As Notting Hill carnival approaches, it’s worth questioning the word ‘riot’
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Fears about the carnival are rooted in misunderstandings about black rebellion, as Vincent Brown reports in this article for London’s Guardian.
This weekend Britain will again celebrate its Caribbean heritage at the Notting Hill carnival. Over the years, Europe’s largest street festival has become a proud symbol of how well integrated the country has become – a multicultural nation at ease with itself.
But beneath the veneer lies an ongoing sense of apprehension. Will there be muggings? Stabbings? Riots? Only two years ago there were calls to cancel the carnival after mass disturbances had rocked the country weeks earlier. And this week there were reports that the Met will be sending out “super recognisers” to spot potential troublemakers in the crowds. We are primed, it seems for an outbreak of violence. Many of these anxieties, though, are based on widespread misunderstandings of black rebellion that date back to the era of slavery.
The Notting Hill carnival had its origins in trouble. The first Caribbean carnival was held in 1959 at St Pancras town hall in response to the Notting Hill race riots of the previous year, when roving gangs of white youths attacked West Indians during over two weeks of street battles. The success of the event addressed some of the alienation felt by the early Caribbean migrants, allowing them to recover festive traditions from their homelands and rebutting the racists’ claims that they did not and could not belong in the UK. Having fun became a political act. By 1966, the carnival had moved outdoors to “reclaim the streets”, but tense relations with law enforcement continued.
In 1976, black youngsters clashed with police who had attempted to arrest a suspected pickpocket. In the following decade, riots erupted in major cities across Britain, sparked by allegations of police harassment and brutality. All these outbreaks of unrest reflect the common difficulty of distinguishing crime from politics, and riots from a rebellion. Political aims, such as ending state persecution or mob intimidation, are often obscured when protest takes violent forms. While some understood the frustration behind the uprisings in Brixton and Toxteth in 1981, others were resentful, demanding police crackdowns and tough sentencing. The same incensed bewilderment marked similar disturbances in the US, such as those following the Rodney King verdict in 1992, or the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968.
Such sentiments reach even further back, into the 18th-century British empire. During slavery, uprisings often coincided with large gatherings like funerals or Christmas celebrations, during which the enslaved used the cover of the crowd to strike against their masters. These episodes too were commonly seen as “riots”. Yet contrary to popular belief, many black uprisings have resulted from careful strategy and tactics in response to genuine grievances.
In 1760 a major slave revolt in Jamaica attacked the heart of the British empire. More than 1,500 enslaved black men and women staged an uprising, which began on Easter Sunday and continued until October the following year. Over those 18 months, rebels destroyed vast amounts of property and 60 white people were killed. People at the time debated whether the rebellion was spontaneous or carefully planned. Historians still debate the question, their task made difficult by the lack of written records from the insurgents themselves.
Now, with the help of cartographers, historians can analyse this slave revolt by plotting its movements on thematic maps that reveal the rebels’ strategy and tactics. These show that the 1760-61 rebellion included at least three clear goals: the takeover of the island; the establishment of an enclave in the mountains; and the survival of small, dispersed bands of rebels. It appears that the insurrection was, in fact, a well-planned affair that posed a genuine strategic threat, halted ultimately by an effective counterinsurgency.
Using similar techniques, it should be much easier to understand more recent events. Tracing the movements of crowds in revolt we might discern spatial objectives that were not articulated in speech. How did “rioters” move in relation to police positions and establishment power bases? Where did they coalesce before being dispersed? Do their movements reveal their intentions? We may discover instances where no political intent can be identified, but we don’t know without more information.
Understanding black rebellions will make it easier to recognise and address the conditions that compel people to go to war against their own societies. And it will also mean we can be less afraid of every street party.