Respect Festival 2003                                              Angharad Williams

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July 19, 2003 saw London's top free music and dance festival, take place at the Millennium Dome. The Respect festival was aimed at celebrating the capital's diversity and promoting anti-racism...but do such events change anything?

Public EnemyOn the tenth anniversary of Stephen Lawrence’s murder the third annual Respect festival was brought to the Millennium Dome, situated in the borough of London where this crime took place. Ken Livingston and the National Assembly Against Racism hosted this colourful celebration of diversity with the slogan for the day being respect not racism.

This was the first ever event at the Dome which is completely free. The vibe was friendly as the sun shone on a crowd who looked forward to entertainment on offer on the eight different stages including a Choice FM stage, a Dub stage and a World Dance stage; there was something to please everyone. Acts like JJC & 419 Squad, RDB and Un-cut, the headlining Public Enemy and Gregory Isaacs entertained a hefty crowd which was as diverse as the entertainment on offer. There were stalls with numerous organisations offering information, arts and crafts, a funfair with stomach-churning rides, food stalls selling everything from organic food to barbecue jerk chicken, crazy golf, five-a-side football…there was so much on offer that in eight hours you could still leave and not have seen everything! Public Enemy certainly brought the noise to respect, Flavor Flav emerging from the crowd after the group started without him. Full of energy they played a back-catalogue of their hits including ‘Fight The Power’ and ‘Bring The Noise’. RDB brought their fresh bhangra beats which got people dancing and Gregory Isaacs chilled the mood and brought the festival to a close with reggae classics.

The day was highly praised. JJC aka Skillz from Big Brovaz voiced the opinions of many young people attending the festival, “I must give enuff respect to Livingston for putting together a lovely show. Before this I didn’t realise what the mayor could do, I was thinking ‘what do we need a mayor for?’ This kind of event brings the community together ….Our kind of music doesn’t really get onto mainstream radio so at this kind of event people get to appreciate and hear it. I hope more community stuff like this can happen as brings people together.” Jenna G a member of the group Uncut who performed at respect said ‘Its really cool. It does mean a lot, when you are walking round, you realise you are playing to your peers, it's kids, it's families, it's real people, and with the whole thing being about culture and anti-racism, it's kinda nice just to be part of something like that.’

As for those attending the festival I spoke to Corrina a student from East London who said of the day “It’s a really good cause and I think it’s good its in the Dome with this unpredictable weather, it seems controlled and I feel safe.” Andy Williams from North London was full of praise for the day; “It’s been excellent I’ve only seen Public Enemy I thought they were the perfect band for the event, capturing the theme of anti-racism. It’s very relaxed, very chilled out.” A huge team of volunteers were working at the event giving up their free time to sell programmes, hand out stickers and provide information. I spoke to Mathew Hann from the USA, who now lives in North London about why he had decided to give up his spare time for respect; “It’s an incredibly important thing to do as it’s very important to my heart. I want to get a message out to people when they hear my accent that there is more to Americans than the stereotype they see on the news." This is as much the theme of the festival as the remembrance of Stephen Lawrence - breaking down stereotypes and in doing so breaking down the tools of racism.

Has the 10 years that have passed since Stephen’s death marked a change in society and have we learnt any lessons? It took four years for a public inquiry to be set up into Stephen’s death. It took a further two years for the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Report to be published which contained recommendations which have led to changes in police practice and to law in the form of the Race Relations Act. In a recent interview with the Independent Newspaper, Commander Cressida Dick, the head of the Metropolitan Police diversity directorate said "It's very difficult to imagine the situation where we will say we are no longer institutionally racist," She went on to say that she did not believe there was an institution that could say "we are not racist". Does this make an event like respect pointless? What about all the work done and money spent on anti-racism initiatives? Livingston said of London “Every community in the world is in this city and we live together in peace and with respect” but this is questionable in itself.

There was a big anti-BNP message at the festival; with cries of ‘We hate BNP’ encouraged by the compare Lee Jasper. The BNP has more elected councillors than ever, particularly in the North of England, and they will stand in Greater London Authority elections – only needing 5 per cent of the vote in order to gain a seat due to proportional representation. The Mayor of London Ken Livingston passionately said “We will not have this city disfigured by the election of a fascist BNP councillor using the Greater London authority to perpetrate hatred.” Since 9/11 the world has become a more suspicious place particularly with the arrest of Al-Qaeda suspects within the UK and fears of a similar attack here. This has led to tensions within communities and racist attacks including an attack on an Asian woman with a hammer on a train by a man who shouted: "You want killing for what you did in America".

It has to be said those who hold extreme racist views are in the minority, but events in recent years have played on people’s minds and this is where organisations like the BNP pray upon. Doreen Lawrence said in her speech, “ For too long we have been under the thumb, it’s about time we start to demand respect as respect is due.” The voices of those demanding respect need to be louder than those who bread on hatred and fear. This is where the respect festival has an important part to play in the fight against racism. The Respect festival is a step on the long road to combating racism within the UK and if it does become a national event as Ken Livingston hopes it will then hopefully change will be possible.

Although some may have come for the music the message was not lost on them, and I think everyone left more informed about the struggle against racism in London and the UK as a whole. In uncertain times we should all show each other a bit more respect, and show respect for other cultures. This message needs to be passed on to the next generation so they can avoid the mistakes we have made in the past. Lee Jasper shouted “Do you Love anti – racism, ’cos were gonna kick racist ass all over this town at the Respect festival.” Lets just hope that this is what the Respect festival and organisations fighting racism manage to do.

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