When he was 13-years-old, Ralph Johnson’s brother asked if he wanted to go to J’Ouvert.
“I had no idea what he was talking about,” Johnson says. “Get dressed,” his brother said.
It was late at night almost 20 years ago and they went out to the streets of Crown Heights for the “day breaker” parade and party that precede the West Indian Day Parade. There he was introduced to the loosely organized, frenetic and joyful festivities — like an “outdoors nightclub,” he says, with drummers and music and grills all over the neighborhood, strangers reaching out to dance or hold your hand. Paint and chalk filled the air, thrown by multitudes of hands, imprinting on bodies and clothing. He was hooked.
Every few years the carnival lands on his birthday, as was the case on Monday.
So Johnson, now 32, made the trip down from Westchester for J’Ouvert and the daytime parade. Some ten hours later, tired and wrapped loosely in a Jamaican flag, he was still blissfully reminiscing, and hoping that all those positive vibes wouldn’t be overshadowed by the shootings that had taken place early that morning, leaving two people dead: Tyreke Borel, 17, and Tiarah Poyau, 22. Poyau was shot in the face, and police said neither partygoers appear to have been the targets.
This year was supposed to be different
This was supposed to be the safest of J’Ouverts.
Last year, two attendees were shot and killed, one an aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo. To prevent that kind of violence, the NYPD deployed double the number of officers and other initiatives such as cameras and light towers that made sections of the parade look like “broad daylight,” according to Assistant Chief Steven Powers, the commander of NYPD’s Brooklyn South patrol borough. And before the event, there were gang raids, gun buy-backs and violence-interrupter actions.
The NYPD also circulated flyers saying “This community will no longer tolerate this violence” and warning people not to shoot each other, which some criticized as patronizing.
Despite it all, gun violence marred the longstanding event once again for the estimated 250,000 people who joined in.
It didn’t stop attendees from coming to the official parade on Monday. With food vendors set up for miles down Eastern Parkway, attendees wandered around stalls or leaned against crowd control fences watching the floats and bands parade by. Even leaning or sitting on the curb, few stay still — dancing in miniature.
The mood was largely celebratory, with attendees hoping the abhorrent violence of a few wouldn’t characterize an entire event and neighborhood — but many were also concerned about how to make those guns disappear and those shots not ring out. Some were resigned to them, a fact of life that was sadly too regular even if politicians and media outlets noticed it once a year.
“You can never have a perfect day,” said Eddy Wharwood, 29, selling Cîroc on Eastern Parkway. More cops might mean that people “tuck their guns in or hide them elsewhere.”
“You can only just prepare for what you know from last year.”
How do you keep the tradition alive?
The mayor said at a news conference on Monday that all options were on the table to do what twice as many officers couldn’t do this year: ensure a violence free night. Then he walked the official parade route himself, through the still-gathering crowds there for music and festivities.
Vendors hawked nutcrackers, the classic NYC summer drink containing juice and an undisclosed amount of alcohol. Usain Bolt shirts hung next to Barbados flags in a celebration of Caribbean culture. Dancers took breaks to cool off and sip openly from Coronas and Heinekens. In a sort of dream world without quality of life policing, the officers nearby largely ignore the infractions surrounding them — “recreational activities,” says Johnson, pointing at a waft of smoke.
The officers don’t exactly take part in the festivities and remain largely separate from the crowds apart from official actions like the NYPD band and some police cars retrofitted in colorful stripes.
But they are tolerant of the fun, and often look as tired as the handful of revelers who are still out from the J’Ouvert part of the night, easy to spot due to their paint- and chalk-stained clothes, weary but satisfied eyes and slow movements. They and the cops have been pulling similar shifts.
Together but separate, they both have similar goals — keeping the party going and still fun, but also safe. It’s an almost impossible task given size and scope. And yet they try, and they return, year after year.