J’Ouvert, a pre-dawn festival before the start of Brooklyn’s annual West Indian Day Parade, has become notorious for gang-related violence and indiscriminate gunfire. In 2015, an aide to Governor Andrew Cuomo was randomly shot in the head and killed. This year, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the NYPD vowed to make J’Ouvert “better than ever” and “safer than ever.”
The NYPD doubled the number of police officers detailed to J’Ouvert to 3,400 and erected 200 powerful light towers along the parade route and nearby neighborhoods. Yet, the early morning festivities—attended by 250,000 people—were again marred by violence. Four people were shot; two innocent bystanders were killed. Posters put up in advance of the weekend epitomized the mayor’s feckless anti-violence efforts: “Do not shoot anyone. Do not stab anyone. . . . This year celebrate J’Ouvert and keep it safe.”
Local politicians and community leaders have demanded that the celebration be cancelled, but de Blasio vowed—one day after two predictable-yet-preventable murders—that “J’Ouvert will continue.” According to the mayor, “it’s an event that is very important to the community . . . which has gone on for decades and decades.”
The mayor is wrong, and his representation of early-morning mayhem as cultural heritage is a confabulation. While the West Indian Day Parade has taken place regularly in Brooklyn since 1969, J’Ouvert in its present form is a recent innovation. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, J’Ouvert was celebrated desultorily, with small groups of people indulging in folkloric displays of wee-hour revelry. By the late nineties, J’Ouvert had become a large party in the Brooklyn Museum parking lot, where steel-pan bands would play as people danced. In recent years, though, the West Indian Day Parade has exploded into an event that draws millions of participants from the entire East Coast into central Brooklyn each Labor Day. J’Ouvert has become a massive, drunken pre-party—and an opportunity for rival gangs to settle “beefs” under cover of night.
The mayor’s revisionist history regarding J’Ouvert warped his discussion of the city’s other major parades. De Blasio contended that the “same process had to be gone through with the St. Patrick’s parade, with the Puerto Rican parade, we had long problematic histories for years.” It’s true that in 2000 there were mass attacks on women at the Puerto Rican Day Parade. In the early 1970s, the Young Lords—a Puerto Rican militant organization—threw eggs at the governor of Puerto Rico and fought with the NYPD. Generally speaking, however, the parade has been peaceful.
The St. Patrick’s Day parade typically sees a handful of arrests for public intoxication and fighting. Arrests for weapons possession are rare. True, if you care to examine the police blotter for March 18, 1858, you will find that two men got stabbed in a brawl “involving two opposing Irish factions.” But, in recent years, at least, the St. Patrick’s Day parade hasn’t been routinely accompanied by murder.
The West Indian Day Parade and its attendant J’Ouvert festivities, by contrast, have been characterized by significant violence. Shootings and stabbings have become so commonplace at these events that it’s remarkable when there isn’t any serious violence. Mayor de Blasio has assumed a posture of denial and defensiveness regarding J’Ouvert, going so far as to insist that “a quarter-million people came out and didn’t participate in violence, against four people who did.” Indeed, most people don’t kill other people on an average day. No other city-sanctioned event comes with a tacit acknowledgement that at least a few New Yorkers will probably die before it’s over. Mayor de Blasio should face the reality of the ugly situation and shut down J’Ouvert.
Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images