LONDON (Reuters) - Revellers packed west London on Sunday for one of Europe’s biggest street parties with record numbers of police on duty to make sure there was no repetition of riots that scarred the British capital three weeks ago.
The Notting Hill Carnival, an annual two-day celebration of Caribbean culture that usually draws about 1 million people, got under way in a relaxed atmosphere.
The festival carries more than usual significance this year because it is the biggest event in London since riots flared in the capital on August 6, denting the city’s reputation.
With the London Olympics less than a year away, the capital’s police force needed to restore public faith in its ability to ensure security at major events.
Police said they had made 33 arrests on drugs charges, theft or other offences — down from 55 at the same stage last year — and said the low number of arrests was a sign the first day of the carnival had been good humoured.
The main parade takes place on Monday.
Monty Ward, 56, who runs a mobile sound system and band, said this month’s disorder had nothing to do with the carnival.
“It should never have affected this event. We just want the people to come down and have a good time,” he said.
Reflecting nerves after Britain’s worst violence in decades, some businesses and homeowners boarded up their properties and police were granted special powers to search people for weapons.
Ahmed Said, 25, who serves up Palestinian food at his Maramia Cafe, was confident the carnival was going to be trouble-free.
“I feel it in my heart and from the people 100 percent. It’s a beautiful day and everyone is smiling,” he said.
On the opening “children’s day,” crowds lined the streets to watch a procession of trucks carrying children with painted faces, wearing flamboyant costumes and multi-coloured wigs, some waving Jamaican flags or blowing whistles.
Children played steel drums and loudspeakers pounded out reggae, African or Samba music as party-goers sampled dishes such as jerk chicken, curried goat or mutton.
The police kept a relatively low profile, patrolling in pairs or on bicycles, but thousands of officers were available in case of trouble.
Police say 5,500 officers were on duty on Sunday and there will be 6,500 on Monday, a public holiday — 500 more than in previous years. Another 4,000 police are on stand-by.
Gamza Savas, 27, from Istanbul, on holiday in London with her husband, admitted to nerves beforehand due to the riots.
“But our friends here told us it would be OK and would make everything better. It’s important for London to have it because it will make the people feel happier about themselves,” she said.
The riots earlier this month broke out after a protest over the police shooting of a suspect turned violent, later spreading to other English cities.
The capital’s police made 2,000 arrests after the disorder that saw hooded rioters looting businesses, setting buildings alight and fighting pitched battles with officers.
Inspired by Trinidad’s carnival, the Notting Hill event was first held in London in 1964 and has grown into one of the world’s biggest, generating tens of millions of pounds for London’s economy.
In its early days the carnival was marred by ethnic tension between police and youths. Riots there in 1976 inspired the Clash to write their classic protest song “White Riot.”
Since then much of the area has become more affluent and home to the rich and famous. It was the setting for the 1999 film “Notting Hill” starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts.
Additional reporting by Adrian Croft; Editing by Matthew Jones