A police officer with a riot shield at London’s Notting Hill Carnival in 1978.Credit…Staff/Mirrorpix, via Getty ImagesThe Fun Police: Law Enforcement Comes to CarnivalEvents like J’Ouvert in New York and Carnival in London have seen violent incidents. B…
A police officer with a riot shield at London’s Notting Hill Carnival in 1978.Credit…Staff/Mirrorpix, via Getty Images
The Fun Police: Law Enforcement Comes to Carnival
Events like J’Ouvert in New York and Carnival in London have seen violent incidents. But the way they are policed says a lot about what happens when Black people gather.
By Mychal Denzel Smith
J’Ouvert has its roots in denial.
In the late 1700s, French colonists in Trinidad began hosting masquerade balls that the enslaved Black Caribbean population was banned from attending. Undeterred, the enslaved peoples hosted their own festivals, often as a way of mocking their enslavers. Upon emancipation in 1838, Black Caribbean peoples participated in the Carnival celebration, bringing in their own customs and cultural traditions.
The event spread to other parts of the globe as Caribbean-born people migrated. Similar celebrations made their way to New York City in the 1940s — first concentrated in Harlem, then moving to Brooklyn in the 1960s — to London (the Notting Hill Carnival) and to Toronto (Caribana, launched in 1967). All of these festivals were outgrowths of the Carnival celebrations already flourishing in Trinidad, Antigua, Barbados and the Dominican Republic.
The celebration known as J’Ouvert is a raucous, colorful, jubilant affair that takes place at daybreak. (The word itself, pronounced joo-VAY, is likely derived from the Antillean Creole French word jou ouvè, meaning dawn.) In New York, it happens on Labor Day, hours before the West Indian American Day Parade. There are steel pan drum bands, as well as huge sound systems, that give way to thousands dancing in the street: colorful revelers who got that way either by their own adornment or because of the various shades of paint, mud, and oil that are splashed at all comers. It is a joyful, exuberant celebration rooted in an act of defiance and then liberation, a bold expression of freedom, whether it is fulfilled or still yet to be won.
But J’Ouvert in New York — and the Notting Hill Carnival in London and Caribana in Toronto — have also become known for another familiar element: a heavy police presence.
You’ve no doubt seen the photos and videos: Uniformed officers cavorting with Carnival revelers. (This görüntü of a dancing officer at Notting Hill Carnival went viral in 2017.) The appeal of these images lays, in part, in a sort of implicit expression of unity between the police and the partyers. The images are often published and passed around in the same spirit as photos from last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests that showed officers kneeling in solidarity with protesters.
As with Black Lives Matter, though, the images of police at the West Indian American Day Parade are inextricable from reports of conflict over how the events are policed. In 2011, for example, Jumaane Williams, a Black New York councilman, was briefly detained along with a friend by police at the West Indian American Day Parade, an incident that caught the attention of the then-public advocate Bill de Blasio.
There are very real and legitimate concerns about violence at these gatherings, especially at J’Ouvert in New York, which typically happens in the early morning hours and attracts thousands of people. A tragic instance happened in 2015, when Carey Gabay, then a lawyer in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration, was shot and killed as a bystander during the early morning festivities.
The murder prompted an increase in police presence at the event for the following year, with about two thousand New York Police Department officers on duty, double the number from the year before. Still, four people were shot, two of them fatally. Participants in J’Ouvert and members of the community where it takes place are no less familiar with, and unnerved by, the potential for violence. “I was expecting a shooting, because everyone told me J’Ouvert is wild,” Christy Paurette, a Flatbush resident, told Vice in 2017. “But I never expected to be that close to danger.”
These violent incidents are real and they are of concern to officials and activists alike. Due to the prevalence of shootings at J’Ouvert, the event is often discussed as a lightning rod for confrontation. In an interview with WNYC in September 2016, the journalist Errol Louis of NY1 said, “There’s no other event, probably in North America, certainly not in New York City, where you invite hundreds of thousands of people to go into the streets at 4 o’clock in the morning, in an area that’s heavy with gang activity, and kind of hope for the best.”
Still, it is striking how J’Ouvert and similar celebrations are routinely linked to, and criticized for, a potential for violent outbreaks in a way that other public events that draw large crowds and which have seen violence are not. “There are similar events in the city, like SantaCon, in which people hurt one another and viciously harass people,” Kirya Traber, a Flatbush resident, told Vice in 2017. “It’s a public safety violation just as much as J’Ouvert is, without the deep cultural history.”
In 1997, a teenager was beaten to death during a fight at the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Midtown Manhattan in the early afternoon, after what was described at the time as “a day of drunken street battles between rival groups of teen-agers from the Bronx and Brooklyn who were drawn to the parade.” In 2015, a similar brawl took place on St. Patrick’s Day in front of O’Briens Irish Pub on West 46th St. and was captured on görüntü and posted to Facebook. The latter incident did not prompt calls for a doubled police presence or a cancellation of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. One news organization, Pix11, described the scene as “a group of men [taking] their fun to another level” as “celebrations got a little rowdy.”
In fact, when Mayor de Blasio alluded to violent incidents at the St. Patrick’s Day and the Puerto Rican Day parades while talking about a decision to allow J’Ouvert to continue, there was an immediate backlash from people who were outraged at having their events compared to J’Ouvert. The police commissioner at the time, William Bratton, referring to gun violence at J’Ouvert, said, “The nature of the violence is different.”
It’s true: J’Ouvert is different. At the St Patrick’s Day Parade, for example, the police in attendance don’t just snap photos with revelers, they march in the parade.
Yet in 2011, several N.Y.P.D. officers posted racist messages to a Facebook group titled “No More West Indian Day Detail,” calling participants “animals” and “savages.” One commenter wrote, “Drop a bomb and wipe them all out.” In 2016, the union for the London Metropolitan Police called for a review of Carnival after over 450 arrests at the event and a reported 43 injuries among officers. The chair of the union claimed that officers “dread” working the event — all of which is a striking contrast to the familiar photos of police partying with happy revelers.
In looking to address the gun violence at Carnival celebrations, activists and organizers often cite the kind of community interventions that they argue would deter gun violence all year round. During a televised debate in 2016, Mr. Williams said that the suggestion “that if these festivities didn’t occur there would be no violence is just false. So we need to continue to talk about how to deal with the violence.”
Organizers also have questioned whether J’Ouvert is being unfairly singled out for censure. The reaction to J’Ouvert and other Carnival events falls in line with a pattern of U.S. responses to a very particular perceived threat: that of Black people gathering in public spaces.
During slavery, the enslaved were often required to carry special written permission from their enslavers when away from the plantation. Otherwise free Black people could be called upon to present their “freedom papers” by practically any white person. After the Civil War and emancipation, new laws were passed, known as the Black codes, which expressly forbade Black gatherings outside of work. In Mississippi, a law forbade “all freedmen, free negroes and mulattoes in this State, over the age of eighteen years” from “unlawful assembling themselves together, either in the day or night time.” Such laws, subject to the discretion of the local law enforcement, did not only apply to violent or riotous acts, they effectively curbed public celebration. The only kanunî gathering place for large groups of free Black people was church.
These laws are no longer on the books but public expressions of Black joy are often still rigorously and, some argue, disproportionately policed. After Mayor de Blasio took office and pledged an end to the “stop and frisk” policing strategy, he appointed Mr. Bratton as police commissioner, one of the architects of the strategy. Mr. Bratton, for starters, led a crackdown on the subway systems “Showtime” dancers, groups of mostly Black teenagers who perform dance routines in subway cars.
Images from last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests reveal again the uneasy relationship between Black gatherings and the officers who police them. Photos of officers kneeling by day were replaced by videos of arrests and kettling at night. A similar dynamic exists at events like the West Indian American Day Parade and, in particular, J’Ouvert, which happens in the early morning hours.
At a debate in Brooklyn in 2017, Yvette Rennie, the founder of J’Ouvert International, pointed out that violence is not a J’Ouvert sorun; J’Ouvert festivals take place without incident in sites around the world. “I hope the conversation will continue to be crime in Brooklyn instead of my culture being targeted,” she said.
The protests against police violence in recent years have focused on the ways police end Black lives. But as the history of policing at Black gatherings shows, there are also nonlethal ways of using excessive policing to diminish Black people’s lives.
The first Caribbean Carnival in London was organized by Claudia Jones in 1959 after a year of protests against oppressive policing. Following 2020 — a year of calls to re-examine methods of policing and redistribute resources in ways that might prevent, and not merely punish, violence — is it time to reconsider the way that police patrol these events and the way that we talk about the need for policing? Especially given that these events were specifically founded to let Black people gather, celebrate and feel free.
Mychal Denzel Smith is the author of “Stakes Is High,” winner of the 2020 Kirkus Prize in Nonfiction. He is a Puffin fellow at Type Media Center and distinguished writer-in-residence at Hunter College.
Produced by Veronica Chambers, Marcelle Hopkins, Ruru Kuo, Antonio de Luca, Adam Sternbergh, Dodai Stewart and Amanda Webster.
Source: The New York Times