In the summer of 1981, riots gripped every major city in Britain – but with particular ferocity in Brixton, London and Toxteth, Liverpool. However – there had been some dress rehearsals in the years immediately previous. Throughout the late 1970s, Notting Hill Carnival always seemed to end with a riot. Some of the following account contains language from that era that obviously I do not endorse.
Notting Hill Carnival has come to be regarded as a very big and noisy celebration of multi-cultural London in recent years. In the late 1970s, it was annual demonstration of how bad relations had become between the Metropolitan Police and black youth in the city.
Police stop and search powers – the SUS laws as they were known – were believed to be used disproportionately against black people Unemployment among BAME youth was climbing. And Notting Hill carnival had grown in size but so had feelings of resentment against it. All of which added up to a riot every year.
In the run up to the 1976 carnival, the Carnival Development Committee faced opposition to the big event from several quarters. Chief Superintendant Ron Patterson was photographed for the local newspaper holding up a long roll of paper – a petition by local residents to stop the carnival.
“It was handed to me by a North Kensington housewife. She said it was a token of support for the police by the ordinary people of North Kensington.”
Local councillors suggested moving the event to White City stadium and the Chief Superintendant thought Battersea Park would be an acceptable alternative. The top cop even took a member of the carnival committee for a walk in the park to convince them that it would be a better venue than the streets of Notting Hill.
But the committee decided to stand firm on the now almost traditional carnival route over the August Bank Holiday and one might say that battle lines were drawn. The black community wanted its festivity while councillors, residents and the police were either hostile or distinctly lukewarm.
Notting Hill carnival – did more police provoke a riot?
Through the Spring, the carnival organisers and police had increasingly intemperate meetings over the route, stewarding and liquor licensing. What became clear was that in 1976, the police presence would be upped in spite of a warning from the Black People’s Information Centre that this would be an explosive move.
The very fateful day arrived and before long, tens of thousands of people had thronged the streets. Estimates of the eventual numbers on the streets vary from 150,000 to 200,000 so the carnival was already a major event in Britain.
One young guy remembered the steel bands playing and drifting away from his friends, found himself at the corner of Acklam and Portobello Road.
“Across the ‘bello flies a highway and under the fly-over the heavy dub groups were staging their section of the carnival, belting out the sounds of bass guitars.”
The followers of various sound systems were in attendance including one called Prince Melody. But the young black reveller didn’t have much time to take in the sounds as he walked in to a large group that already had about thirty policemen on the run. All around, he could see people picking up whatever was to hand and throwing it at the cops.
Somebody selling revolutionary pamphlets decided that this was one barricade he didn’t wish to stand on and packed up. Nearby, loudspeakers were blaring ‘Chase Them Crazy Baldheads Out of Town’. And to cap off this surreal scene of mayhem, a black woman was shouting in to a megaphone: “Yeah, lick them.”
Notting Hill carnival police poorly equipped for a full on riot
As photographs of the time testify, the police had indeed turned out in force but once the heat was turned on, many of them had only dustbin lids and bottle crates for defence. There were no riot helmets, padded uniforms or shields. Instead, many had zero head protection, were in rolled up shirtsleeves and just swinging a truncheon around.
But if the crowd thought this was a rout for the police, they were about to be disabused. They had been surprised by the ferocity of the crowd reaction but the retreat was a moment to regroup not leave.
The young guy now saw a ‘rastaman’ standing in front of five hundred youth and shaking a red, green and gold stick in the air urging them to “burn the wicked”.
“I walk through fire,” he yelled, strutting towards the cowering officers. Behind him, more cautiously, came the youths still hurling bricks and bottles. But suddenly things changed dramatically.
The cry came from the police lines and a phalanx of dustbin lid clutching Metropolitan officers hurtled forward, truncheons chopping the air in all directions. The rastaman disappeared in the melee and the young guy was bundled in to a police van with four others.
Coats covered the windows and he claimed a police inspector poked his head in the head door and barked an instruction to a subordinate.
“Take down the coats, they mightn’t stone us if they see niggers inside.”
Though there would be several stages towards the development of the riot police we know today, this was an early milestone. After the 1976 carnival, the police returned – minus their Chief Superintendant who had moved on – with much better equipment.
Instead of flooding the area haphazardly and relying on bottle crates for defence, the police returned with shields, helmets and even night goggles. Battle re-commenced with an expectant media having pretty much earmarked an annual carnival riot in their planning calendars.
The media would not be disappointed. All hell broke loose in the 1977 Notting Hill carnival with a distinctly unpleasant riot between police and revellers inside the Mangrove Restaurant on All Saints Road. The restaurant had turned away a gang of youths they felt were looking for trouble and was full of revellers watching the steel bands go by.
Eye witnesses claimed that a large force of police entered All Saints Road from Lancaster Road and sealed off that point of exit and the Westbourne Park Road end as well. Beating on their riot shields, the police advanced down the road towards the Mangrove.
The owner of the premises, Frank Critchlow, tried to persuade the police not to enter but earned a truncheon blow for his efforts. Stewards that had been appointed by the restaurant to keep order in the area now found themselves pushing against the doors to the Mangrove to prevent the police entering but they eventually got in.
Everybody was told to leave in no uncertain terms and resistance was met with more truncheon blows. One DJ, Basil, stood by helplessly while his sound system, Black Patch, was smashed to pieces.
The anguish of people like Basil was of little concern to the Daily Mail, which went in to fulmination mode in the aftermath.
“If the West Indians wish to preserve what should be a happy celebration which gives free rein to their natural exuberance, vitality and joy, then it is up to their leaders to take steps necessary to ensure its survival.”
The Daily Express was reminded of a different group of blacks on its front page the day after.
“War Cry! The unprecedented scenes in the darkness of London streets looked and sounded like something out of the film classic Zulu.”
On the floor of the Mangrove lay the remnants of Basil’s hi-fi and the broken vinyl pieces from forty-eight singles and five LPs. This was the kind of memory that would be stored then unleashed in a torrent of violence three years later.
The years of riot at Notting Hill carnival would be reflected in every city across Britain during 1981 – a year of civil disturbances.