Written by:
Sophia Purdy-Moore

Black people as perennial suspects: the racialised policing of music festivals

Read time:
5 minutes

Black people as perennial suspects: the racialised policing of music festivals

Our Sophia Purdy-Moore on the racialised, and hypocritical, nature of how British music festivals are policed. Black people are subject to suspicion, criminalisation, and over-policing based on deeply rooted and racist perceptions that ‘Blackness’ is inherently violent, disruptive, and in need of controlling.

Having just attended both Glastonbury and Wireless festivals, I was taken aback by the stark difference in the scale and nature of the policing of each event. The heavily militarised police presence at Wireless highlighted the systemic racism embedded in the treatment of Black people, music, and culture. More often than not, Black people are subject to suspicion, criminalisation, and over-policing based on deeply rooted and racist perceptions that they are inherently violent, disruptive, and in need of controlling. This excessive and authoritarian policing reflects responses to the mere presence of Blackness, and has real, far-reaching consequences for those who bear the brunt.

At Glastonbury, which welcomes more than 200,000 people every year and was criticised for this year’s “pale, male and stale” lineup, I saw just two police officers wandering through the festival on foot patrol. Just two officers, despite witnessing extremely high and open levels of drug consumption at the festival which in 2021 found levels of criminalised drugs high enough to harm local wildlife. In contrast, in the 45 minutes I spent outside Wireless, I encountered multiple riot vans, scores of police armed with batons, mounted police units, and aggressive police dogs despite being a much smaller festival billed as "Europe's biggest celebration of Black music". These discrepancies feel reflective of the ways in which Black people are perpetually perceived as a threat to ‘order’, putting us at extreme risk of criminalisation and state violence.

As experts and campaigning groups such as Release highlight, the unequal enforcement of drug laws is a key driver of racial disparities at every point of the criminal justice system. Despite lower rates of drug consumption amongst Black and minority ethnic people, from stops, searches and arrests to prosecution and sentencing, Black people bear the brunt of drug policing. At the sharp end of this we see the devastating deaths of young Black men following police use of force, such as Edson da Costa and Rashan Charles, who both died in custody after swallowing substances wrapped in plastic.

With this in mind, I was overcome with discomfort surrounded by police in Finsbury Park, and promptly decided to leave. When I reached the Manor House exit (having passed rows and rows of officers throughout the park), I encountered several police on horseback. Suddenly, they advanced towards a group of people (as well as a woman carrying a baby) in an attempt to drive them out of the park, effectively kettling them. This, despite Haringey Council’s promise that around 70% of the park would still be available to the public during the festival. Panic ensued as people scrambled to get out of the horses’ way. Though there was ample space in the park, a wall and two small gates created conditions that could have led to a crush. The crowd was evidently alarmed, but the mounted officers pressed on, shouting orders, betraying a real lack of human connection or empathy felt for the group of predominantly young Black people. Police on horseback is a dangerous, inappropriate and irresponsible way to control a crowd. We think back to the 2020 London Black Lives Matter protests where a police horse bolted through a crowd of peaceful protesters, throwing its rider to the ground. Though Amnesty raised concerns about the “heavy handed” policing of the protests, the mainstream consensus was that those peacefully protesting against racial injustices were to blame. Such policing would never even be imaginable around predominantly white festivals like Glastonbury or Reading & Leeds.

The authoritarian policing of Wireless must also be understood in the context of the criminalisation of Black forms of creative expression, which is linked to the racialised moral panic around ‘knife crime’ and ‘gangs’. Rap and drill music and constructed ‘gang’ narratives are increasingly being used as evidence in court. As we saw with the unjust collective punishment of the Manchester 10 last year, and the conviction of Durrell Goodall, Reano Walters and Nathaniel Williams which lawyers have applied to be appealed, these labels disproportionately criminalise Black boys and men for who they associate with - be they friends, neighbours, family members or acquaintances. Meanwhile, the white collar working, Top Boy watching people who enjoyed performances by the likes of Aitch, Central Cee and Loyle Carner at Glastonbury are the very same people making baseless comments about Black Londoners wearing tracksuits; “everyone round there is in a gang” and “that lot are always selling drugs here”. These may be throwaway comments, but it’s exactly this frame of thinking which legitimises racist police violence, and the criminalisation of Black people, communities and forms of cultural expression.

Creative and artistic expression is a valuable means of catharsis for disenfranchised young people. Over a decade of austerity has resulted in at least 74% funding cuts to vital youth support services. In the wake of a global pandemic and in the midst of the cost-of-living scandal, Black young people are facing unemployment rates akin to the 1980s, when the Brixton uprisings happened. Beyond failures to respect their right to freedom of expression, it’s unspeakably cruel to criminalise young people for expressing their thoughts, feelings and experiences in this increasingly distressing world. Rather than criminalising and punishing young people, we should be confronting the difficult conditions in which they exist. 

The Casey Review exposed the deep-rooted racism, misogyny, and homophobia that persists within the Met, showing just how many of us are caught in the institution’s wide, harmful net. In spite of evidence that police and prisons are inflicting more violence on communities than they prevent, leaders from across the political spectrum still seek to further expand the scale and power of the carceral state. The introduction of pre-criminalising orders such as Knife Crime Prevention Orders (KCPOs) and Serious Violence Reduction Orders (SVROs) grants the police even greater authority to surveil and criminalise young people, particularly those belonging to working-class Black and minority ethnic communities. Meanwhile, Oasis  Charitable Trust has spent over £36 million of public funds to establish the UK’s first ‘secure school’, a site where 49 young people will be imprisoned, costing a further £10.5 million each year. Imagine the impact those resources could have if they were invested into local health, education or housing initiatives.

Pockets of community-based best practice already exist, from 4Front’s political education programmes which encourage expansive, critical thinking to Cradle Community’s conflict resolution skill sharing and Mentivity’s mentoring interventions. In the thrall of multiple overlapping crises, it’s up to each of us to resist harmful narratives and interventions that frame certain communities as the problem and police as the solution. We must challenge the expansion of police powers and advocate for policies and practices that promote social justice, equity, and the protection of everyone’s civil liberties.

Sophia Purdy-Moore is Communications Officer at the Runnymede Trust.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Runnymede Trust.

Join the fight for racial justice: support the Runnymede Trust’s work by making a donation.

Photo © ColobusYeti/iStock

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