural construction of the now familiar discourse

Following disturbances at the 1977 Carnival a year later, which saw a similar spate of unrest and fighting, the image presented by the press of Black ‘deviance’ took a more concrete shape, with newspapers explicitly blaming ‘black youngsters’ for muggings. Race and restlessness became intertwined, with photographs used to bolster this connection. The Kensington Post published an image of two police officers backed up against a wall as the half-hidden body of a Black man sprints away from the scene with the caption ‘Here comes trouble’, while The Economist printed a photograph of a crowd of young Black men fighting each other, masking any hand the police played in the violence and promoting a narrative of ‘Black-on-Black crime’. Year after year, these images grew in salience and came to represent Britain’s growing anxiety about a new, ‘lost’ generation of young Black men who were often portrayed to have little association with the Britain that was their home.

From 1977 organisers and police alike made greater attempts to prevent unrest in advance and the number of police officers was pared back. Since then, despite some isolated incidents of violence, Carnival has remained a generally peaceful affair, but 1976 played a key role in the construction of the ‘Black male youth’ stereotype in Britain. From the late 1970s, young Black men became the prime targets of the police’s stop and search ‘SUS’ laws, and the resulting frustration on behalf of the Black community contributed to the wave of disturbances that spread around Britain in 1981 in Brixton, St. Pauls’, Toxteth and Moss Side. The relationship between the Black community and the police worsened through the 1980s, and reached a critical breaking point following the police’s mishandling of the Stephen Lawrence murder in 1993, the report into which led to the identification of institutional racism within the police force.

‘Happy Fed’ at Notting Hill Carnival, by tmadcock on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

The 1976 Disturbances set in motion the creation of a new canon of racialised stereotypes about young Black men in the eyes of the police, media, and wider society, whose damaging effects Black Britons are still feeling today. A report from 2018 revealed that 43% of people stopped and searched by police in London were Black (despite only 15.6% of London’s population identifying as Black). During the Coronavirus lockdown, the Metropolitan Police stopped and searched young Black men more than 20,000 times in London – a figure equating to 30% of all young Black males in the capital – even though most people were spending their time at home and the vast majority of searches resulted in no further action.

Notting Hill Carnival has a fond place in the hearts of Londoners, and today millions of people will be missing this annual weekend of celebration for London’s Black community. But viewing the event historically also reveals its significance in the development of racism in Britain. As the BLM resurgence has encouraged individuals to unlearn their projected stereotypes to pursue racial justice, white Britons must look to their own past in order to understand where persistent prejudices and inequalities have come from. The press and the police continue to hold significant power in the framing of racial discourse (as The Times recent coverage of the Kenosha killings has demonstrated), and in the rediscovery of Britain’s tense and uncomfortable history of race relations, the Notting Hill Carnival must be included in the process of critical reflection.


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *