Brooklyn has long been a center for Caribbean/West Indian culture. Of all five New York City boroughs, Brooklyn has the highest concentration of immigrants from Caribbean islands. This rich Afro-Caribbean culture is expressed every year on Labor Day when between one and three million people come to the Eastern Parkway-Crown Heights area to celebrate in the West Indian Carnival.
The carnival, which began in Harlem before moving to Crown Heights, has been taking place for fifty years. Caribbean people of all ages walk through Crown Heights following dancers dressed in colorful masquerade costumes and trucks with masquerade bands dedicated to each of the major Caribbean islands. The masquerade bands, or “mas,” spend months in advance of the West Indian-American Day Parade preparing elaborate costumes that demonstrate the beauty of the culture.
Along with each band’s different costumes, the music played increases the sense of pride that the island’s natives feel when they drive past on the parkway. There is often unofficial competition between the islands about which one produced the best soca music for the year, and people show their patriotism by dancing to support their island’s band when it passes by.
With all the joy, culture and history of the parade, there is also a dark side. The J’Ouvert Festival, meaning “day break” festival, is a celebration to commemorate the emancipation of slaves in Trinidad and marks the beginning of the parade. It usually begins at 2 a.m. and runs all night into the morning until the parade begins, but due to crime rates in the recent past, Mayor Bill de Blasio changed the time of the celebration to begin at 6 a.m. and end at 11 a.m. This decision came after two years of consistent gun violence surrounding J’Ouvert. In 2015, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s aide, Carey Gabay, was fatally shot after being caught in the crossfire of a gang shootout. Last year, four people were shot, two were killed. This year, the city has been making efforts to reduce this violence. There have been posters all around Brooklyn promoting peace during the celebrations, and Joey Bada$$ played at a free concert held at Medgar Evers College to promote safety.
There has also been a push for tighter security. This year, carnival goers must enter the 2-mile route along 12 designated entry points, will have to pass through metal detectors, and no alcohol or large backpacks will be allowed. Four hundred officers will be placed along the entry points and over 1,600 additional officers will be on patrol and will police party areas outside the barriers.
Despite these efforts, two people have already been shot near the J’Ouvert celebrations. Around 5 a.m. this morning, a 38-year-old man was shot in the abdomen and a 34-year-old was grazed in the left leg. Both victims suffered non-life-threatening injuries. Still, many Brooklynites are disturbed by the ongoing violence surrounding the carnival. This year, the 50th anniversary of the parade, the rules have already changed with J’Ouvert being moved to daylight hours and police security being upgraded to the standards of the Times Square New Year celebrations. Many fear that if the violence continues, there will no longer be a West Indian-American Day Parade and the abundant Afro-Caribbean population in Brooklyn will lose an important celebration of their heritage.