BM Blob on the riot at the 1987 Notting Hill Carnival.
The Notting Hill Carnival riot of 1987 proved to be the most exciting riot since the great Sunday of Carnival 1976, which lit the fuse on what proved to be the first of many explosions throughout mainland UK. Unlike the 1958 race riots, this was a class riot with blacks and whites fighting the cops together. Considering all the other 'firsts' in Notting Hill, listed in the last few pages, the 1976 riot was, apart from the squats and a few other interventions, the only one to be proud of. In a sense too it marked a watershed in community politics now eclipsed by something that really did open vistas on the urban terrain and beyond. Innovatory community politics were ceasing to inspire illusions, the more it was becoming obvious the rhetoric of community militancy had not changed things for the better. However the corny Notting Hill applecart was upset by black's coming in from the rest of London and elsewhere in the UK. Since then it's largely been this 'outsider' element that has provided all the real trouble in Notting Hill. There is no point in going over again the details of what took place in 1976 because they are reasonably well known.
However in the intervening eleven years many changes have taken place both in Notting Hill and elsewhere - not least in the deployment of an immense variety of counter-insurgency techniques - subtle and brutal at one and the same time. The Carnival is part of this process. It is minutely prepared every year by all contending factions, repressive and cultural, police and the feuding Carnival and Arts Committee. Every danger is examined afresh and a contingency plan is on standby should anything happen. As darkness fell on that warm August Bank Holiday Monday night in 1987, what was to become inspirational about the riot in retrospect, was that it cut through all the years of accumulating modernist recuperation. (Remember Notting Hill is untypical of the UK in this regard.) It took place on a terrain, which has become very hostile to anything significant happening other than the planned-for ritualised Carnival. That was its real victory; exposing the limits of the immense recuperation that has taken place. At the same time however, all the deadweight deployed against the rioters still successfully stopped things getting out of hand.
In 1976, the unexpected happened. The business-oriented Carnival organizers and the police caught unawares were at a complete loss. The battle was intense and furious. Off licences and stores were looted, cars burnt and builders skips overturned, their contents used as ammo. The police protecting themselves with hastily nicked trashcan lids received one helluva hiding.1 Eleven years later, nothing could be more different. Come Carnival time the shops in the commercial area (particularly Portobello Rd) are boarded up. Builders skips are hauled away and sites covered with corrugated iron sheets. An army of heavies, clubs at the ready guard Liquour stores . Above all, the police have been tooled up with an increasingly sophisticated arsenal of riot shields, helmets, batons, gas and guns.
Over the years too, the police have used the Carnival more and more as an experimental testing ground for techniques to be deployed elsewhere in the UK mainland at a later date -ironically, as it turns out - another of the famous Notting Hill 'firsts'. The snatch-squads (originally used in Northern Ireland) were deployed in the Carnival mini-riots of 1981 and 1982. During the UK summer onslaught of 1981, these snatch squads had not existed as a pre-arranged tactical force. In 1987, Carnival was for the police, an experiment in using the new crowd control techniques which one presumes are going to be used in the near future (perhaps against an unfurling strike wave as well as soccer matches?)
Notting Hill Carnival '76
As regards the police, it makes sense to concentrate on the big crowd-pulling events which are being torn apart particularly in the UK from within. This crisis in the audience/performer nexus is axiomatic if contemporary spectacular society is to breakdown. The crowds are drawn by the performance in any case but what then ensues is on a scale so devastating as to dwarf the clichés of political upheaval and political activism.
On that August Bank Holiday one needed only to look elsewhere in the UK. Violent confrontations between police and spectators occurred at four other leisure events. A football match between Portsmouth and West Ham broke out into trouble and for the second time within a month soccer hooliganism erupted at Scarborough. Also there was trouble at the long-established Reading pop festival. Finally there was something of an innovation: At the recently devised Californian-style surfing competition at Newquay, Cornwall a beach party erupted as one thousand punters battled cops and fire brigade crews when they moved in to break up the merrymaking. Fresh ground indeed. Such incidents are by no means unusual. They happen most weekends in the UK though not in such a concentrated fashion.
If Carnival is anything to go by these new control techniques do not as the authorities hoped, nip trouble in the bud. On the contrary they seem positively to encourage it. From little incidents eventually came a bigger response at Carnival. In the afternoon and early evening there had been the usual steaming - the not particularly pleasant indiscriminate rip-off of valuables here and there - regardless of social class (although one photographer to a steamer's credit was stripped of £5000 worth of cameras) but it was nothing like 1977 when gangs invaded everywhere including steaming into pubs and making off with the tills. However in 1987 when a gang tried, with dusk falling, to prevent a cop arresting a youth, a carefully rehearsed police plan came into operation within minutes as l000 cops moved in clad in full riot gear. As The Daily Mirror reported a day later (September, lst) "they were backed up by about 2000 uniformed officers some of whom only minutes before had been dancing in the streets with the Carnival crowd. In one sudden charge about 200 including women officers in riot clothing charged the crowd in Ladbroke Grove."
In all likelihood though, for the authorities this was the planned scenario in any case: Carnival as a real life extension of the Hounslow riot training centre, a place to tryout their new gear and techniques. New protective fireproof clothing complete with CS gas canisters and plastic bullets in the pouches of black waist jackets were issued. A new crack force of some 250-riot cops appeared on the streets, though most of the rest were drawn from the Territorial Support Group. All rather different from the inner cities of late 1985 when the ordinary copper, deployed as a social worker one day was put on riot duty the next! The separate roles were so conflicting as to cause disorientation and much muted anger and protest amongst cops. This drastic and impossible to handle telescoping of functions had not disappeared by August 1987 but it was in the process of being replaced by a more rigid division of police labour. Carnival 87 for the authorities had been a roughly rehearsed over-reaction which did not however, prevent the rioting getting out of hand, spreading farther and wider than before. Notting Hill 1987 saw the first deployment in a UK mainland riot of bullet-proof Land Rovers with gun ports. An armed police detachment equipped with Koch and Necklar automatic sub-machine guns, launched a dramatic swoop on a house in Westbourne Park Rd probably to pick up somebody waving a replica gun. Ever since Broadwater Farm in late1985 where a shotgun was fired, the cops have been nervous about any repetition and this deliberate over-reaction was also a dress rehearsal for what might happen in the future.
In other respects too, Carnival was a means for working on another police idea. An extensive array of video cameras were employed all over the area and connected to banks of TV screens in the usual police HQ, the Issac Newton School at the corner of Lancaster Road and Ladbroke Road. There is nothing particularly new about the use of video cameras. For two years throughout the country they've been increasingly deployed in soccer stands, high above the terraces, not in order to spot the ball but the hooligan. It has been highly effective and the Dawn Knock has sounded for many a guy caught on video. However it is the first time video has been extensively used over an urban area for a particular event. One cannot help but feel this innovation of Carnival 1987 is but one stage in the blanket videoing of entire urban centers. This is almost certainly going to happen in Wolverhampton. Dire though these Big Brother developments are nevertheless one hasn't got to get too paranoid. If hacking is anything to go by, hi-tech re-equip is the most technically vulnerable to sabotage of any prior development in the capitalist mode of production. Moreover the permanent videoing, night and day of All Saints Road in Notting Hill from all sides of the street, over the last five years or so, never once stopped trouble or ever really rumbled clandestine activities on the street. 2
It is not only overt police control that is tried and tested at Carnival. Counter-insurgency in Notting Hill has been a focus of year in year out strategy. Through different building projects - often encouraged and sometimes funded by the local Kensington and Chelsea Council - various flash points were (or so it seemed) neutralized to prevent any re-occurrence of the 1970s trouble.
Acklam Rd, near the M40 Westway was one of them where in the late 1960s/early 1970s, local opinion prompted by a fledgling community politics had got rid of a proposed bus garage and a proposed car park wilderness under the Westway flyover. Tenants overlooking this noisy traffic artery were moved elsewhere and the old Victorian houses were taken over by a multitude of local pressure groups under the aegis finally, of the Amenity Trust. In the mind's eye of the latter, concentration may have heralded a new dawn of community experiment. Having got rid of the most gross commodity - the car - expansion moved into alternatives (like turning two bays under the Westway over to "committed theatre"). However in the best-laid plans there are things that escape control. Thus in the late 1970s these buildings became the focus of reggae and dub sound systems during Carnival and with reggae ricochade in its prime, Aclam Rd, became the scene of quite heavy rioting in 1978 and '79. No doubt with these unwelcome incidents in mind shortly afterwards the last remaining dilapidated Victorian houses were demolished. In any case that probably had been part of the plan all along, making way for modern sound-insulated council houses, cunning anti- pedestrian walls and a fashionable paved mall for small traders. Ironically, the alternatives, unable to pay the high rents demanded by the Amenity Trust were finally displaced by up-market fashion shops, boutiques and stores, trading in expensive trinketry and foodstuffs. The complex is now known as Portobello Green Market. The communal waste ground has been turned into an uninviting, nasty little park.
The same was true of other flash points like the bays under the Westway in Portobello Road and Ladbroke Grove. Old brick walls, on or near these flash points walls which were easily pushed over for ammo - were re-built with stylish engineering bricks, costing £1.00 each and with long iron railings firmly embedded in the top. Failing that, walls all over the district were built high and finished off with a top course of bricks each one placed at 45 degrees to the others to prevent anyone from sitting on them, simply to chat and watch the world go by. The first to be built were the walls fronting the council flats on Westboume Park Road, which faced All Saints Road. People aware of what was taking place at the time were critical of brickies engaged in the tasks of building these walls laying the finishing top course. Most likely they were employed by the council so surely they could have gone on the sick or refused to do it? What was it all about? To stop communication at any cost. Stay off the streets and remain indoors. Loud and clear this was the message being put across.
All these accumulating nasty little urban tricks must be set in a more general context: Notting Hill was slowly throughout the late 1970s becoming a choice area for gentrification. In the 1980s the process began to very rapidly accelerate. After clearing out the streets around Powis Square/ Talbot Road during these years, only one real flash point remained: The press/ TVnotorious street of All Saints Rd. On July lst 1987 over a couple of weeks after Thatcher's third election victory and her expressed "concern" to do something for the inner cities (i.e. her concern to punish them even more), a police swamp was launched over Notting Hill. Its real aim was to finish off All Saints once and for all. However, more on that later. What is at issue here is urban counter-insurgency and the swamp had been surreptitiously prepared and coordinated with other interested parties, particularly Notting Hill Housing Trust who owned most of the property there.
The black squats largely in abandoned commercial property were closed by the filth, as building contractors moved in on the same day to renovate a number of them. Though in some cases building work did not commence immediately, builders' lean-toos were erected to fence off the properties. Within days a house in MaGregor Road, leading off the Saints, was to fetch £300,000. The very centre of Carnival revolt in the 1980s had finally fallen and the light had gone out on the last remaining shambles of an urban trouble spot. There were minor attacks on the building operations - some windows broken, some skips overturned - but nothing like a mass response.
The Role of Carnival Stewards and Cultural Recuperation.
On top of this, there were other, even worse pernicious forces at work - those coming from within the black community itself. Since 1976, the Carnival and Arts committees had increasingly helped spawn quite an array of black stewards who step in when trouble breaks out at the Carnival. In many respects they were the forerunner for similar structures that have been set up in many inner city areas, where blacks reside in fairly large numbers. During the smaller riots which occurred at Carnival in '1977 ' 78 and '79, the stewards were sometimes heavier than the police and occasionally used iron bars on troublemakers. In 1987 they used baseball bats and even knives. Indeed some of those at the receiving end of the stewards' wisdom were more condemnatory of the stewards than of the to-be-expected police attack. Moreover, it's often impossible to tell the difference between a steward and any other black guy, so you are never sure whether you're amongst people who will be with you if you chuck a bottle or people who'll bottle you if you throw one.
These stewards are more or less complimented - and for all year round vigilance - by a growing array of black social workers (or more accurately "community workers" because generally they are disdainful of social workers) who in spirit have been influenced by such pioneering para-state bodies like the Black People's Information Centre on Portobello Road. However there are differences between black community workers and their white cousins. Black community workers often tend to be heavier, more ready to cut out liberal sentiments and act tough just to get their hands on some readies. All rather different from their guilt stricken white counterparts who, frequently coming from much wealthier backgrounds, couldn't act tough and hypocritically disdain a vulgar interest in money.
In late autumn 1986, a small number of community youth workers attached to the Mangrove restaurant mini-Empire at the end of All Saints Road, were able to stop a midnight explosion of spontaneous anger, when news of a black guy's death in police custody reached the Saints. Critchlow - "the Mangrove boss" - whose credibility rests on the fact that in the 1970s he'd been arrested several times by the cops (including during the 1977 Carnival riot), his restaurant raided, cooled everyone down by saying it would be best to organize a proper big march later thus taking the wind and fire out of the situation. The controlled demos protesting the guys death (his nick name was Crumpet) in the following days orchestrated in tandem with other official bodies by the black community workers, even though they did slip the leash, had none of that raw anger the midnight explosion would have contained. Though by now the rich in the area had really made their presence felt and any flare up couldn't have connected, house-by-house, as in Brixton and Toxteth, nonetheless a spontaneous conflagration of sorts couldn't be entirely ruled out. As it was in the days following the news of the death, Portobello Rd had been boarded up and the market and pubs put under police curfew. Most of the trouble came from invading black gangs from the massive Stonebridge Park Estate two and a half miles away. In the controlled demos, the cops forewarned, kept a low profile. They didn't try arrests despite being attacked with stones outside Notting Dale police station. After some cop cars had their paintwork scratched by missiles, they kept well clear of the All Saints/Portobello Rd area for fear of provoking trouble. Nevertheless, trouble there was: All the windows in Barclays Bank were trashed; a clothes shop, a butchers, Tesco' s liquor dept and an Asian supermarket were looted; a chemist run by a guy well-known locally for his insulting, vicious manner (always prosecuting shoplifters etc) was wrecked - in all l5 offices and shops attacked as well as one or two yuppie houses.
How is it these community workers plus stewards have had such a devastating effect on suffocating black (and not only black) anger? The official structure of race relations' community politics - older, long standing and up-standing bodies who regularly meet the local cops for a chit-chat - have been pushed aside and blanked long ago. They have no effect whatsoever and could not successfully calm anything down. They are rightly seen as respectability seeking, money grabbers; salting away for themselves any dough they can get their mittens on. It's these people who climbed aboard Thatcher's pre-election well-funded, inner-city Task Force projects and pilot programs oriented towards, among other thing, the creation of black businesses. There is one such Task Force now in operation for Notting Hill. No, the most effective bodies are those that have sprung up since 1981 and have an unofficial aura to them, although they do receive moneys from various sources including Caribbean states. They are full of anti-cop rhetoric and won't have anything to do with any cop liaison, open or backstairs. At critical moments it's this stance which makes them so effective because being anti-police they are able to protect property all the better for that. How long they can maintain this pure-as-the-driven-slush image remains to be seen and for certain the authorities in the UK now want to repay them for services rendered. Carnival Chairman, Alex Pascall, after the Notting Hill 1987 riot appealed for direct government funding to bring about better stewarding. Bearing in mind growing state authoritarianism, Pascall will probably get what he wants. Moreover, Condon, the Carnival's deputy Police Assistant, praised the stewards alongside his own men. Maybe they had been reflecting on the help stewards had provided elsewhere over the previous couple of months.3
Finally in considering the deadly role recuperation plays, one has to look at the increasingly integrative role of Carnival culture. Although the traditional Trinidadian costume/steel band merry go round was despised by the young blacks in the mid 1970s, (c/f A Summer with a Thousand Julys and Socialist Voice) its expansion since has been enormous. A whole local job creation culture has been built around it as Carnival has become more oriented towards business like appeals for increased private spending and less state funding (except where law 'n' order is concerned). In fact it shadowed the era of privatisation. In some ways the organizers would like Carnival to be more like American festivals where for instance Schlitz Beer sponsors a complete Country and Western jamboree in Tennessee.
However, for the insurgent forces present at Carnival the arguments for or against state-funding or private sponsorship are academic and irrelevant. Containment has to be registered at another level outside the contending forces of state versus private enterprise - that of culture itself. Reggae teased with rebellion at the same time as it contained rebellion. But reggae as a forum through which rebellion could be reflected and to some degree pacified, also had an extremely short creative life as it rapidly succumbed to disco programming. In its time however, there were certain musical moments of collective improvisation (e.g. some of Burning Spear/Third World etc), which nearly equalled the best of New York be-bop in the 1950s. In an effort to maintain some kind of authentic street cred, reggae garnished by some dub gave way more to the sound system dub/rap 'poetry' and DJ. Poets, around which all the Carnivals mini-riots of the early 1980s took place. The blacks noted the demise of grass roots reggae but were at something of a loss to know what to put in its place.
Just after the year long miners' strike in 1985 there was one hilarious incident. Some blacks down All Saints, probably a mite choked by the dull routine of reggae, suddenly began to blast out brass band music. Close your eyes and you could have been in the Riding's shopping mall in Wakefield on a Saturday morning. It pointed to a levelling of all musical style; if brass band (hardly 'rebel music') was a cultural back drop to what was happening in the mining villages and towns, then it was every bit as 'subversive' as Junior Murvin' s Police and Thieves. One might as well listen to anything because capitalism has become a born leveller when it comes to pretending to express rebellion through culture.
As for the sound systems which in the 1970s were glorified jukeboxes and treated as such, they were becoming more expansion minded, more entrepreneurial as business sponsors took them under their wing and the trucks out of which they operated got larger and more costly to hire or buy. The heavily backed three way Instant Edition sound system, of near wall-collapsing reverb on All Saints Road, (whipping up a friendly nationalist sentiment e.g. "anyone here from Tobago, St Lucia, J-A-M-A-I-C-A" - huge cheer) just prior to the mini-riots around All Saints, which would invariably close Carnival was in 1987 completely subdued. They had been told to cool it by Carnival and Art and they obeyed.
On the Saturday night of the 1987 Carnival, the sound systems closed down at 8.30 pm. It was unheard of! The following morning and one of Instant Editions banks of sound had gone. Again it seems Carnival and Arts had been obeyed. By nightfall, it had become all too clear to many revellers what was happening. Most sound systems started to shut up shop one and a half hours before pub closing time. In other years, they had gone on far, far, far longer.
More than anything else, the sudden realization that the sound systems had become a fully integrated part of the system was too much to take and what had been skirmishes here and there broke into hydra-headed, though admitted well-controlled, riot everywhere. (One couple in Portobello Rd showed they didn't need sound systems or any kind of music to have fun: they danced rock 'n' roll style with gleeful faces to the sound of nothing but bottles breaking on riot shields). Some sound systems weren't of course so blatantly on their knees to authority. Continuing to preach peace and love ("no violence") the sound system outside the KPH. - Kensington Park Hotel -(ironically known locally as the GBH ) on Ladbroke Grove, carried on for a while longer and was charged by the cops. The charge was unprovoked and the riot police stopped only inches in front of the sound system. It then shut up shop, the police ushering the van through the blocked-off area. A smaller sound system, backed by the steel framed concrete of the BruneI Estate defiantly stuck it out in the midst of the bottle throwing. But essentially dub had had its day and was, en masse, falling in line behind Lynton Kwesi Johnson's status seeking: resident Caribbean expert at Warwick University and ex-Oxford poet, who contemptuously dismissed the slogan scrawled up in Brixton in 1980 -"Bristol Today, Brixton Tomorrow" -as the silly dreams of white anarchists, which he'd written in that great upholder of mass insurgency, The Observer just a few weeks before Brixton became more exemplary than Bristol. Lately Johnson has become an implicit if not explicit supporter of Chapeltown's stewards in dealing with open insurgency. The collapse of all cultural ranking was complete enough to doubt if there was any real difference between sound system and The Met's Harmony Police Band. Except had the latter ventured down All Saints during the Carnival bluebottle reggae would have received more than a little audience participation.
Portobello Rd Carnival '87
Although the 1987 riot in Notting Hill, could not have had the ferocity or intensity of spontaneous inner-city uprisings, it was inspiring (as stated before) because it took place within an arena of near total containment - or what should have been. It seemed to indicate something: No matter how finely tuned recuperation in pockets becomes in a country like the UK where in the past few years confrontation and outright repression has been more to the fore, it still fails to work.
The old foci of revolt were precisely the spots where the trouble initially flared; the junction of Portobello Road and Aclam Road/Ladbroke Grove and Lancaster Road/ All Saints Road and Westbourne Park Road. Interestingly enough, none of the newspapers could agree because truth to tell, the rioting that followed broke out virtually spontaneously in many places around 9 p.m. and lasted sporadically some three and a half hours. Bricks, bottles and thunder flashes were thrown, 70 people were hurt. 13 coppers hospitalised and a W.P.C. was stabbed, ("riot yobs slash girl cop" said a tabloid). Stalls were looted, including one selling hammocks, (what a commodity to sell or nick at Carnival?) By midnight rampaging mobs had broken down police barriers at police HQ although this had been happening intermittently beforehand throughout the district. However describing the riot isn't that important (it was small beer in comparison to Brixton. in 1985 etc). Being so dispersed and more importantly (and it portends better possibilities) it started for the first time to spread to the fringes of the big estates: the Brunel near Qeensway, the Lancaster West Estate towards Shepherds Bush and the estates on upper Ladbroke Grove towards Kensal Rise. Running battles took place down Elgin and Blenheim Crescent, in the very heart of freshly conquered Yuppie territory, where slogans like "Fuck Yuppies" had recently been scrawled on the walls. There was even a ferocious punch-up with cops round the corner from Kensington Park Road where at Rockways, Sting has his business centre.
Though never, as far as one can be certain going on to the estates, the rioting went dangerously close, particularly to the Brunel part of which is now to be sold off by Westminster City Council. However the geographical spread of the rioting reflected the intentions of the Carnival organizers to disperse the Carnival as much as possible. In an effort to defuse central tension, the watchword has been, de-centralize. Carnival chairman, Alex Pascall wants the Carnival in future to become even more spread out, making the task of crowd control easier. Neither the police or The Economist magazine agrees, because it is likely to make the job even harder. Nearby Harrow Road is one of the streets proposed, but it's the centre of a popular street life and at one point merely one hundred yards from one of the Met's constant fears: the dreaded Mozart Estate! (In the Top three on there list of potential Broadwater Farms).
Carnival however has little choice but to widen out and face the music of all these enjoyable possibilities if only because it gets bigger by the year. Organizers have even commissioned a market research survey to find out exactly how much money is made during the event as Carnival has become more exotically professional and more like Rio de Janeiro; in 1987 there were Columbian, Red Indian and Mexican costume dancers. Following in fact the leisure tendency in modern capitalism towards bigger and better display and given the responses to mass festivities in the UK, bigger and better destruction. Even if very right-wing Tories succeeded in getting Carnival off the streets of Notting Hill (which yuppie colonizers would go along with) by staging it elsewhere, it definitely wouldn't mean an end to the trouble. The proposed open ground around Wormwood Scrubs prison close to Notting Hill is ideal for running battles and incidentally is right next to the modest looking, semi-detached Acton estate, where Mod was spawned in the early 1960s. Roundwood Park in the Willesden / Harlsden area - another proposed venue - isn't that safe either. Right in the heart of Brent, which has the highest percentage black population in London, it was the scene in late spring 1987, just after a small black festival, of a looting/trashing spree in Harlesden High St.
Lefties claim crudely that the state (or rather they always talk about the government) wants to totally ban Carnival. This is hysterical nonsense and merely gives credence to all oppositional organizers. What the ethos of Thatcherism basically wants is more police control (official or unofficial) and more capitalization. If at all possible an entrance fee to get in would be ideal. Above all, the supposed threat to close down Carnival is intended to push Carnival organizers into making sure there are more stewards and that they get heavier than in 1987.
Moreover, Notting Hill is not now a black area to the same degree as many other parts of London. Its blackness is now almost purely symbolic or nostalgic reminder of the 1950s. However keeping Carnival in Notting Hill does give the two-up to the yuppie attack - now temporarily halted - on all the poor of the area. It was a pleasure seeing them fleeing for the country, on the run-up to August Bank Holiday1987 when their Renault 5s and Volkswagens were conspicuous by their absence.
Mugging and London Pathology
The rioting of that weekend was a fully integrated black and white affair. There was absolutely no racism either way. It's fair to say that this has been the only Carnival occasion since 1976 that the relatively isolated incidents of black racism were totally absent. But what has this to do with breaking the hold of recuperation? Well, after 1976 insurgents were unable to get at stores/clothes/liquor or what have you. And the gangs wired by an atmosphere that tended to artificially heighten though not satisfy expectations, sometimes turned on individual whites and gave them a doing. In 1979, one of the writers of this blurb, was attacked by two members of a black gang during a fierce volley of bricks being thrown at the cops; they were pulled off by other gang mates who apologised for the incident. Broadly speaking all the counter-insurgency techniques unwittingly (though it turned out to be in their interest also) fostered black racism by increasing frustration. 1985 was particularly bad. As dusk fell on a tightly packed All Saints Road, individual white males (though not white women) were often quite savagely beaten up. Obviously if they were prepared to go down that street they were definitely not white racists. However once real things begin to happen, atmospheres also change rapidly and in the mini-riot of that night, the racist flavour evaporated.
No trace of a racist slant was there at all in 1987. This was all the more remarkable considering that for many a month previously Notting Hill, particularly around the All Saints area, was plagued with heavy muggings directed at same poor whites. Why this happened is quite complex, but the increasing yuppie presence perhaps helped foster erroneous views amongst some blacks, that all whites around the area were well-off and carried plenty of money on them. Consequently an old woman was done over three times, a male nurse was beaten up and robbed, doors were kicked in and unwary tenants (not householders) opening street doors were roughly pushed inside, robbed and beaten up in the hallways. If you didn't have enough money, you were doubly punished. It was really sickening. Even white women with black husbands and boy friends were not exempt from this indiscriminate mugging spree. About the only exception not to raise an eyebrow was an Earl's son getting knifed whilst scoring dope.
Just before the Notting Hill crack down (c/f later), and possibly because people were really getting pissed off, the attitudes of some muggers began to change which in turn changed tactics. A gang on the Metropolitan tube line, which runs through north Notting Hill demanded everybody, turn out their pockets. Now, only the wells off were robbed, (i.e. those with plenty of credit cards stashed in their wallets). But it was a gesture that came too late and could do nothing to stop the gentrification of All Saints Road and the repression to follow. The day that indiscriminate mugging becomes social mugging in a situation where it is difficult to distinguish rich from poor any longer with any certainty, will make a big difference; a huge difference. What happened on the Met line that day was a gesture and a good one in that direction. Evidently there were similar incidents like this at the Harnmersmith Concert of the Bronx-rap messenger, LL Cool Jay in November 1987, although the press only reported the brutal incidents.
To be completely accurate, one has to consider mugging etc within the context of a growing pathology especially in London and which cannot be understood using terms like racism in a simplistic way. A festering atomisation at home, in leisure - growing worse by the minute - aggravated by yuppie colonization and increasing isolation at work is taking a hideous toll subjectively. It's taking place within a class society, which is bent on hunting down the more popular, warmer social aspects, contained and accommodated though they were, by capitalism. Psychopathic behaviour becoming rampant as in the United States mounts up in Notting Hill too. A black guy, something of a religious nutter suddenly murdered his social workery, Communist party girlfriend. He wanted to get "the evil out of her." She was a nasty little operator and through the looking glass of religious mania, he spoke a social truth, but his exorcism is scarcely to be recommended. In fact it's chilling, because there are better, more coherent ways of dealing with such things and which will be more readily understood.
Crumpet, before being arrested by the cops and 'killed', had slashed a woman:('killed' is put in inverted commas because the guy was loaded with coke and given the usual going-over common place at Notting Hill and Dale police stations, a heart attack in these circumstances can result in death). During the first day of the 1987 Carnival there were also more crazed incidents than in previous years. An electrician, Michael Galvin making some pin money trading was knifed to death. He wasn't a professional trader merely somebody who quite stupidly - considering it was Carnival - tried to make a little on the side. Although it seems the guy wasn't a particularly pleasant character, blacks after the Carnival, through the mediation of a black Labour party councillor, organized a few benefits for his family. There were other nasty incidents during Carnival, like when a guy with a broken cider bottle, started plunging it into as many people's faces as possible both black and white. Another guy started laughing hideously at paraplegics and tried to pull a woman's neck-support off. London pathology has a different inflection from its New York parent as the language of a downtrodden class that is twisted out of all recognition, to express a frustration with themselves and everybody else. The examples above are the hideous extremes of this pathology, though more generally it's based on a resentment of literally everything in another person's life. A perverted class antagonism becomes an obscene excuse to spit venom. You are knocked for being privileged no matter what your circumstances are. For having money or not having money ("you're free that way") for having an incurable disease or for being in the best of health, for having the guts to stick a stretch inside ("just who do you think you are for having such guts?" etc) or for having stayed on the outside.
The awesome proportions of international capital and monetarism in London has brought out a submerged trait that mixes up class antagonism with spiteful deference to the rich. A few drinks and the beast is free, lashing out blindly to the right and left saying and doing the unspeakable with little or no evident remorse. Nasty as these outbursts are, remarkably there is never really a racist side to them in Notting Hill (though obviously this is not true elsewhere in London)4
This complicated web must be difficult to comprehend people living outside London, though there are other dimensions, like the misunderstandings bordering on hostility between northern and southern blacks, reflecting a more broadly based North/South tension. The Huddersfield steel band in the 1987 Carnival wanted to be withdrawn sickened by the pushy, 'we're the tops' hard drive of its London musical counterparts. In fact there couldn't have been a greater difference between the atmosphere of the June, Huddersfield, largely Grenadian black Carnival and the Notting Hill Carnival in August.
The Huddersfield Carnival literally was a relaxed picnic with a hint of the Labour festivities of the 19th century, keen to project an image of self-improvement. One of the floats carried a lollipop, which read "Huddersfield Caribbean Association self-aid scheme reading and writing." There was no dipping or aggro - it was as calming as a spliff, as Rastas from Pennine villages poured in for a days outing. Despite the nearby presence of the Sheepridge Estate (renowned locally as Huddersfield's Broadwater Farm) a chief Inspector judged the Carnival floats without so much as a murmur from the participants and assembled onlookers. If anything similar were proposed for Notting Hill, despite (in comparison to Huddersfield) the greater capitalization and brutalisation of the area, the outcry would be instantaneous.
But then comes an August Bank Holiday Monday evening. It was as if racism and pathology had never existed. There was an overpowering feeling of release, a surge of re-awakening friendship and the brief opportunity to make friends. The riot was simply enjoyed as also a brief respite in the great communications breakdown ripping London especially to shreds. It was all the better because there had been in the autumn 1985 uprisings, a certain deterioration in the quality of rioting, (muggings and rape) etc. This was to be off set against the greater fury and destruction of 1985 in comparison to1981 because the overall situation has become a lot nastier. This deterioration was largely confined to London, so perhaps Notting Hill 1987 may herald brighter things to come. In particular this deterioration in London has had one very bad side effect. It has made many women scared of riots just at the moment they were beginning to participate in them more. Rightly their completely understandable horror of rape and mugging - and which they have very little defence against - has to some degree intensified an old conception that rioting is purely a macho act. Such responses however mustn't be placed in the same category as the "macho politics" slur used to rubbish all insurrectionary means spouted by a social democratic mentality anxious to psychologise any struggle that escapes political categories.
One final point: With the stock market collapse and a possible slowing of the invasion of exchange, which has shaped and encouraged pathology, a very subversive characteristic of the London proletariat may well come to the fore: that penchant for taking the piss out of anybody who gets on their high horse, or seeks to instruct in a demagogic manner or has pretension to leadership. It is a characteristic the 19th century anarchist, Emma Goldmann, when heckled for a laugh was quite unable to understand. She considered the London mob "behaved as they would at a country fair, not so much to listen or learn, as to be amused." (My Life). But it is precisely that ever readiness to have a good laugh at all pretensions and foibles that make the London poor so brilliant at times.
Photo above: Notting Hill. 28th September 1985. The night that Brixton blew again there was a disturbance at the bottom end of Cambridge Gardens near the Lancaster West Estate. The photo shows a bid limousine being burnt out. Cars in the UK come under more direct attack and sabotage than else in the world. It's a fairly constant phenomenon (e.g. the recent month's long pyromania in York. When "cars are dead" was sprayed on the walls of Notting Hill in 1968, there was little tangible evidence then of future anti-car assault. When it did come about - as per usual in the UK - it happened without any accompanying explanation by the car destroyers. It's a limitation, which often reduces the vision behind these brilliant acts.
- 1Suffice to say the best account appeared in a paper with the dull name of Socialist Voice, an ex-Trotskyist group who had gone ultra left after being thrown out of the SWP. After promising beginnings the group just disappeared into thin air by 1980. It's a fate that in particular seems to befall disillusioned Trotskyists in the UK. The pity is, this vanishing act leaves the mainstream Trotskyist heritage, as endemic to the UK as anarchism on a higher level is to Spain, more or less unharmed.
- 2Further knock-on effects have become clearer recently. It's been proposed by British Coal that they intend videoing every miner's picket engaged in unlawful, secondary action, with the intention of dismissing those involved. Like the inner-city rioters learnt, balaclavas have become essential.
- 3The role of the black stewards was no more sadly demonstrated than in Chapeltown Leeds just days after Thatcher's third election victory .Without the services of the community youth workers attached to the local Nelson Mandela Centre - who being only one rung up the hierarchy often seem as close as your mates - Chapeltown could possibly have gone through the roof during the three days of midnight battles with the police. It would have been a much needed whisky and mac in a rather demoralized but nonetheless simmering North and a few miles away trouble brewing once again in the Yorkshire coalfield. What a missed opportunity to make a vital connection! And what a riposte to Thatcher's "concern"! Youth workers, some as young as 13 or 14, (probably flattered to be part of the Mandela Centre and the kudos surrounding the very name rather than the economic rewards} followed their teeny peer group into dark alleys stopping them fire-raising or, luring cops into ambushes. It worked. And the cops must have been laughing all the way to Armley Jail because once the disturbances had died down, they moved in on the local people -smashing down doors at five in the morning -just as if there had been a major riot.
- 4In comparison, in the heat of the moment in adjacent Kilburn there sometimes is, although resistance to the bosses and all shades of state authority is generally far more consistent. But it's an insult which must be taken with a grain of salt because these "racial" slurs that take the form of, " why don't you get back to where you came from", can be directed at anyone not resident in Kilburn, (as if Kilburn is their property). Sometimes it means nothing more than catching the next 31 bus to the Gate.