Brooklyn's Dirty Masquerade

Brooklyn's J'ouvert Is New York's Most Polarizing Street Festival

Brooklynites and city officials weigh in on the raucous West Indian street masquerade that some say celebrates Caribbean culture and others say is marred by violence.

by Sonja Sharp
Mar 1 2017, 4:47pm

There's no one way to look at J'ouvert. The boisterous pre-dawn street festival that takes place over Labor Day Weekend in Flatbush and Crown Heights, Brooklyn, has roots in Afro-Caribbean slave resistance and post-emancipation Carnival traditions. In many ways, it's seen as the prelude to Brooklyn's massive West Indian Day Parade. It's also the source of great contention, since people seem to talk more about the citizens shot during its festivities than the Caribbean culture it celebrates. 

In an attempt to quell the violence associated with J'ouvert, officials have opted for what one top cop called a "small army" of officers—1,200 cops were stationed in the 71st Precinct in 2015, twice that in 2016. And after two tragic murders took place in 2016, a complete overhaul of the festival could happen in 2017. Canceling it altogether isn't completely off the table either. When I asked a source inside the NYPD with knowledge of the event, they told me the city will not oppose J'ouvert as long as the community supports it. Whether or not the community supports it depends a lot on which community you talk to.

All comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

Kirya Traber
Educator and artist on faculty at New School

J'ouvert is a part of a cultural tradition that comes from Trinidad and Tobago. It's got a lot of history. Certain aspects have to do with rights to self-determine. It comes out of resisting slavery. Not everybody who participates is necessarily thinking about that, but it's there. 

There are similar events in the city [where people act a fool], like SantaCon, in which people hurt one another and viciously harass people. It's a public safety violation just as much as J'ouvert is without the deep cultural history. The fact that J'ouvert is being targeted is about the changing demographic of [Flatbush and Crown Heights]. It's about white people who don't understand the history and think, This is an inconvenience to me. I understand that there are people who are affected by the violence, who are also upset. But the conditions that lead people to hurt one another in that way is not J'ouvert. That's a bigger issue.

I had a police light shining into my house for a week and a half around J'ouvert this year. Bedford was covered in police signs, barricades, with patrols coming through. But it didn't make me feel safer. It actually made me feel nervous.

Professor Eugene O'Donnell
Former NYPD officer and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice

Obviously, this is best addressed collaboratively between NYPD and the organizers.

In a city where homicides are relatively rare, it is shocking to have two at one event. Well aware of the violence, NYPD tried last year to use enhanced security techniques. The parade itself is one of the glories of NYC, and if it happened in any other city, it would be a major tourist attraction in its own right.

But, ethically, how can you continue to run the event when a small number of brazen people are attracted to it like moths to a flame? If I were an organizer, I would be concerned beyond the ethics of attendee endangerment with potential civil liability. Sadly, violence has become all too predictable at this point.

Photo by Tony Savino/Corbis via Getty Images

Jeffrey Luc 
18-year-old Flatbush native

I was on Empire Boulevard when the shooting happened. I knew it was going to happen—every year, something always happens. But I go because it's fun. I've been going for a few years. I love the music, the other people from other Caribbean countries. I'm not afraid. When I see stuff getting too crazy, I leave. I don't think we should shut it down, but I think we should have more protection, more police.

New York State Assemblyman Walter T. Mosley
A vocal proponent of the suspension of J'ouvert in light of the recent violence 

I would say 90 percent of my residents are in support of my position [of suspending J'ouvert]. Some want to shut down J'ouvert altogether. The vast majority of those who want it to continue are those who live outside of my district. They're fierce advocates for J'ouvert. They participate every year, understand the history behind it, and want to involve young people.

I don't think it's a purposeful disconnect. Sometimes adults don't take into consideration that for young people to understand and appreciate what J'ouvert is about, we have to teach them. This is not just about a day to party. This is a day to take heed of our history. We have to make sure that [young people] are safe, and that those who wish to inflict harm understand that there are repercussions for their actions.

Erik Peterson, 29
Software engineer who recently moved to Prospect Lefferts from Crown Heights

I moved here right before J'Ouvert this year. My main impression was the police response—there were cops everywhere for a week. They put up these patronizing flyers, "Don't stab anybody." For days beforehand, you couldn't walk 20 feet without running into a group of cops. They used the 7-Eleven [at Bedford Avenue and Empire Boulevard] as a command center. These groups of cops all moving together only interacting with one another. I could feel a lot of the tension that they caused. Even at two in the morning, it was like daylight here with their lights.

Obviously the police presence didn't [stop the violence]. It's the same violence that's going on all year long, but people only seem to really care about it when it's J'Ouvert. This is the second year that it was sanctioned by the city. For 20 years, it was totally unsanctioned. Shutting down the event would be counterproductive, because people will do it anyway. It would force police to police an illegal party instead of protect a parade.

Image via Google Street View

Maxine Griffiph
Manager of Culpepper's Restaurant on Nostrand Avenue along the parade route

I'm not really a fan of it—too many bad things happen, people take it too far. I think there should be more police out on that night. People start drinking from the night before, and by the time the parade starts, they're already drunk. I like the parade, but I don't like J'ouvert. I think they should stop J'ouvert and keep the [West Indian Day] parade.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Christy Paurette
18-year-old Flatbush native

This year was my first time. At first, it was kind of hectic. It was dark, and you never knew who had a weapon. I was right across the street from where that girl got shot when it happened. People told me not to run. It's scary because everybody was dancing in a very tight area. I was expecting a shooting, because everyone told me J'ouvert is wild, but I never expected to be that close to danger.

[The men] weren't threatening, but when you're really close, it can be kind of uncomfortable. If I didn't feel comfortable, I would stop dancing, and they would stop, too. Originally, I didn't want to go, but my friends were persistent because it's my last year before college. My mom knew it was kind of dangerous, and when she heard about the shootings, she told me to never go again. I might try to go in Canada or Miami. But I won't go in New York again, because everybody here comes from Crown Heights and Brownsville affiliated with gangs. Stopping it would probably make it worse. But I feel like they should put in place more limits. 

Ebrahim Kassim 
Manager at Prospect Deli on Lincoln Road and longtime resident

I've been living in this area all my life, and I've experienced it all my life. It needs a dramatic change, because every year something's happening. Less liquor would mean less problems. I mean, I love it personally. I always go to the parade: You see all these people in crazy costumes, people from all different cultures. Last year, I saw the mayor, and I shook his hand. But I can't even lie, it gets crazy at night.

To tell you the truth, it's a beautiful. You dance, and you get powder all over you. But all of the shootings and stabbings need to stop. I think they should end J'ouvert. The parade is enough.

Kate Manwell
Flatbush Avenue resident

I try to avoid it because a lot of gangs come out at night. It's people in gangs who are causing the trouble, not the people from this neighborhood or the people in the parade. It's the outsiders. I think J'ouvert is a wonderful event in some ways, but it's not like the St. Patrick's Day or Puerto Rican Day Parade. I would say they should have more police, but then again, I don't know the politics of crime, except what I see on Law & Order. I don't know what to do to stop the violence. During that weekend, we drive to Pennsylvania and enjoy the countryside.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams
A leader in the effort to make J'ouvert more safe

Having a safe J'ouvert the same weekend you have five shootings in Queens, three shootings in the Bronx, several shootings in Harlem, and several other shootings in Brooklyn that are nowhere near J'ouvert is not a victory. We can't just flip a switch on J'ouvert day and say everything needs to be safe here when we didn't do what we needed to do the rest of the year.

People are trying to demonize a celebration that has a long cultural tradition attached to it. I don't care how much violence you have after the ball drops in Times Square, you will not have calls to end it. The police department will figure out how to make it safe. 

This area is ground zero for gentrification, attracting the kinds of people who don't see the need for the West Indian Day Parade or any of the long-standing traditions of this community. If you would have had no shootings at all, you would have still have calls to end J'ouvert. The headlines were already written. If you were to do an analysis, many of the people writing those stories are the new arrivals in Prospect Heights, Clinton Hill, and Fort Greene. These are the new reporters.

Subconsciously, people dislike J'ouvert because it's not what they know. It is not sponsored by Starbucks. It does not serve artisanal food. It is not what people consider to be the New Brooklyn. It's old Brooklyn. There is nothing chic or hipster about it.

Lead Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

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