In 1881, British colonial authorities in Trinidad attempted to suppress the Canboulay, a predawn ritual with drumming, horns, dancing and torchlit parades commemorating the end of the sugarcane harvest. When police showed up to stop the procession, revelers fought back and won the right to parade. The so-called Canboulay riots are now commemorated annually during Trinidadian Carnival with a street theater re-enactment that draws a crowd of hundreds.
Over 130 years later, New York City’s Caribbean community may be living its own Canboulay moment of attempted official suppression. Canboulay’s direct cultural descendant, known as J’Ouvert, is celebrated before the annual West Indian Day Parade on the borough of Brooklyn’s Eastern Parkway. Following two years of mounting criticism about gang violence allegedly linked to J’Ouvert, the mayor’s office and the Police Department have imposed harsh new restrictions. This year, the start time has been pushed from 4 a.m. to 6 a.m., alcohol will be banned, and checkpoints with metal detectors will line the parade route.
The changes have left those who make J’Ouvert happen—the designers, choreographers and musicians who plan new costumes and concepts year after year—fuming.
“This, for me, is another attempt at control, of keeping you in the place where you need to be, a second-class citizen at the very greatest,” said self-described J’Ouvert diehard Michael Manswell, artistic director of Something Positive, a New York-based Caribbean arts collective that performs every year with the J’Ouvert band Pagwah.
J’Ouvert traditionally takes place under cover of darkness, offering a few hours of midnight mayhem before Carnival on Monday morning. In both Trinidad and Brooklyn, revelers prance and dance through the streets, painting one another with mud and paint to the tune of steel-drum-band rhythm sections. Like most immigrants, New York’s Caribbean community has adapted to the conditions of their new home. While sound trucks blasting soca into the predawn air have become a high-decibel fixture in Port of Spain, Trinidad, on J’Ouvert morning, Brooklyn’s version remains a steel-drum-only affair, making the Diasporic version more traditional than Trinidad’s.
But now the heavy hand of New York City government is likely to alter J’Ouvert beyond recognition.
“The biggest thing for us is sunlight,” said Marco A. Carrión, commissioner of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Community Affairs Unit. “We believe that light is a big deterrent [to crime].”
Philip Scher, author of Trinidad Carnival: The Cultural Politics of a Transnational Festival, calls the new restrictions “draconian” and the emphasis on daylight hours an inadvertent attempt by a culturally clueless city administration to alter J’Ouvert’s DNA.
“You’d have to change the name of the activity—J’Ouvert is patois [from French] for ‘the day opens,’ not the day is already open. It’s not J’Ouvert if it’s in the daylight,” he said. “It’s not just an excuse to have a nighttime party. The whole origin route and raison d’être of J’Ouvert is that it’s a nighttime thing for specific historical reasons.”
Manswell agrees. “The idea of greeting the sun as it rises is therefore lost,” he said. “It’s the idea of illuminating the darkness, shining a light on what can be a mysterious kind of process.”
As J’Ouvert bands and flatbed trucks ferrying steel drum crews make their way through different neighborhoods in central Brooklyn to converge on Eastern Parkway, it can be a wildly chaotic scene—and intentionally so—an antidote to the increasingly tame daytime Carnival. Scores of people cram into narrow blocks, following the rhythm of the music, and out of nowhere comes a paintbrush or a squirt bottle to streak your clothes black, red, green and yellow. Vendors hawk nutcrackers, a bootleg rum punch that fuels the party.
It’s a miracle in the era post the reign of Mayor Rudy Giuliani—and a testament to the Caribbean community’s cultural prowess—that such an event has survived in a gentrifying part of Brooklyn. Despite the chaos, there is a heavy police presence, as well as ample self-policing.
In 2014 I paraded with the Greenhouse Jab Jabs. Cops paid no mind as revelers streaked police cars with paint, but older participants yanked a teenager off the top of a (nonpolice) parked car and scolded him, explaining that property damage would bring down the law’s ire. Meanwhile, the New York City Police Department followed overhead, with helicopter floodlights periodically illuminating the crowd like we were suspects under pursuit.
Luana Wilson firmly believes that any violence taking place in central Brooklyn at the same time as J’Ouvert has nothing to do with the cultural practitioners who pour their sweat and energy into the event.
“It’s the people who don’t know what J’Ouvert and Carnival are all about; unfortunately, Americans take our celebration and use it for that particular time, because it us under the cloak of dawn, to settle their own personal and private beefs,” she told me via telephone this week from Pagwah’s mas camp, where she was busy with preparations for the band’s 2017 masquerade, Kritical Mas, a commentary on global political tensions and racial conflict and, to some extent, a sly dig at the new J’Ouvert rules.
The uninvited crackdown, meanwhile, does not make anyone in Pagwah feel safer. “I am absolutely uneasy about the police so-called protecting us from ourselves,” said Sandra A.M. Bell, Something Positive’s production manager.
“J’Ouvert was created in an atmosphere of revolt. It was the one time before we had to cut the cane that we had to ourselves. It’s a spiritual thing and it still is. It’s an unspoken connection that J’Ouvert, more than the daytime Carnival, gives the revelers,” Bell said. “When the sun comes up, it was time to go back to our hard labor. Here we are in 2017 having to go through some of the same kind of struggles that our ancestors went through—the struggle now is couched in a different kind of way—institutionalized, gentrification, economic discrimination. Do you think that’s going to stop us? No, it’s not, because we remember what our ancestors went through. We’re not backing down. We’re going to keep fighting.”
Ultimately, Manswell believes that J’Ouvert is fundamentally misunderstood by elected officials. Other than City Council Member Jumaane Williams, a Brooklyn Democrat of Grenadian heritage, most politicians give the nighttime festivities a wide berth even as they proudly march in the daytime West Indian Day Parade—a can’t-miss political photo op. But just as city leaders go on trade delegations, Manswell thinks that if they went on a cultural delegation to observe the event in Trinidad, as well as participated in Brooklyn, they would have a more nuanced understanding that would create a more amenable solution for revelers.
“Politicians need to be there in a costume, be on the road,” Manswell said, using the expression for parading in the street. “That’s how you craft policy to protect culture.”
If not, he warned, the effects could be disastrous for one of the city’s most vibrant, grassroots traditions.
“If you put your hand in it too much, here comes the change that you don’t really want because you can lose its essence, its beauty,” he said. “You’ve changed the heat. It’s like putting sugar in pepper sauce; it don’t always work.”