In response to a number of high-profile incidents of violence over the past few years, this year’s J’Ouvert celebration in Crown Heights saw a marked increase in police presence, as well as a later start time of the traditionally pre-dawn parade – 6:00 AM rather than 4:00 AM in years past. While it is still unclear how much of the weekend’s crime can be attributed to the celebrations, the general feeling was that new security measures were worth it.
As dawn broke, throngs of revelers and spectators came down Flatbush Avenue towards the route’s first checkpoint.
The crowd quickly bottlenecked, as both miscommunications and meticulous searches slowed the flow of spectators and performers onto the parade’s path.
An NYPD loudspeaker sparred with soca and steel drums to announce that the parade route for the festival whose name translates to “open day” was in fact a “restricted area” in which all attendees would be searched upon entry and no backpacks, alcohol, or weapons would be allowed.
A few long-time J’Ouvert attendees were dismayed and deterred by the early chaos at the checkpoint system.
As a large crowd waited to get onto the route, a clearly disappointed Natalie Kirton was already walking back to her car. “It’s just different. A different vibe… it’s just a feeling, it’s hard to describe.” She had been coming to the festival since her childhood and has participated in bands and as a spectator. “It’s too much control. There’s not enough freedom to express yourself and have a good time, which is what it’s all about. Something is lost, something is different. I don’t know what it is, but it’s sad. I feel like crying because it’s so different.”
Ty Littles, who walked to the festivities from his home in Bed-Stuy, wasn’t going to let a checkpoint deter him. But he echoed Kirton’s sentiment while walking down a long stretch of Flatbush Avenue with little on it except police. “It’s not the same. 100% not the same. The security is a little overboard, but I respect it. Nobody should be killed just because they want to have a good time. But leave the liquor alone. We need the drinks!”
Once one caught up to the music and dancing on Empire Boulevard, the mood lightened considerably. Both participants and spectators enjoyed the relative peace of mind that the ubiquitous police presence brought to the proceedings.
Meryl Whiteman was celebrating her 63rd birthday and said she felt “very good” about the heightened security. “The last time I was here, there was a lot of shooting and killing and I had to run for my life.”
Cassidy Hollinger stood outside her apartment on Empire, watching the parade go by for the third time since she moved to the neighborhood. She remained a bit skeptical. “It feels a bit safer. I made it a point to not put my desk by the window because last year, the two women were shot right on this street.”
Opinions were mixed on the later start. Ian O’Brien, 63, saw it as an unfortunate necessity: “It’s a tradition back in the Caribbean that Jouvert starts at 4 o’clock, but whatever means are necessary safety-wise, we have to just deal with it. So I accept it.”
Some, like Iviz Brathwaite of Crown Heights, were delighted by the opportunity to sleep in. But Harlem resident and long-time attendee Marcel Silveril was adamant: “J’Ouvert is supposed to be at nighttime. For a man like me, as a young man, you want to wine on a girl in the dark, not the light.”