A slow handclap for Scotland Yard, which has hailed its most successful “pre-Notting Hill Carnival crackdown” to date: more than 300 arrests have been made since 11 August, 26 of them this morning in a series of dawn raids, during which a reported total of 190 knives and 18 firearms were recovered. As an intelligence-led operation that took months to conclude and targeted violent crime, the drugs trade, and child exploitation, it is a fantastic success: who doesn’t want a safer, happier, calmer city? But as a narrative told by the police to the public it is, at best, embarrassing: witness the seizure of a kilogram of heroin in Catford by the Metropolitan police, tweeted out by the force as a pre-carnival victory. Because nothing quite screams “party time!” like uncut smack found more than an hour’s journey away from the calypso tent.
Of these 300-plus arrests made, a Met police spokeswoman told me: “We don’t know that these people were going to turn up at the carnival. The point of the operation was to target people we know to be gang members and habitual knife carriers. It was to disrupt crime and the culmination of several months’ work.” Let that sink in. General criminal activity in the capital city has been tacked on to Notting Hill carnival and, by the police’s own admission, there is no basis for it – bar, you may conclude, demonizing the event.
And this isn’t even the worst part of the Met’s problem: we have become so inured to accepting that the carnival comes rife with crime, drugs, and rowdiness that there was little to no outcry earlier this month when it was discovered that the police will use advanced facial recognition software to scan carnival-goers over the bank holiday. To clarify: the police are profiling an entire event using intrusive real-time biometric surveillance for which there is no legal basis, and, as far as human rights charity Liberty can confirm, for which there no accountability or democratic consent.
We would not accept fingerprint or DNA checkpoints in any other public space; a database tracking and recording everyone’s faces (using technology the FBI has confirmed has significant issues in accurately identifying black people) is no less dangerous or bleakly dystopian.
The force has already admitted the program was trialed last year and led to zero arrests, but that they were and will be matching faces in the crowd against databases of people “they suspect will cause trouble, comparing them with images of people previously arrested or under bail conditions to keep away from the event.”
So should we expect to see the same technology used at other festivals around the UK?
“It’s a good question,” the Met spokeswoman says. “I can’t answer any other question about any other festival, but every year we do work like this in the run up to Carnival. There’s nothing to it, there’s no underlying current.”
No underlying current bar the fact that Notting Hill seems to be targeted in a way that no other British festival is – even those with higher proportions of arrests. Around 175,000 people went to Glastonbury this year, where 188 reported crimes led to 71 arrests on a site where the police presence arrives in face paint and glitter beards. For comparison’s sake, by 6 pm on bank holiday Monday last year, 9,000 police officers had arrested a total of 316 people from an estimated 2 million visitors in Notting Hill.
For all that it suffers the continual threat of closure, of being moved, of being bashed by the press, Notting Hill Carnival is far from the most dangerous event in Europe. After Rio, it’s the biggest street party of its kind in the world. Some 40,000 volunteers make it so that about 1 million people can come along each day of bank holiday weekend in the criminal pursuit of “good times” (™ Norman Jay MBE). There are calypso and soca, there are costumes and parades, steel-pan bands, dozens of performing stages and the best sound systems in the country. For 50 years, what is now one of the poshest and most Richard Curtis-ed corners of the capital has managed to host the most-famous celebration of the African-Caribbean culture there is. It’s true that William Hague, an actual menace to society, did famously turn up one year to drink out of a coconut, but is that scar alone enough for the carnival to be considered the most controversial criminal undertaking modern Britain has ever witnessed?
Obviously not, no. And yet consider how vital it is, how necessary it is. How needed the residents say it is – especially after Grenfell. And consider the racism felt in the threat of young black people having fun. And that’s the real story of Notting Hill Carnival. Of why a street party that the London Mayor’s office says generates at least £93m for the city’s economy is continually under threat and faces public censure.