14 September 2006

White Riot

A nice bit of rose-coloured revisionism here, as yet another socialist "historian," one Alexander Billet, tries to turn the Clash from good, solid musicians and entertainers - which they were - into social visionaries and revolutionaries, which they most decidedly were not.

I wasn't at the Notting Hill riot of August, 1976, but I spent quite a bit of that year in Notting Hill and think it fair to say that I have a slightly more accurate picture of what it was like than Billet, who quite evidently was nowhere near the place. It's true that the Clash song "White Riot" was inspired by the largely black-led riot that erupted on the last day of that year's Carnival. It's also true that Joe Strummer, in his befuddled, trustafarian way, genuinely believed that the young black men showering the police with bricks and bottles were fighting back against oppression and in the vanguard of a revolution that whites like himself also be part of.

But that's where reality goes off a cliff and a couple generations of political fanatics and race-baiting fantasists take over. In truth, there was nothing remotely revolutionary or progressive about the Carnival riot; it could be more accurately described, like its Brixton counterpart in 1981, as a right-to-rob riot. In both cases, rioting broke out not because the police were unjustly harassing young black men - though that was not unheard of in those days - but because they were trying to stop them from engaging in rampant street robberies.

Billet writes, either naively or dishonestly, that, "The police presence [at the 1976 Carnival] was, of course, unnecessarily large." Only someone who never attended the Carnival in those days or who favours robbery as a legitimate means of income redistribution would say such a foolish thing; "steaming," where a large gang of black boys would go charging through the crowds mugging everyone in sight, was as much a part of the old-school Carnival as the costumes, the dancing and the spliffs. Olivia and her friends (all of whom loved the Carnival and hated the police) were knocked down and robbed by a marauding gang one year. I think she was about 70 at the time, and for years - hell, decades afterward, she was still describing how she tried explaining to the robbers that she wasn't like the other white people, she was on their side. And when the police came to see if she was all right, she gave them a good bollocking, insisting that any trouble at the Carnival was their fault, and that the young black men had no choice but to commit robberies because they were racially oppressed.

In other words, even though she was never much of a punk rocker (except maybe the kind with flowers in her hair), Olivia and Joe Strummer had a good deal in common: a visceral conviction than black people could do no wrong and policemen could do no right. But even today, when the Notting Hill Carnival has lost any political edge it may have once had and become little more than a drunkfest and tourist attraction, Mayor Ken - a huge supporter of Carnival himself - still finds it necessary to assign 10,000 coppers, a third of London's police force, to keep the peace. There haven't been any murders the last two Carnivals, and robberies are probably no worse than they are on a normal night in Notting Hill, so it appears to be working. Of course it's a enormous boon for criminals in the rest of London, which is left largely unpatrolled.

But I digress, and I've ranged so far afield from the topic that I might as well go even further and tell the story of the year Olivia and all her gay friends ("my lovely queens," she always called them) were partying away in the flat as Carnival raged and seethed (in a relatively benign way) on the street below. One of the queens started flirting with a copper stationed in front of our building, and wound up inviting him upstairs for a drink. To his surprise, the copper accepted, and brought along a couple of his mates. They were all hanging out on the balcony getting drunker and sillier by the minute, and inviting more and more coppers up until the whole upstairs of the flat was a sea of blue.

You might recall me saying that Olivia hated the police, but that was a general principle; as individuals - provided they weren't arresting her at the time - she got along with them just fine. So she played the gracious hostess, pointing to the fridge and telling each new arrival to help himself to whatever he could find to drink in there. Just then her son - who had a bit of history, shall we say, with the Old Bill - walked in and stood there with his mouth hanging agape.

"Mum..." he tried to say with a strangled voice, pointing at the fridge. "What's that, darling? Are we out of drinks? Be a dear and go buy some more," she said, waving some money in his direction.

"No, it's just that..." He went mute again, as three coppers rifled through the fridge in search of mixers and ice. It wasn't until the party was over that he was able to explain: aparently the fridge was where he'd been keeping his LSD stash, which was considerable. Whether or not any of it ended up in the coppers' drinks has yet to be determined. We think not, but it's not always easy to tell at Carnival time.

Anyway, to (sort of) return to my point, many crazy, beautiful and wonderful things happened during Carnival, as well as many brutal, ugly and violent things. But when sloganeers or songwriters try to turn it all into a simplistic parable of rebellion against oppression, it's a pretty safe bet they're either clueless white people slumming it, or cynical manipulators of the truth who are so desperate for a "revolution" to glom onto that they'll casually play toy soldiers with other people's lives.

No comments: