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Notting HIll Carnival

How Carnival Honoured Grenfell

The events of mid-June hung over celebrations, but many saw Carnival as a prime opportunity to reclaim the streets around the tower and memorialise victims.
A woman in a Grenfell shirt at Carnival. Photo: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire/PA Images

"I have respect and admiration for these young people. You have experienced things that have made you sensitive, brave and caring… You are the Grenfell generation."

So said Labour MP Emma Dent on day one of Notting Hill Carnival. As people stood there in silence, listening, it seemed clear that this was going to be an event framed by one of the biggest UK news events of the year, not only because the tower block remains, physically, overlooking the site, but because the trauma experienced by so many – and the state negligenceand incompetence that's become searingly apparent since the fire – has resonated so widely.


Saying that, while some outlets made sweeping generalisations about the connection between Grenfell and this year's Carnival, in reality it was with a light touch that residents, party-goers and firefighters remembered the events of the 14th of June. Green clothes were worn in solidarity, as well as T-shirts and badges bearing messages, while graffiti was sprayed along the route and a minute's silence held on both the Sunday and Monday made the point that much of the Carnival site was hallowed ground.

Carnival-goers observing a minute's silence in memory of the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire. Photo: Yui Mok/PA Wire/PA Images

Chanelle Barclay, a 17-year-old from Brixton, spent most of the Sunday morning writing "Justice for Grenfell' in chalk across boarded planks on Ladbroke Grove. "It's just a good place to remind people," she said, "and people are having a good time in spite of Grenfell, not because they've forgotten. I guess that's the message."

En route to Powis Terrace, a mum had wrapped her child's pushchair in green material, with "GREEN FOR GRENFELL" written out over it in black makrer. "We dancing, and we remembering," she shouted over a sound-system blaring out Soca, while she queued for a pineapple punch.

The Justice for Grenfell campaign rightfully made its presence known through pop-up stalls, informing people of the campaign and handing out petition forms, which aim to – among other things – "co-ordinate information about legal rights, entitlements, hearings, processes and emotional support, including trauma, for those directly affected so that justice can be attained without delay and in an open and transparent manner". On floats, messages printed on tarpaulin encouraged "Grenfell health and wellbeing support" from the NHS, while chants of "Justice for Grenfell!" followed the parade along Ladbroke Grove. Campaigners handed out literature with a call to arms expressing the importance of "a unified community voice on this issue".


"Carnival is about reminding people that we're here, and that building, that block, that tower is about reminding people that people are not getting justice."

The effect of a unified voice is neatly made at an event like Carnival. Political in its very essence, it was started by anti-racist campaigner Claudia Jones in the wake of the Notting Hill riots of August, 1958. As a result, the politicisation of public space and who is allowed ownership of it undercuts the event. Notting Hill Carnival is about being visible and defiant – when, for instance, the Met Police disproportionately equate it with drugs and violence. It is also, crucially, about reclaiming streets in the same way the Latin American community of Elephant and Castle do during their festival in Burgess Park; how Muslim, Sikh and Hindu communities feel when celebrating Vaisakhi on the streets of Southall. It is about staking a claim.

Reclaiming physical space is important because sometimes it is the first step in carving out ideological space – which might lead to institutions seeing you and hearing your concerns. Something Kensington and Chelsea council (RBKC) famously failed to do when Grenfell residents complained about fire safety, months before the fire tore the building apart.

Earlier this month, Lee Jasper, a chair at the London Race and Criminal Justice Consortium, and former policing director for the Greater London Authority, made his thoughts about public safety clear in a piece for The Guardian. In relation to crowd control he wrote:


"In light of the Grenfell and Hillsborough tragedies, the issue of public safety has risen up the public and political agenda. The fact that over the last decade [Kensington and Chelsea council, the Met police and the London mayor's office] have consistently fudged the question of carnival public safety has very likely put Londoners' lives at risk."

He went on:

"Who in the event of a catastrophic crushing at carnival (the most likely high-risk scenario), would be held legally responsible for public safety?"

There is a tension between what communities expect from the state when it comes to safety and what they're actually provided, and Grenfell has made the demand for better duty of care something that people with institutional power are being forced to think about.

Of course, Carnival wasn't just a place for celebration and remembrance. There are fears from some Grenfell residents that it was being used as a stalling tactic, the reason why RBKC – which is required to respond to weekly complaints in two working days – have failed to respond to the first submission received on the 28th of July. Or why there are still unanswered questions about the uncertain death toll in Grenfell Tower, rehousing options, rent payments for people still living in the neighbourhood and trauma counselling.

Either way, with the incompetence we continue to see from RBKC, large community gatherings are more crucial than ever – to help challenge state and media narratives, and to ensure justice is served. Carnival was – and proved to be – a prime opportunity for the local community to reclaim space while firmly in the public eye, while the shadow of Grenfell was a reminder that a generation has been mobilised to speak up, to challenge power.

On Latimer Road, local Marcus Steel – who was selling T-shirts and horns – perhaps said it best. "You want people to remember what happened," he pointed out. "Carnival is about reminding people that we're here, and that building – that block, that tower – is about reminding people that people are not getting justice. You can't have a street party without reminding people what is happening on these streets!"