This article will feature in issue 37: Oppression and Resistance
In 1948, the MV Empire Windrush docked in London carrying around five-hundred passengers from the West Indies. They were called to England as the first-wave in Britain’s drive to recruit and enlist a Commonwealth workforce to help rebuild the country post-war by feeding into the labour of state-controlled services such as Transport for London (TfL) and the National Health Service (NHS). They were encouraged to return to and serve their “Mother Country” of Britain, being promised a better life and a higher standard of living upon arrival. This was far from true. Many were ostracised, excluded, and met with intense racial abuse from an unwelcoming and hostile Britain.
Hostilities manifested in a social and institutional sense. Landlords were corrupt, the police force was discriminatory, and the education system was far from racially equal – examples of ingrained systemic racism persist in contemporary society, even forty years on. Alongside these institutional aggressions lay a more social de facto racism, seen through the rise of the far-right and other nationalist groups alongside the street violence which later ensued. Tensions peaked in London with the 1958 Notting Hill Race Riots between the British-Caribbean communities and the white working-class, or “Teddy Boys.” The Teddy Boys attacked Caribbean communities, instigating mob violence through the vandalism of Caribbean properties and businesses and multiple physical assaults.
Senior police officers attempted to downplay the racially-charged aspects central to the violence; Detective S. M. Walters of the Notting Hill police force believed those involved in the riots were merely seizing an “opportunity to indulge in hooliganism.” There was a general reluctance to recognise the racially-motivated violence against Caribbean communities both institutionally, through fabricated police reports and propagandistic media coverage which misreported the events, as well as socially through the relentless and persistent acts of physical aggression and threat incited by the Teddy Boys and other white nationalist groups. These included the White Defense League and Oswald Moseley’s Union Movement, both of which were allowed to operate due to an absent and systematically racist police force. The same London police force that didn’t fully recognise institutional racism until the late 1990s, some thirty years on, following the death of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 and the Macpherson Inquiry in 1997.
A precursor to what we now know as the annual Notting Hill Carnival, then called the Caribbean Carnival, was organised and run by Trinidadian activist Claudia Jones, in response to the riots. Jones set up the event to empower the black diaspora through means of education, art, culture, and positive racial representation. Nearly sixty years on, London’s annual Notting Hill Carnival is still vibrant and alive and has grown to become Europe’s largest street party. Today, the event epitomises London’s summer and the August bank holiday weekend, marking recognition and a celebration of the culture and resilience of London’s West Indian community, an undoubted cornerstone of British history and culture. Although, the makeup of the event has changed, becoming more heavily policed, commercialised, commodified, and profitable alongside the heavy gentrification of Notting Hill.
Following the unprecedented events of COVID-19, Notting Hill Carnival 2020 was streamed online in an effort to protect the public from the pandemic while still keeping the tradition alive. Artists, musicians, political speakers, and dancers showcased their talents virtually to similarly empower and celebrate the event’s driving and resilient spirit. The annual event was set amidst the street protests following the death of George Floyd in America earlier in May. Although the official event was cancelled, thousands gathered all over West London to protest against systemic racism and police brutality which remains prevalent in the UK. Criticised for potentially breaking COVID-19 laws by the Metropolitan Police, event organiser Ken Hinds issued a legal challenge and all charges were dropped due to its status as a political protest.
Black Lives Matter protests were consequently held all over the UK and statues that commemorated racist figures of history were toppled or petitioned to be torn down. In Bristol, a statue of Edward Colston, a 17th-century slave trader responsible for the transportation of over 84,000 enslaved people, was pushed into the city’s harbour, prompting the Topple the Racists movement. The movement’s website provides a map of all statues and monuments in Britain which celebrate slavery and racism, exposing Britain’s nostalgia for the colonial past and the icons belonging to it.
A far-right response sought to “defend” statues from BLM protesters. This far-right rage was incited by former leader of the English Defense League, Tommy Robinson, who in a viral video encouraged his far-right supporters to “defend” these monuments. Far-right anger was further triggered by the defacement of a Winston Churchill statue in Parliament Square. It was graffitied with “[Churchill] was a racist”. Even though Churchill was a known racist, white supremacist and social Darwinist who believed the British were “a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race,” far-right rioters arrived in huge numbers to London. This alleged defence of statues spilled into violence and aggression, with Tommy Robinson’s supporters racially abusing BLM protesters and causing violent chaos on the streets of London.
Britain has a complex history regarding race relations between the 1948 arrival of the Windrush and the 2018 Windrush scandal which saw many British citizens threatened with deportation by Theresa May’s Conservative government. From the street violence of the Teddy Boys to the destructiveness of Tommy Robinson and his far-right supporters. From the 1958 Notting Hill Race Riots and the policy brutality which followed to the 1993 Stephen Lawrence case which highlighted the same issues of police neglect and the media’s fixation with the false notion of “Black on Black” crime. From the humble beginnings of Claudia Jones’ indoor Caribbean Carnival to the now world-famous Notting Hill Carnival. Britain has had and continues to have a specific and complex relationship regarding race, with historic events seemingly repeating themselves within our modern and allegedly progresive society.
By Rhiannon Ingle