The Police, Notting Hill Carnival and the Permanent 'State of Exception'

Notting Hill Carnival - despite predictions of disorder after London's riots - was hailed as 'peaceful' and a 'success'. The price was basic civil liberties, as the normal rule of law was suspended across the capital, and stop-and-search powers abused
Aaron Bastani
2 September 2011

“The flames of November 2005 still flicker in everyone’s minds...As an attempted solution, the pressure to ensure that nothing happens, together with police surveillance of the territory, will only intensify.” - Account of the policing fallout after the 2005 riots in France.

What qualifies as a 'successful' Notting Hill Carnival now seems open to debate. This year's carnival with its unusually good weather, high turnout and great food and music meant that, as ever, Europe's largest carnival (the second largest in the world after Rio in Brazil) was a feast of the senses and a day in which Londoners of all ages, creeds, colours - and importantly classes - could mix, share and dance.


Dawn raid ahead of Notting Hill Carnival: PA

Was this, then, a success?

After the London riots some two weeks ago, the media drummed up the possibility of further public disorder. After all, as recently as 2008 there were indeed riots on the streets of Notting Hill in the immediate aftermath of the event. At the previous 2010 Carnival, 230 arrests were made over the two days.

It is clear, then, that the avoidance of major public disorder in excess of that seen since 2008 represented a 'success' for the Metropolitan police, the event organisers and much of the mainstream media. When combined with the usual joy of the event itself, high attendance and the fortune of clement weather, it should come as no surprise that carnival organiser Chris Boothman declared that the event had allowed Londoners to "reclaim the streets".

This is of course not the first 'successful' policing of a major public event this year. There was the 'success' of the Royal Wedding, with its bizarre pre-arrests of dozens of activists, followed by equally ludicrous arrests on the day itself. The policing for the Royal Wedding was all done within the broader context of a Section 60 of the Criminal Justice Act, which was imposed on the City of Westminster, just as we saw a Section 60 imposed for the Notting Hill Carnival. 

A brief clarification of what Section 60 of the 1994 Criminal Justice Act actually is. It gives  a police officer of the rank of inspector or above the competence to,

...request  authorisation for additional search powers on the basis of a reasonable belief that incidents involving serious violence may take place or that people are carrying dangerous instruments or offensive weapons in the area without good reason", such powers relating to,"...pedestrians and vehicles in a specified locality, for a specified period, not exceeding 48 hours at a time.”

In the case of the Royal Wedding, the 'specified locality' of the Section 60 issued was the City of Westminster. For Notting Hill Carnival, the Section 60 was applied to the whole of London - a truly unprecedented step. The application of the section was not applied to a 'specified locality' but rather to a city of eight million residents. Is London, a global metropolis, now considered a 'specific locality' where normal legislation can be temporarily suspended for 48 hours? To what extent, then, is the United Kingdom or England considered a less specific locality?

As with the Royal Wedding, we saw a number of pre-arrests before the carnival. Whereas the Royal Wedding arrests essentially had a pre-crime basis, the arrests before the carnival were more about getting as many people as possible on rather minimal charges, such as possession of cannabis, and then inserting non-attendance to carnival within their bail conditions. A highly expensive process for the taxpayer ensured the non-attendance of around ninety individuals who may or may not have chosen to attend the event. One can only wonder how many pre-crime arrests or targeted charges with bail impositions will accompany the run-up to the Olympics in 2012 or the Queen's forthcoming Diamond Jubilee. My guess is far, far more.

Along with these pre-emptive arrests and the deployment of the Section 60 itself, there was of course the policing of the event on the Saturday and Sunday. How can one really call any event resulting in 274 arrests and 32 hospitalisations peaceful? What was the nature of these arrests? Will the police provide a breakdown of those arrested: their race, age, gender and reasons for their arrest? In light of the unprecedented police numbers on the streets of West London and the issuing of a citywide Section 60 this is the very least the Metropolitan police should be doing.

Anecdotally, I have been informed of several incidents during the carnival involving arrests. The first is that of a man who was stop and searched under a section 60 for blowing a vuvuzela. Before I relate the incident, let's make this clear: the police can stop and search under a section 60 if there has been serious violence or disorder in the vicinity. They can resort to Section(s) 43 or 47 ( sometimes invoked against people taking photographs for example) if there is sufficient grounds to 'suspect' involvement in terrorist activities.

What explanation can account for a person being stop and searched for blowing a musical instrument?  The story is recounted below by a friend who witnessed the events:

“...he was walking up Westbourne Park road with one of the free vuvuzelas they were giving out. A line of police was walking up towards him taking up most of the road. He was blowing on his horn and they deemed it to be too close to them and jumped on him and pulled him over to one side with a cop on each arm holding him in a crucifix position. around 10 cops surrounded him and one of them bruised his girlfriend's arm when she tried to help....they searched him, found nothing but continued to hold him asking for his name, address and date of birth.

"My mate refused to give them and asked why he was being searched: it was under section 60. He asked what violence and they claimed that blowing a horn near them equated to assault and that either way, "you are swearing aren't you, you dickhead!". A long row ensued with them allegedly threatening to nick him several times. Unable to get his name, they found his credit cards started addressing him by that name. He denied they were his so they threatened to nick him for theft! Eventually he gave them his name, DOB and address and they let him go. It took 15-20 minutes though. Officers numbers I caught where KF982, KF119 (Forest Gate). The officer who conducted the search was  a constable Elton from forest gate.”

Another incident involved a man who was arrested because he had given a 'thumbs down' to a passing cohort of police officers from the balcony of his home. As one friend of the arrestee in question recounts:

"...the arrest happened when some police were walking past us - we were on a rooftop. My friend gave them a thumbs down, and they stopped and beckoned him down. He refused to go down but they posted men on the door of the house we were in and said they wouldn't leave until we had gone down.

 "After fifteen minutes or so we went down to talk to them. The officer at the door (A) said my friend had sworn at his colleague (B). This was a lie and we said so - we all knew he had said nothing. It was clear to us they had decided to take offence at the thumbs down and had invented the swearing to justify their over-the-top reaction. Officer B shouted over 'If he denies it just arrest him'. Then Officer A told my friend to go and apologise to Officer B and he would not be arrested. He explained that my friend should be 'humble - very humble' when he apologised, he should address Officer B as 'sir', and he should not deny he had sworn.

"My friend agreed to apologise to Officer B (mostly because his mother was in the house I suspect) but felt the need to be truthful and say he hadn't sworn. For this he was arrested. His mother then went to talk to Officer B to try to clear up the misunderstanding and he threatened her with arrest. The friend was released not long after, having been told he would get a fixed penalty notice."

The same man who had witnessed this event also said, “I had another friend the previous day who had an officer threaten to smash his face in because he laughed at the officer's threats during a stop and search issued under a Section 60".

Over 250 individuals arrested during the carnival, nearly 100 arrested before the event and banned from attending (mostly as part of bail conditions for minor offences), a London-wide 'suspension' of normal legislation with regards to stop and search: Notting Hill Carnival was anything BUT evidence of Londoners 'reclaiming the streets' as Chris Boothman would have it. Instead, it offers yet another example of the insidious nature of how basic civil liberties are being compromised with increasing ease by the London Metropolitan Police. This continued erosion of liberties is equalled only by the passivity of a highly uncritical and uninformed media whose ambitions are to demand that we 'keep calm and carry on' regardless of what occurs.

The 'exceptional' manner in which Notting Hill Carnival was policed shows that the Royal Wedding was anything but an anomaly and that in all probability there is worse to come in the remaining year and 2012. Expect Section 60s to be issued at party conferences this Autumn (where large demonstrations are anticipated) and at any major student or anti-cuts demonstration.

The suspension of 'everyday' legislation is now becoming normal. 'Exceptional' conditions are increasingly viewed as quotidian, something Giorgio Agamben explores in his book 'State of Exception'. We will increasingly see tactics designed to deal with crisis employed during ANY situation of mass public assembly – whether it be a political protest, carnival or sporting event.

As Brett Neilson writes of Agamben's thinking on the matter,

"...this figure of generalized catastrophe under a sky void of transcendental authority...(is) characterized by 'governmental violence that ignores international law externally and produces a permanent state of exception internally, while all the time pretending to uphold the law." 

In light of Cameron's remarks on the recent London riots and 'silly' European human rights legislation, Agamben's views on executive power replacing legislative power in contemporary ‘liberal democracies’ are especially pertinent.

On Twitter, I remarked about all of this being a 'new normal'. A  friend remarked that it was anything but new for young, primarily BME males in London and other major UK cities. I am inclined to agree. Before the confrontational and counter-productive policing practices that have caused so much anger among the urban young become common practice in everyday policing, the public must start holding the police to account, particularly over excessive numbers of arrests, the use of section 60 and stop and search. The mainstream media, political commentariat and the political parties are, as usual, dismissive or unable to see the very real problems of arbitrary authority and the lack of transparency and accountability with the British police.

A section 60 for a whole city under the auspices of policing a public event is an abuse of power. We must ask that it does not happen again.

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