Time seems to have flown by since August last year when we saw images on our tv screens
of our communities again going up in flames after a Black man had died at the hands of the police.
It was a signal reminder of how quickly our memories dim when all the media outlets started
to howl about how shocked they were about these events and the fact that the people
at some of these locations seemed only interested in divesting
the local shops of their high value stock!
The nervous days that followed, not knowing where this fever would move to next,
is now in the hands of the Riot Communities and Victims Panel to investigate and report.
Led by Heather Rabbatts, this ‘Inquiry’ is looking into the causes and motivations of those
roused to do such ‘anti-social things’ and propose so responses. They spent some quality
time with us in Brixton a couple of weeks ago and have now gone on tour to the other affected areas,
istening diligently and asking poignant questions. But I’m sure that we’ve also forgotten the heart
searching discussion that took place among us,‘will there be a Notting Hill Carnival this year?’After a series
of tense meetings between the police and the organisers, the show went on and main stream newspapers representing the
view of middle England, reported in glowing terms about how thisunique festival had brought some balm to the nations very sore wounds.
They don’t have a sense of the history of carnival in general and Notting Hill Carnival
in particular. Nubian Jak, a ubiquitous heritage organisation emanating from within the
African and Caribbean community, had launched this years Carnival with a ceremony unveiling
two plaques to the matriarchs of carnival in the UK.
Firstly, Claudia Jones, who had inspired her organisation to respond to similarly
traumatic times for Black people, after the first Notting Hill Riots, when the white youth
gangs of the late 1950s, had attacked the newly settling community, that was mainly coming from
the Caribbean at that time, first in Nottingham and then in Notting Hill.
These communities initially responded by keeping a low profile and trying not to provoke a
greater violent response by matching fire with fire. The demographics of the places attacked,
were also characterised by people from quiet rural communities in the eastern
Caribbean. My father and other adult relatives, resident here at the time in Brixton and largely
drawn from Jamaica, reported to me later how their hearts bled as they read the reports in the newspapers
and heard the news on the radioabout the racists mobs,incited by demagogues like Sir Oswald Moseley,
continually laying siege to our fellow ‘West Indians’ nightly, in their homes. These were the experiences
that were forging a pan Caribbean mentality as we knew very little of each other before we arrived in Britain,
apart from when the West Indies beat England at cricket! But our solidarity ignited when we saw what was
happening to people who looked and acted like us for being different, so my father and his cohorts
decided to mobilise. Not for them were quietwords and understated gestures. Most of those people,
because women participated in this fightback, as I’ve seen photographs of a woman with a large machete
standing on the corner of Portobello Road waiting for the mob to arrive, armed themselves with similar
implements and set out to ‘The Grove’ to defend their kith and kin.
It was unsurprising that after a few skirmishes and some telling chops in crucial places,
that weren’t reported in the media, the mob decided that it wasn’t such a good idea to ‘attack the Blacks’.
Unfortunately, there would be one more fatal casualty before things finally petered out. Kelso Cochrane, an
Antiguan carpenter, migrant to Britain, trying to improve his economic circumstances, was attacked by a furtive gang, skulking in the shadows of Golbourne Bridge, while he was coming from home from work, late one evening.This solitary figure was set upon with bicycle chains, cut throat razors,truncheons and boots. He didn’t survive the experience andthe Notting Hill community of all kinds,the wider black community, and all good thinking people mourned and turned out in thousands for his funeral and march to his final resting place at Kensal Rise Cemetery. Unlike Roland Adams and Stephen Lawrence forty years later, no one was even identified for the murder.
Mainstream society finally realised that it had colluded too long with the fascism in its midst,
that it had defeated abroad during the 2nd World War. The Fleet Street media led by the Daily Mirror
and the West Indian Gazette, led by Claudia Jones, pleaded for justice and reconciliation. Claudia,
at an editorial board meeting of her paper, proposed, distilled from her Trinidadians roots,
that a Carnival be held to create a lighter and more convivial mood and to show British society another
side to our culture. This first carnival was held indoors as the organisers were not yet confident
enough to take it to the streets but it was televised to the early tv audience who saw for the first time,
something of what we were about. Institutions such as the Cy Grant nightly current affairs calypso, appeared on
BBC TV and fragments of the multi-cultural society started to emerge.
These indoor Carnivals continued until Claudia’s death five years later, when another immigrant,
this time from Eastern Europe,Rhaune Laslett, who was working as a community worker in the Notting Hill community,
decided with her organisation, that an event was needed to bring together the now burgeoning and diversifying
community of ‘The Grove’.They organised a Notting Hill Festival and invited all and sundry to participate and
the Trinidadian and other eastern Caribbean folk now resident there, brought out their pans and themselves
and turned it into a carnival.
The rest is history hence Nubian Jak’s gesture to honour the two women who had
initiated attempts at community reconciliation and cohesion using carnival as the medium.
Now this backdrop is to remind you of the context and role that carnival has played in the UK from the outset
and that it didn’t just do this last August. Unfortunately the police are not sufficiently au fait with this history
and I attach a People’s Account of events last Bank Holiday Monday, brought together by my old friend, Michael La Rose,(PART 2) chair of the George Padmore Institute and carnival veteran, erstwhile leader of the People’s War carnival band,setting the record straight. The authorities have got to get their heads screwed on the proper way round,if they are not to alienate the good citizens of their own society.
Inquiries, inquiries. Plus ca’ change.
Devon C Thomas
Tomorrow Read the:
experience of carnival spectators, stall holders , masqueraders and bandleaders at this years Notting Hill Carnival 2011. They share their accounts of the 6.30 shut down of music on the carnival route by the police, policing of the event and the governance of Carnival 2011.