A carnival that rips off the public and whips up hysteria

What has happened over the Notting Hill Carnival, I think, is that an old script has been discovered in the archives, dusted down and presented as original thought. A certain element in police ranks has fed journalists material to suggest that the carnival masked extensive crime and violence; that the police were instructed to go easy, for fear of provoking riots or accusations of racism; and that the carnival should now be taken off the streets. The Daily Mail published what was supposed to be a photograph of an armed and dangerous man. (I have my doubts. After all, I once brought out a carnival band called "Forces of Victory", which had military weapons as props, including a Sherman tank.)

Many years ago, I was chairman of the Notting Hill Carnival. The authorities - a Conservative government and local council, the London Evening Standard and the rest of them - felt then that the carnival should be banished to a park. Shepherd's Bush and Hyde Park were among the suggestions. The local police commander sought out residents, got up a petition and posed with a sheet of paper, with thousands of names duplicated on it, for the Kensington and Chelsea Post. This was one of the things that led to fights between police and youths on the streets of Notting Hill.

The organisers of music and costume gathered anxiously to bring order to an institution that was then barely formed. We fashioned a democratic constitution, set things in order, convinced the Arts Council that ours was a legitimate activity and got funding for the first time.

Now, I fear, the Carnival Trust has opened the door to all the old enemies through its failure to respond to hugely changing circumstances.

It has to be said that the Metropolitan Police cannot police every single carnival-goer - between one and a half million and two million people altogether. They have, by and large, to police themselves. That was why we decided that, if we were to defend carnival against our enemies, we would have to discipline the troublemakers in our ranks, albeit more gently than the police would have done.

Now a whole generation has grown up without the knowledge of our tortured history; they are intolerant, restless, drifting in the dark. The Carnival Trust sees them only as a market to be exploited. The organisers dig deep into the pockets of stallholders, who in turn rip off the public, who in turn snatch and grab what they can.

The thousands who are invited to come to the festival are treated like dirt. They are herded around like cattle by an army of police officers and given, by and large, fifth-rate entertainment advertised by the public commentators as colourful when, in fact, the costumes are tinselly and graceless, without a glimmer of artistic imagination.

Banks and banks of sound equipment whip up hysteria. And year after year, this is heaped on the public by the organisers and their sponsors - both this year and last, Western Union. Tragedy awaited them. In this very column, I warned of impending disaster, and said that I would not attend. I challenged the organisers to reorganise and the Arts Council to audit each group that it financed, only to be called an irritation.

Now two lives have been taken because public safety was not high among the priorities of Western Union and the Carnival Trust. I hope the families take legal advice; they may be able to sue the pants off the trust, whose members should resign and clear the way for a reorganisation.

That reorganisation must take its lead from a popular 1963 calypso sung by the great bard Lord Kitchener: "The road made to walk on Carnival Day". The central procession must be kept on the streets. We need an artistic policy that allows young designers - English kids, black and white - to place their stamp on the festival.

Then, and only then, can we discuss policing. Artistic policy first, policing after. All else, as Bob Marley would have said, is babble inna Babylon.

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.