J'ouvert festival set for Monday in Brooklyn amid tighter security to curb violence

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Monday, September 5, 2016
New security measures for J'Ouvert Festival
A.J. Ross has details on the new security measures for this year's J'Ouvert Festival.

CROWN HEIGHTS, Brooklyn -- There have been complaints for years about safety at J'ouvert, a carnival celebrating Caribbean culture held before dawn each Labor Day on the streets of Brooklyn.

But after an aide to New York's governor was killed by a stray bullet at last year's party, authorities are taking unprecedented precautions.

Traditionally held largely in the dark, this year's celebration will be illuminated by 200 light towers.

Police plan to double the number of officers patrolling the neighborhood where a procession of steel drums and costumed revelers is set to kick off at 4 a.m. The department has also added 42 new security cameras to watch over an estimated 250,000 revelers. For the first time, organizers of the parade were required to get a permit.

Police, in conjunction with community groups, also distributed fliers with a blunt message.

"This community will no longer tolerate this violence. Do not shoot anyone. Do not stab anyone," the leaflets said.

The changes come a year after Carey Gabay, a 43-year-old lawyer who had worked for Gov. Andrew Cuomo and was deputy counsel of the state's economic development agency, was shot in the head as two street gangs exchanged gunshots during J'ouvert festivities.

Earlier the same morning, a Bronx man, Denentro Josiah, was stabbed to death during festivities.

In 2014, a man was fatally shot and two people wounded during the celebration.

Raymond Biggs, 34, a Brooklyn resident who has been going to J'ouvert since he was a child, said he understood the need for the increased security. He said he's seen the atmosphere around J'ouvert change from the relaxed good time he remembers it being as a teen and young adult.

"I can't blame the police for being more a little more aggressive now and keep things a little more organized because people act different now," Biggs said. "This younger generation, they're a little more reckless. They're not about the fun anymore."

He was concerned, though, that the increased policing would cut down on the spirit of the event.

"Everybody does not need to be controlled," he said. "There's a cultural thing that does not need to be lost."

Organizers say the early morning festivities that led to what is now J'ouvert started in the 1980s.

The tradition originated in the Caribbean and is celebrated in several North American cities with West Indian communities, including Boston and Toronto.

The name, J'ouvert, means daybreak, put together from the French words "jour" and "ouvert."

The formal part of Brooklyn's J'ouvert is the steel drum parade, but celebrations often begin hours earlier. The streets of the Crown Heights and Flatbush neighborhoods fill up with people, eating and drinking at barbecues and parties, carrying the flags of their countries and dousing each other with paint, walking or dancing along with family and friends until daylight.

"This is the ultimate expression of their heritage and their culture," Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, said at a news conference last week. "It's something that we're going to make sure is better than ever this year, safer than ever this year."

City officials and community organizers have long chafed at the perception that J'ouvert, and the even larger West Indian Day American Day parade that follows hours later, are intrinsically hospitable to violence.

In 2012, almost two dozen police officers and city employees were punished after making racist comments on social media implying that parade attendees couldn't control themselves.

"There are people who have wanted to get rid of this whole weekend for many years and use any reason to do so," said City Councilmember Jumaane Williams. He said some of the trouble in past years has had nothing to do with the festivities.

Gabay's brother, Aaron McNaughton, said to count him among the people who would like to see the event continue.

"Though J'ouvert ultimately took my brother's life, he loved the event. To him, he looked at the essence of what J'ouvert is, which is jubilation, celebration. It's not violent."