the importance of notting hill carnival after the windrush scandal
All roads lead to carnival. All roads lead to Theresa May.
Photography Henry Gorse
Despite the rain, this year’s Notting Hill carnival attracted crowds of over a million people across its two days. People not only from the Caribbean community, but from across London, from around the UK and every corner the world. As August rolls around, it begins to feel like all roads inevitably lead to Notting Hill carnival.
As a mixed race, British-born woman of English and French-Guianese heritage, carnival in all honesty didn’t hold much familial significance for me. I was 14 when I went for the first time and I always saw it as an excuse to ‘turn up’, link up with friends, get some overpriced jerk chicken -- for the culture obviously -- and whine up my waist to soca music. But for some, the road to carnival is a lot more complicated and a lot more significant.
As a youth worker, I spend time with and mentor young people from many different backgrounds, engaging them in conversations and debates surrounding life here in London and what’s happening in their world. One of those conversations, with a young man named Vidal Holness, started with: “Who's ready to catch a consensual whine at carnival?” But it ended up becoming an exploration of his Jamaican heritage, what it’s been like growing up in a family that came to the UK as part of the Windrush generation and the juxtaposition of celebrating carnival and Caribbean culture in a country that only months ago had been unlawfully deporting people from the Caribbean Commonwealth. 22-year-old Vidal was born and raised in Edmonton, north London and is of Jamaican descent -- his grandparents were part of the Windrush generation. And so for him, there’s a deep poignancy to carnival this year.
"We are shown time and time again they don’t care about our people unless we are tap dancing for them, or making jerk sauce, or singing a catchy song. The moment we do something for ourselves, the moment we are no longer working service jobs, they have a problem."
The Windrush generation refers to people from the 12 Caribbean nations who were invited to come to the UK between 1948 and 1971 because of the post-World War II labour shortage. They were promised that they would be given indefinite leave to stay in the UK once they arrived. But in early 2018 reports began to mount up of people from the Windrush generation being denied healthcare, losing their jobs and even being forcibly deported back to the Caribbean, despite the fact that these people had been paying UK taxes and insurance and contributing to the British society for over 50 years.
Vidal’s grandad came to the UK from St. Elizabeth in Jamaica in the 60s and settled in Edmonton, north London. He worked as an engineer and saved up enough money to send for his wife, Vidal’s grandma. “My grandad worked as an engineer his whole life,” Vidal explains. “He literally never took a day off. My nan was the same way, she worked in the NHS.” Both Vidal’s grandparents passed away in the early 00s but he speaks emphatically of the Jamaican pride they both instilled in him from a very young age. “They never let me forget that while I was born in Britain, I am and always will be a Jamaican man. You can’t take that away from me. I know my roots.”
He wasn’t surprised by Theresa May and the UK government’s treatment of the Windrush generation. “From the Broadwater Farm riots of the 80s, which were ignited by the death of Cynthia Jarrett during a search at her home in Tottenham by police, to the riots in 2011, which also took place in Tottenham, following the death of Mark Duggan, also at the hands of the police. We are shown time and time again they don’t care about our people unless we are tap dancing for them, or making jerk sauce, or singing a catchy song. The moment we do something for ourselves, the moment we are no longer working service jobs, they have a problem.
“Truth is I don’t know how my grandparents would have reacted if they were still alive now, they were so calm and easygoing. By the time I was born they were already retired. I can’t even begin to imagine how they would’ve felt being uprooted from Edmonton and sent back to Jamaica, a place where they hadn’t lived for over 50 years. It’s scary to think how many families have been torn apart by the deportations and mistreatment by our government. I’m glad my grandparents didn’t have to go through that.”
In the words of Diane Abbott, “When it comes to the Windrush scandal, all roads lead to Theresa May”. Vidal was quick to express his anger at a tweet from Theresa May’s account in support of Jamaican independence, speaking of how grateful she was for the Jamaicans in the UK. “How can you tweet about how grateful you are for the contribution of Jamaicans in the UK when you’ve been deporting, discriminating and dehumanising the Windrush generation and my community?”
As a teen, Vidal didn’t actually go to carnival, not because it wasn’t an important part of his family’s tradition or culture, but because as a young black man in London, the reality is that carnival is often a ‘slip’. For many young men, carnival can be unsafe as they inevitably bump into 'mandem' from other areas who would see them as a threat, or a threat by affiliation. Equally the police hired to ‘protect’ them make them feel even more insecure.
13,000 officers were sent to Notting Hill this year from across the UK to police carnival. Section 60 was enforced, which allows the police force to stop and search without suspicion. While we cannot ignore knife crime in London, we also cannot ignore the fact that the force is institutionally racist, and therefore inevitably means that racial profiling of young black people is a reality.
Videos of officers dancing with carnival goers are, in this context, particularly offensive. “I don’t understand why police come to carnival to party with us like they care about us,” Vidal says. “They don’t. They need to just focus on keeping us safe and leave us alone. It’s not about them. They don’t care about carnival. They have to be there, and they want to make sure that they look good. They want to be seen dancing with us, partying with us, smiling with us, but only when the cameras are turned on. They want to go viral to make it seem like bad relations between the police and the black community are a thing of the past. But they’re not. Once the cameras are turned off, they’ll go back to profiling us, discriminating against us and targeting us because of where we come from and what we look like.”
The media are just as committed to creating a false narrative around carnival. It’s no surprise that every year just a few hours after carnival is over, news outlets start running stories about the amount of arrests made. You don’t see those articles about Glastonbury, about Reading. It’s difficult to believe it’s not linked to the demographics of those who attend. “It’s fear mongering,” Vidal says. “They have an agenda, they want to end carnival, or privatise and ticket it and price out the very community who started it and who it was created for.”
“I’m grateful for carnival,” Vidal said, after this year’s event. “It’s like we -- those from the Caribbean diaspora in the UK -- have a space where we can link up, we can vibe, we can eat our food, we can dress however we want, we can talk however we wanna talk. For a moment it feels like ‘home’ again. There is no denying that Caribbean culture has had a huge influence on British culture, from identity to fashion to music. In the future, whenever I have kids, I’ll definitely bring them to carnival, I want them to have a strong sense of self; I want them to know just how much of an integral part of our culture and history Notting Hill carnival is.”
“So many of our community have been forced and bullied into assimilating into British culture to fit in, but carnival is one of the few places that we can celebrate ourselves and our community without fear of judgement. For us, as the children and grandchildren of the Windrush generation, carnival acts as a reminder of who we are and where we come from. Our ancestors fought for us to be here and I’ll continue to speak up to ensure that our presence, history and culture doesn’t get erased. It is evident that they love Caribbean culture, they love Caribbean music, they love Caribbean food, but they -- Theresa May, the police force, the media -- don’t love us”.