Op-Ed: A Safer J’Ouvert, A Safer New York

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State Sen. Jesse Hamilton
State Sen. Jesse Hamilton

I offer my condolences to the family and friends of Tiarah Poyau, Tyreke Borel, and all the victims of violence during J’Ouvert. It is truly heartrending that this celebration of the cultural, heritage and legacy of a million New Yorkers, with millions of New Yorkers and people from around the world, should end with individuals overcoming injuries and with families in mourning for lost loved ones – a 22 year old young woman and a teenager.

There is little fundamentally more New York than a parade honoring the heritage of our diverse city. We should be able to hold such celebrations free from fear of grievous injury and violence. So many of us were more than hoping on having a violence free J’Ouvert this year. We worked at it. Alongside the NYPD, so many across the community put significant effort towards a celebration free from violence. On Monday we faced four shooting victims, two tragic deaths, and two stabbing victims. We cannot accept that result. Our community cannot. Our city cannot.

I understand that rejecting this violence for some will mean calling for a suspension or cancellation of J’Ouvert altogether. This year’s violence comes in the wake of prior years that have similarly left families grieving. Though I do not agree with calling for an end to J’Ouvert, I respect that perspective because I know it comes from a place that seeks the well-being of the community.

To my mind, we need a comprehensive strategy to address this violence. With respect to J’Ouvert celebration itself, after urgent consultation with my United Against Violence Task Force, I will advocate for an age requirement for participating in J’Ouvert. I will also call for the J’Ouvert route and catchment area to be further defined. We need to work to create security checkpoints at key locations, with entrances to the route only through those checkpoints. This comprises the starting point for a strategy that will require stakeholder participation and community input well before J’Ouvert.

Even after further upgrades to security, we should also recognize that J’Ouvert itself is not the locus of the problem. An end to the parade would not bring an end to the violence. As a community we have to confront the wider, systemic problem of too many at-risk youth, some beguiled by gangs, too many not in education, employment, or training. The Community Service Society reports there are as many as 170,000 disconnected youth, ages 16-24, in New York City who are not in school and not working. That is larger than the population of Syracuse and nearly twice the population of Albany.

We need to create the pipelines that affluent communities have as a matter of course and connect with youth who are presently feeling invisible. Too often not having access to paths to build self-esteem in positive way, these young people find self-esteem in the most destructive behavior. Destructive to themselves as individuals and destructive to our shared community, with the ultimate end of this destruction being incarceration. We have the tools to contend with a challenge this large. New York is the financial, arts, culture, and media capital of the nation, we have dynamic tech sector and community of entrepreneurs.

We need to build the connections between neighborhoods in need and create and expand our mentorship, education, internship, and apprenticeship programs. We already have a great Summer Youth Employment Program to build upon.

When we think about responding to J’Ouvert violence, we ought to engage with the societal issues that interconnect with that violence. We need a comprehensive, holistic approach. We need to be sure that this violence is not repeated on Labor Day, or on any other day in New York.