NEW YORK – Revelers displaying their Caribbean pride took to the streets of Brooklyn on Monday, flags waving, music blaring and feet dancing, for New York City’s annual take on Carnival celebrations.
At the main West Indian American Day Parade and the early morning street party known as J’Ouvert that preceded it, they were joined by a significant police presence intended to prevent any violence from marring the events as has happened in some years. As of Monday evening, police had no reports of violence along the route.
“This festival means a whole lot. I’m West Indian, and it’s important to share that heritage, share our color and our food and our music,” said Deyon Roman, 53, who had her hair pulled back with the flag of her native Grenada, and was clad in a handmade crochet top and skirt, showcasing Grenada’s colors of red, green, and yellow. “This parade represents the melting pot that is the Caribbean.”
New York’s Caribbean community has held annual Carnival celebrations since the 1920s, first in Harlem and then in Brooklyn, where festivities happen on Labor Day.
The festivities start with J’Ouvert, which comes from the French words “jour” and “ouvert” and means daybreak. Meant as a celebration of emancipation from slavery, it features revelers who cover their bodies in paint or oil, wear helmets with giant horns, and toss talcum powder into the air. The highlight is a parade of steel pan bands.
J’Ouvert was once only loosely organized and began in the dark, hours before dawn, in a Brooklyn neighborhood still dealing with gang violence.
Late-night shootings were a concern for years, but outrage grew fervent in 2015, when Carey Gabay, an aide to Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, died after he left his Brooklyn home to attend the festivities and was hit by stray gunfire. Two more people were killed at the celebration in 2016, despite enhanced security. The main parade had also been scarred by sporadic incidents in the last 15 years.
The New York Police Department instituted a series of security measures, which included moving the start of the J’Ouvert parade away from the middle of the night to 6 a.m., putting light towers and security cameras in place, setting up checkpoints, and increasing police presence at both the early morning event and the larger parade.
No violence was reported at the events, though a 3:30 p.m. shooting five blocks away drew a crowd that caused some congestion near the parade route, police said. They said the shooting stemmed from a dispute not related to the parade. The victim, wounded in the hand, is expected to survive.
At Monday’s main parade, spectator Arnold Cherry, 76, said, “We want the parade to be safe, so it’s necessary to have them here. This is supposed to be more free flow and free spirit, but we don’t want violence to get in the way of the parade continuing. We can’t have one incident be used as an excuse to inhibit it.”
Still, said 72-year-old Trevor Lyons, “I feel it’s been tempered down, it’s been dampened. There used to be more vendors, more dancing, but now it’s gotten too controlled.”
Elected officials and those running for office came out to take part in the parade. Cuomo marked the occasion by announcing the state would put up to $15 million toward building a community center in Brooklyn named for Gabay.