A safer celebration: Even more security curbs threat of violence at J’Ouvert

A safer celebration: Even more security curbs threat of violence at J’Ouvert
File photo by William Farrington

Locals should not fear another violent J’Ouvert following the city’s announcement of new security measures — including specific entry points to the early-morning Labor Day parade, weapon searches, and the banning of large bags — in the wake of the festival being pushed to daylight hours, according to organizers.

“We did everything including research and looking to other avenues for prevention and this is best we came up with, and I’m very confident in it,” said J’ouvert City International head Yvette Rennie. “We put everything in place for this.”

The mayor’s office announced stricter safety regulations for the Sept. 4 festival that precedes the West Indian Day parade in an Aug. 21 press release. They also include adding at least 10 percent more police officers than last year’s 3,400, erecting about 30 percent more floodlights than the 250 in 2016, and closing off the procession’s formation area, at Grand Army Plaza, and route — which runs along Flatbush Ave. and onto Empire Blvd. before curving onto Nostrand Ave. where it ends at Midwood St. — the night before the event.

The announcement came just weeks after news that the historically pre-dawn J’Ouvert, which means “daybreak,” would begin at 6 am instead of 4 am, in the hope that more sunlight would deter deadly violence that has plagued the parade in the past. Two people were fatally shot last year, and an aide to Gov. Cuomo was killed at the 2015 procession.

The new start time is even more fitting for the event, which always began later than scheduled, according to Rennie, who said costumed participants are thrilled that the sun’s rays will allow more spectators to see their getups.

“In reality we never kicked-off until 5:30 am, so our board and all of our affiliated mas and steel bands felt it was important that we move the time to 6 am and we all agreed,” she said. “They all love it, because now they can showcase their costumes in the daylight.”

And the sun will not be too high in the sky by the time the parade commences, so its characteristic darkness will not be lost entirely, Rennie said.

“It will still be in the pre-dawn hours because it’s still a little dark around that time,” she said. “When the bands are coming into the formation area, they will have time to enjoy the darkness.”

J’Ouvert City International has been working with cops and clergy in addition to local pols on security strategies for the festival, which also include educational events at the Brooklyn Public Library and Medgar Evers College, where Assemblyman Walter Mosley (D—Fort Greene) is hosting a concert to promote peace and safety tonight.

And as the 34th-annual parade — which will boast five new mas and steel bands — approaches, Rennie said she is thrilled organizers and the city found solutions to keep the tradition alive after past violence led opponents to demand it be cancelled entirely.

“We are always looking for ways to correct, but we’re not going to give up on J’Ouvert. We are not going to remove it,” she said. “Just as the city cleans other parades, they will help us keep it safe.”

But some long-time participants said the increased safety precautions threaten to dilute the cultural resistance the parade is rooted in, and that a greater police presence could create unease among attendees.

“Moving the time to start in the day takes away from the symbolic nature of the entire celebration — it takes away from the rebirth that is supposed to happen at night,” said Philip J. Bell, who directed a documentary about J’Ouvert. “It’s kind of insensitive to the history of how African traditions were stifled, and this particular approach could potentially backfire and create more tension between the community.”

Reach reporter Alexandra Simon at (718) 260–8310 or e-mail her at asimon@cnglocal.com.