36 Council candidates blast pol’s “dog-whistle” calls to cancel West Indian Day Parade

The West Indian Day Parade attracts millions of visitors year after year.
Photo by Paul Martinka

A cadre of 36 City Council candidates are calling on Councilman Joe Borelli to apologize after the Staten Island legislator fired off a controversial letter demanding an end to Brooklyn’s popular West Indian Day Parade — which the would-be pols deemed an unwarranted “racist” attack on a majority-Black celebration. 

“We are deeply disgusted by your racist call to end our West Indian Day Parade. Every single parade, no matter which part of our wonderful diversity as Americans it celebrates, requires additional police resources and disrupts local communities,” read a July 10 letter. “You need to apologize and consider whether you are fit to remain in office if you cannot understand and address your own bias for the greater good of our City and its residents.”

Borelli had written a letter to NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea on July 7 characterizing the event as “violent” and arguing that the department could no longer afford the “beefed up and visible police presence” the parade requires after recent cuts to the police budget

“Each year there’s several shootings and homicides surrounding the West Indian Day Parade & J’ouvert. Its a danger for cops, revelers & the public,” wrote the Republican councilman in a tweet accompanying his letter. “Since ‘16 events were allowed to proceed because of a strategy of beefed up & visible police presence. Now the parade must not go on.”

The Caribbean festival brings millions of visitors to Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood each year — traditionally kicking off with an early morning J’ouvert Parade, followed by the main West Indian Day Parade on Eastern Parkway.

In an open letter organized by District 40 candidate Josue Pierre, the City Council hopefuls slammed Borelli for singling out the parade celebrating the city’s Caribbean population — while simultaneously not requesting the cancellation of the city’s many other large cultural events. 

“Every single parade, no matter which part of our wonderful diversity as Americans it celebrates, requires additional police resources and disrupts local communities,” the letter read. “Yet you single out only one — a parade celebrating the rich traditions and culture of New York’s extensive West Indian community — which is mainly Black — to target for elimination, fabricating a preposterous and bigoted argument that brings shame to the office you hold and our City.”

For his part, Borelli argued that he singled out the parade because it was simply the first major event following the implementation of the new budget, which caps police overtime expenses for officers. 

Pierre, though, branded Borelli’s actions as a “dog-whistle” in retaliation towards the Black community for mobilizing to demand reform from the NYPD. 

“As a Black Caribbean Haitian-American, I know dog-whistle politics when I hear it. Mr. Borelli is a defender of a corrupt status quo in which Black and Brown people are killed by police without consequence, and having lost the battle to protect violent cops in the Council, is now seeking to punish communities who demanded substantive change and to be Protected and Served, without being brutalized, in exchange for the taxes they pay,” said Pierre. “That’s shameful, and he needs to apologize.”

Borelli’s letter also sparked outrage from members of the city’s West Indian community, who value the parade as a time to express pride in their culture without fear. 

“It really is a great way to have some unity and to be able to be in a safe space to celebrate our culture,” said Arlene Pitterson, a lifelong resident of Flatbush. “He is attacking something he doesn’t know and he is showing that he has no desire to know.”

The parade-goers said the festival gives them an opportunity for them to share their culture with friends and to connect with other members of the city’s Caribbean community but instead the event is shrouded by negativity because of the actions of a few participants. 

“It’s a family reunion, a way to celebrate culture, a way for people to learn about the culture,” Pitterson said. “It is very interesting that the attacks towards the parade go towards some of the violence that does take place… but that is a small fraction of the overall celebration of the parade.” 

The founder of CaribBeing, a Brooklyn-based Caribbean lifestyle brand, and Little Caribbean, a Caribbean business and cultural-boosting platform,  opened a forum on the councilman’s call on Instagram — where hundreds of comments poured in, mostly expressing anger towards the councilman’s seemingly racist demand.  

“I said ‘let me go ask the community,’ we put it up on social and comments came in all throughout the night,” said Shelley Worrell. “I think overall people are sharing the same sentiment as me. It is outrageous, egregious, and how can Staten Island have an influence on something that is taking place in Brooklyn.’”  

Many in the community expressed anger towards the parade being smeared as a dangerous event, when many other large gatherings in the city have seen similar violence. 

“There are so many parades that are marred with violence,” Worrell said. “When there are large gatherings of people, things are going to happen, unfortunately… and for the councilman to single out the largest Black parade for that is not cool, and it seems racist to tell you the truth.” 

But Borelli’s efforts, and the entire uproar in response, turned out to be for naught — as Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on July 9 a cancellation of all large-scale events through Sept. 30, effectively halting the Labor Day celebration because of coronavirus concerns. 

Parade organizers have yet to announce adjusted plans for this year’s event, but a spokesman for the West Indian American Day Carnival Association told Brooklyn Paper an announcement for a virtual event will be released shortly. 

“The plans, thus far, for virtual, cultural and celebratory activities will be announced,” said Hank Sheinkopf of Manhattan-based Sheinkopf Communications. “And we will also be requesting a meeting with the mayor to discuss how to best celebrate the many cultures of the Caribbean community.”