J’Ouvert festival in Brooklyn kicks off with new security, smaller crowd

Revelers dressed in costume take part in the J'Ouvert celebrations in Brooklyn on Sept. 4, 2017.
Revelers dressed in costume take part in the J’Ouvert celebrations in Brooklyn on Sept. 4, 2017. Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

Revelers waited in the predawn hours Monday to get through enhanced security screening at Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza as the J’Ouvert celebration, the prelude to the huge West Indian Day parade, got underway.

Everyone attending the event, which was the scene of violence in past years, had to go through a checkpoint on Flatbush Avenue. Police scanned people with handheld metal detectors and searched bags for any contraband and weapons.

Once past the checkpoints, festival-goers were taken by the smaller crowds than seen in past years.

Deryck Jones, 52, of Canarsie, said he has been going to the parade for 30 years and this year’s crowd was the smallest he’s ever seen — what seemed to him to be a few thousand people.

“This wasn’t that good. This wasn’t that good at all,” he said as the march neared the end. “There were too many restrictions. I don’t feel energized. I’m trying the best to feel it but I’m not feeling up the culture.”

City Councilman Jumaane Williams, who represents the Flatbush area, said he was disappointed in the smaller crowd.

“We definitely have to do a debrief and figure things out,” Williams said as he marched. “There might have been some issues with security that kept people away. And that needs to be addressed.

“It’s a pendulum that swings back and forth and we have to find a medium,” he continued. “Some people’s spirits are down, but there’s a lot more out and having fun.”

The stepped-up police presence was evident in the squad cars, sanitation trucks and vans parked on streets illuminated by spot lights.

With the event starting at 6 a.m. — two hours later than in past years — the crowd still stretched down Flatbush Avenue, with many wearing costumes and talking as they calmly waited to get past security.

Revelers vowed to keep the peace and stay to the tradition of the event that celebrates the emancipation of their ancestral slaves.

Taylonn Murthy, 48, who lives at the Queensbridge Houses in Long Island City, said he and his group of neighborhood watch members came to help keep the peace.

“We are a security team to make sure J’Ouvert goes well,” Murthy said. “We are here to deter violence and that all goes safely.”

Shelley Noel, 34, of Flatbush, said she has been going to the parade for about 10 years and immediately noticed the smaller crowd this year.

“It disappoints me because there’s so much of a police presence. You don’t see that at the St. Patrick’s Day parade,” Noel said. “I know the security is needed, but this is too much scrutiny.”

Delores Degale, a Grenada immigrant who lives in East Flatbush, said she has been coming to the parade for years and welcomed the increased security.

“It’s good,” she said. “There are never too much police.”

Joel Muscadin, 57, a Costco supervisor from Teaneck, New Jersey, who moved to the U.S. from Haiti in 1977, said “everything seems more organized this year. The food, people are out early, the barricades are up. It’s all better.”

The parade, which draws an estimated 3 million spectators who come to marvel at the myriad floats and costumes celebrating Caribbean culture, began at 11 a.m. on Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights.

Security measures at this year’s J’Ouvert were similar to those in place at Times Square during New Year’s Eve. No weapons, alcohol or backpacks were allowed and an additional 300 police officers were watching the barriers along the route to ensure no one tried to breach security, according to NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill.

Violence has erupted during J’Ouvert in recent years, leading to injuries and some deaths. In 2016, St. John’s University student Tiarah Poyau, 22, was struck and killed by gunfire at the end of the festival. A suspect, Reginald Moise, now 21, was arrested on charges including second-degree murder and is awaiting trial.

Tyreke Borel, 17, also was killed by gunfire as he sat on a bench near the celebration. Two other people were injured by gunfire during that year’s festival.

In 2015, Carey Gabay, 43, an attorney who was an aide to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, died days after being struck by a stray bullet from a gang shootout as he ducked for cover. Four suspects were arrested in connection with his death. The case is still pending. The fatal stabbing of Denetro Josiah, 24, of the Bronx, during that year’s celebration remains unsolved.

After the killings, some critics called for an end to J’Ouvert. But parade organizers, city officials, police and neighborhood groups last year worked out the latest security precautions.

With Maria Alvarez and Anthony M. DeStefano