As lawmakers search for answers to promote safety during J’Ouvert, the pre-dawn celebration before the West Indian Day Parade, residents and event organizers are at odds on the future of the carnival.
Sen. Jesse Hamilton, City Council Member Laurie Cumbo, Assemblymember Walter Mosley and Democratic District Leader Geoffrey Davis hosted a scantily attended town hall at Jackie Robinson School (PS 375) on Thursday to invite community feedback on ways to prevent violence at J’Ouvert. On hand were New York Police Department (NYPD) representatives from the 67th and 77th precincts as well as the Deputy Commissioner of Community Affairs Unit, Harold Miller.
J’Ouvert, which is known for its costumed revelers and steel bands, has recently been associated with violence following a consecutive string of murders since 2013.
Yvette Rennie, the founder and organizer of J’Ouvert International, urged the panel to refrain from drawing parallels between J’Ouvert and violence. “We have over 32 steel band organizations who partake in our J’Ouvert, they are not part of the crime,” said Rennie.
“I look at it as total disrespect for my culture. I hope the conversation will continue to be crime in Brooklyn instead of my culture being targeted,” added Rennie.
Rennie also demanded a seat at the table to discuss changes that will impact J’Ouvert. “You cannot put things in place for activity you do not totally know about,” said Rennie.
Mosley responded to the allegations of misrepresenting the festival’s agenda by focusing on the public safety issue that exist and suggesting that youngsters are engaged and educated about the cultural significance of J’Ouvert.
“We understand that people apart of J’Ouvert International are not the issue,” said Mosley.
But neighbors along the current parade route and in East Flatbush, the birthplace of Brooklyn’s J’Ouvert, instead called for earlier hours and route changes, a decision based on crowd participant’s property vandalism and noise pollution.
Alan Mass, the vice-president of the Cultural Row Block Association and an Eastern Parkway resident, complained about splattered paint that he said costs taxpayers $4 million to clean. “There should be some consideration for the immediate community, not just the broader community,” said Mass.
Bill Howard, president of the West Indian American Day Carnival Association (WIADCA), said the organization has provided museum police and private security guards to help with safety issues and encouraged neighboring residents to work with WIADCA and the Brooklyn Museum on any concerns they have surrounding J’Ouvert.
“As long as you have conversations with the legislators it’s going to be [addressed],” said Howard.
Vertina Brown, mother of 22-year-old Tiarah Poyau who was gunned down during last year’s J’Ouvert celebration, called for better policing, more lighting and a curriculum surrounding J’Ouvert.
Cumbo said programs like the S.O.S Mediation Center in Crown Heights, a youth development program that aims to empower youth, has received increased city budgeting to support the ongoing efforts of safety throughout the district.
“We want to make sure that safety is a priority from the 4th of July weekend all the way to Labor Day weekend,” said Cumbo. “Every activity that we do should involve trying to create a non-violent summer.”
“J’Ouvert is part of Caribbean culture and to cut it out completely, I would have a problem with that. We can celebrate a culture of diversity and also have a peaceful event,” said Hamilton.
Assistant Chief Steven M. Powers, commanding officer of Patrol Borough Brooklyn South, invited new suggestions to guarantee safety and versed attendees on the measures NYPD has taken so far. This includes adding 250 light towers, doubling police presence, encircling Ebbets Field, a hotbed of criminal activity during the event, and promoting an ad campaign “We are J’Ouvert.”
However, Powers said even with the outreach, the NYPD’s main concern is curtailing actual gun violence, and as such, has considered setting up entry points similar to those at Manhattan’s New Year’s Eve celebration.
“In Trinidad there’s no violence. The reason there’s no violence in Trinidad is because there’s no guns,” said Powers.