In yesterday’s London paper the guest columnist, Mike Barnard, publicised the launch of a campaign to reinstate London’s rise festival. The background, for those who don’t know, is this: for about a decade, London – with financial support from trade unions – hosted a massive annual anti-racist music festival. When Boris came in he decided to change its theme from anti-racism to the celebration of diversity. Stripped of its explicit anti-racist component the trade unions decided to witdraw funding of the event. Facing a funding short fall of £500k Boris decided to scrap the event.
Needless to say, this turn of events has riled progressive people everywhere. Fighting racism should be the business of trade unions and of local and national government. Nonetheless, having been to many previous rise festivals, I am not convinced that its demise is too great a tragedy. This is not simply because, as a died-in-the-wool rock fan, these festivals offered little to match my taste. Rather, I feel that – in 2009 – the utility events like the Rise festival in dealing racism, cannot justify the hundreds of thousands of pounds in expenditure.
This has to do with the nature -and, more importantly, the demography – of racism in London. Having gone to a fairly standard inner-london comprehensive, I remember being shocked at hearing young people whom I met from other parts of the country casually deploying explicit racist terminiology. This is not to say that young people in london are unaffected by racist thinking, but simply that throughout much of this city the explicit expression of racist sentiments is socially unacceptable to an especially great extent. Among young people especially – white, black, working class, middle class – basic anti-racist principles seem to have achieved a certain dominance, something that is a real tribute to decades of hard work. In contrast to places like Lancashire – where young hot heads have seemed to form the advanced guard of those stirring up racial tensions – it is generally the older generations who have remained the key repositories of racist politics. Racist politics meanwhile, has a very distinct geography. The strength of the far right in particular is highly localised.
All of this leaves me wondering if an enormous one day festival, aimed at young people, and based in inner London is what anti-racist london really needs. Essentially, it seems to be a very expensive way to enable thousands of people already confident in their anti-racist political identities to come together and feel good about themselves, while at the same time putting on a big free gig which a limited number of people in our enormously diverse city will enjoy.
The half a million pounds needed to put on Rise could, in my humble opinion, be better used. It could be targetted at those communities in which racism really is a growing problem. The money consumed by this single day of entertainment could, for example, be used to pay the wages of 20 odd youth workers. It could be used in other words, to engage much more substantially with those who need to be engaged with. This wouldn’t be as trendy as a grand anti-racist day out, but it may well be more effective.