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Daybreak in Crown Heights: J’Ouvert Under Tight Security

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This is not J’ouvert, this is church!” cried Terrence Lezama as he stood on a sidewalk watching the West Indian Day Parade on Labor Day afternoon in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. That was first thought to cross Lezama’s mind after he was told this year’s celebration of J’ouvert would not begin until 6 a.m.—taking place in daylight, an affront to J’ouvert revelers and the symbolism of the event. Instead of the usually carefree predawn rumpus on Eastern Parkway, Flatbush Avenue,  and their side streets, J’ouvert this year happened under tighter security conditions. The mayor’s office and the police department feared a repeat of last year’s unrest, in which two people were killed and more than 40 were injured—violence that undermines the J’ouvert tradition and alienates the community.

The party would not start until 6 a.m, but die-hard J’ouvert revelers had been gathering on the corner of Plaza Street East and Eastern Parkway since 3 a.m. Likewise, members of  Afro-Caribbean band Pagwah had been up since 2:30 am, they said. J’ouvert (which means “daybreak” in French Creole) is held annually on Labor Day weekend and serves as a prelude to the much larger West Indian Day Parade.

It symbolizes being chained down and breaking free.

J’ouvert originated in the Caribbean. It coincides with the kick-off of the carnival. And it is a powerful symbol of Afro-Caribbeans’ emancipation from slavery,  as well as an act of resistance against British colonialism that would follow in the post-Emancipation years. While carnival has evolved from its beginnings as an exclusive masquerade party for the wealthy to an affair for all in the streets, J’ouvert remains associated with the descendants of slaves in the Caribbean who danced to celebrate their freedom. A woman who gave only her first name, Diana, said families on the islands back home and Carribean immigrants here still teach their children the significance of J’ouvert. “It wasn’t in a textbook or anything,” Diana said. “It’s symbolizing being chained down and breaking free…showing that you’re more than that.”

Crowds of people danced down Flatbush Avenue covered in oil and paint, some wearing chains and devil horns on their heads. The street pulsated with the noise from the crowd, the countless steel drums, horns, and whistles. Some bystanders flung talcum powder and paint over the at the crowd. In addition to its intense symbolism, J’ouvert is also an occasion for political statements of all kinds, with some party-goers dressing up as prominent politicians or holding signs referencing current political issues.

For many, a daytime J’ouvert is not an acceptable proposition. As a result, fewer people showed up this year’s party. “There’s something about dancing through the dark at 3 or 4 am,” said a man who declined to be identified, adding that the excitement felt in those predawn hours was priceless and could not be replicated in the daytime.

J’ouvert is too important to sit out.

City officials begged to disagree, citing repeated instances of violence over the past years. But for a majority of revelers, J’ouvert is too important to sit out. Cancelling a festival that celebrates freedom from oppression would not only send shockwaves among the city’s Caribbean community, it would also confirm J’ouvert organizers’ longstanding claim that city officials have been working behind closed doors to shut down the party. That suspicion seems to be a part of the festival’s mystique; it is as old as the festival itself, starting with the 1881 Canboulay riots in Trinidad. What a shame that would be, including for Terrance Lezama, who moved to the United States from Trinidad in 1980 and has never missed a single J’ouvert. Lazama said he could not recall any violence in the J’ouvert of his youth back in Trinidad. But that has not been the case in recent celebrations in New York City.

City officials begged to disagree, citing repeated instances of serious, even deadly violence in recent years. But for a majority of revelers, J’ouvert is too important to sit out. Cancelling a festival that celebrates freedom from oppression would not only send shockwaves among the city’s Caribbean community, it would also confirm J’ouvert organizers’ longstanding claim that city officials have been working behind closed doors to shut down the party. That suspicion seems to be a part of the festival’s mystique; it is as old as the festival itself, starting with the 1881 Canboulay riots in Trinidad. What a shame that would be, including for Terrance Lezama, who moved to the United States from Trinidad in 1980 and has never missed a single J’ouvert. Lazama said he could not recall any violence in the J’ouvert of his youth back in Trinidad. But that has not been the case in recent celebrations in New York City.

The risks of injury or death due to violence are too real to be ignored.

It goes without saying that both police and festival-goers were on edge. Tensions flared easily at security checkpoints, arguments broke out as we waited to go through metal detectors. “I get screened every day. I work at the airport,” one woman said as she underwent the security procedure. But Diana still found it hard to adjust to. The safety measures, she said, were silly. And not because they wouldn’t work but because they should have been put in place years ago to deal with risks of violence the authorities have been well aware of for a few years. Diana said city officials only took these risks seriously after Carey Gabay, an aide to New York State governor Andrew Cuomo, was shot and killed during J’ouvert in 2015.  “People have died every single year… It’s like when it’s regular people they don’t care,” Diana said dismissively.

Two people were killed when violence broke out at J’ouvert in October 2016. More than 40 were injured.

Clearly, the importance or symbolism of J’ouvert cannot be understated, but the fears of violent public unrest are very real. Equally real is the violence that has already claimed at least three lives in recent years, including Carey Gabay. The risks of injury or death due to violence are all too real to be ignored.

Vinny Dukes, a J’ouvert reveler, recalled someone getting shot right in front of him in his first year at the Crown Heights J’ouvert. For his part, Terrance Lezama blamed the violence on a certain kind party-goers. Those who, he said, “may have parents from the Caribbean but they have no culture.” Those people shamelessly took advantage of the laissez-faire atmosphere of J’ouvert to carry out their own disruptive agendas. Those who commit violence at J’ouvert are doing so despite the festival, not because of it, he said forcefully. Unfortunately for Lezama, the Crown Heights J’ouvert’s notoriety for outbreaks of violence seems to be rather established at this stage. The festival doesn’t deserve such bad rap, Lezama complained.

J’ouvert is a festival of love, acceptance, and celebration.

In the end, J’ouvert unfolded seamlessly this Labor Day. Still, there’s something to be said for the heightened state of alert. Most party-goers and Parade watchers seemed to understand the need for beefed-up security at the Crown Heights street party. There were moments of candor and camaraderie, as well. Police officers, after all, are New Yorkers just like every one of us out on the streets for J’ouvert. Together, we made up a veritable sea of people, some waving the Jamaican, Haitian, Grenadan, or Trinidadian flags. Others carried the flags of the Dominican Republic, Barbados, and St. Vincent. Diana, with whom I spoke earlier that morning, described J’ouvert as a festival of love, acceptance, and celebration. A moment that brings and unites all together, all the members of the community out as one. As Terrance Lezama put it, speaking of J’ouvert celebrations in his racially and ethnically diverse Trinidad: “We call Trinidad ‘Pilau’—It’s a big mixture, so we call it a pilau. That’s our country.”

But changing times may call for changes in the way things are done around J’ouvert. The controversy surrounding it also calls into question whether Mayor Bill de Blasio and city and police officials really understand the cultural and symbolic significance of the predawn street party— which no amount of police roadblocks, checkpoints, and metal detectors can help shut down. “They can’t get rid of bat mas,” Diana said defiantly as I took leave of her. “There’s too much history and depth behind it.”

Christina Reed

Christiana Reed is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor. She was born in Seattle and raised in Raleigh, NC. Christiana holds a degree in communication arts and journalism from Marymount Manhattan College, where she edited and wrote for the college publication The Monitor. She has also contributed to The Borgen Project, a national campaign to fight global poverty.
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