The 1976 Notting Hill Carnival Riots

The Notting Hill Carnival is an annual event that has taken place since 1966 on the streets of Notting Hill, London, each August over the bank holiday weekend. A Caribbean style carnival is held, with floats, music and an array of side events celebrating all aspects of black culture.  The influx of immigration during the 1950s had seen an increasing amount of West Indian people settling in Brixton and the Notting Hill area. The first carnival was organised in 1966 to promote cultural unity in Notting Hill, from that year onwards it grew and gained a definite Caribbean vibe. It did not become a major festival until 1975, and in 1976 there was an estimated 150,000 people in attendance. This year also marks the Notting Hill Carnival Riots.

Today, the police presence at carnival is unmissable, on every street corner they can be found. This wasn’t always the case, in 1976, around 1600-3000 police officers were present at Carnival, almost ten times the amount of previous years. From that year onwards police attendance has increased and is now upward of 11,000. The large police presence was ‘justified’ by allegations of mass outbreaks of petty crime by young blacks in the crowds. To many young black people this was just another example of the police terrorisation that they faced on a daily basis. The Sus Laws,(originating from the 1824 Vagrancy Act)  gave the Police the power to stop, search and arrest anyone they considered suspicious. These laws were causing tensions in race relations as black people were targeted in disproportionate numbers and began to see the Police force as their enemy. The chances of black people being arrested under the Sus provisions were 14 times higher than those of whites. The police presence was not welcomed at carnival, after all it was supposed to be a day of celebration and fun, not an invitation for black harassment.

In 1976, at around 5pm rioting broke out, spreading over the whole of the Labroke grove area and lasting well into the night. Over 300 police were injured, 35 police vehicles were damaged, several shops looted 30 carnival goers injured and 60 people arrested. Police are pictured hiding behind dustbin lids for protection, as they were ill prepared for the riots.

Lord Tokyo’s, Calypso track Riot in Labroke Grove produced in 1976, from his album Harmonies expresses some of the spectacles that were witnessed at the 1976 riots. I have done my best to note some of his lyrics, however his Dominican accent is very strong. What I was able to pick up was the line ‘I hear bottles smashing day by day, steel bands playing they don’t care, women sat around, bawling, Children falling down, screaming, police getting blows, riot in Labroke Grove.’ The track expresses how the events of  that day were not planned, the riots were a spontaneous reaction to the heavy handed policing of the seventies.

The riots can be seen as a response from the young black community to years of police brutality and oppression. Striking similarities can be drawn between the Notting Hill Riots in 1976 and the London Riots in 2012, which erupted after Police Shot dead a young black male, Mark Duggan. Although these were not race riots they were a response to what was believed to be injustice. It is interesting to reflect on the 1976 Riots and the subsequent civil disobedience that has followed, 35 years later some of the same issues brought thousands of young people to the streets of London in protest against Police brutality.

Image Credits: Kypros/Getty Images, .

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