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Violent incidents continue to plague Brooklyn J’Ouvert

Officials, Community Leaders Search for New Approaches to Troubled Event

September 6, 2016 By Andy Katz Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
This is the crime scene on Empire and Washington avenues where Tiarah Poyau, 22, was shot to death. Eagle photos by Andy Katz
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City Hall met the problems associated with Brooklyn’s 22nd annual J’Ouvert head on this year — requiring sponsors to obtain a permit, doubling the number of NYPD officers on patrol, illuminating the route with 160 additional floodlights and even circulating fliers advising revelers to avoid shooting or stabbing one another.

Yet despite these efforts, tragic events plagued the Labor Day festivities.

Tyrese Barel, 17, and Tiarah Poyau, 22, were innocent bystanders who lost their lives to stray gunfire that sent revelers running one way and the cops the other. Margaret Peters, 72, was injured by the same volley that cut down Borel, but is expected to survive.  Another non-fatal shooting and a pair of stabbings further tainted out the pre-dawn celebration.

According to the Associated Press, police are questioning an as yet unnamed suspect in connection with one of the shootings.

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“Our hearts are heavy,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said shortly after at the traditional West Indian Day Breakfast that precedes the Eastern Parkway parade. “We do not accept what happened.”

“The problem is not the celebration,” City Councilmember Jumaane Williams of the 45th Council District reminded everyone. “The problem is violence in the community at large.” Williams urged the media to not focus on the negative only. “We have a right to celebrate our heritage!” he concluded.

A short while later, de Blasio joined NYPD Commissioner William Bratton and other department officials for a brief press conference where they addressed strategies to prevent the recurrence of violence in future J’Ouverts, including the possibility of sealing off the route and screening participants for weapons prior to entering.

While some media have suggested that City Hall and Albany are considering shutting down future J’Ouverts altogether, officials actually downplayed the suggestion that suppressing the event would be their first choice in dealing with the problems associated with it. De Blasio drew an analogy with the St. Patrick’s Day, the Puerto Rico Day and the daytime West Indian Day parades, all of which had once been associated with violent incidents.  “The NYPD has successfully, each year, improved these situations,” he reminded the press.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who personally attended the J’Ouvert, pointed out that “Four of those 246,000 did something wrong, and that is not an indictment on this borough or this community. Overwhelmingly, people are doing the right thing.”

J’Ouvert’s origins began in French Trinidad, where slaves, forbidden from attending the grand Carnival balls, staged their own festivals, imitating and sometimes mocking their masters’ styles and costumes in the pre-dawn hours (“J’Ouvert” is a contraction of the French “jour” and “overt” signifying “day break”). After emancipation, J’Ouvert spread throughout the Caribbean — where it is still celebrated during the pre-Lenten season of Carnival — and in communities, such as Brooklyn’s Flatbush, with a large ex-pat Caribbean population.

In 2015, the problems of violence in Brooklyn’s J’Ouvert seemed to reach a crisis after the shooting death of Carey Gabay, an aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, near the Ebbets Field apartment complex on Bedford Avenue, and the fatal stabbing of Josiah Denetro, which took place near Grand Army Plaza, the opposite end of the sanctioned J’Ouvert route.

This year the festival’s sponsor, J’Ouvert City International, was granted a parade permit for the first time by NYPD. The sponsor’s security personnel mingled throughout the crowds and could be seen de-escalating a few tense situations.

While de Blasio refused to rule out closing J’Ouvert down as an option, and certain voices from both outside and within the Brooklyn Caribbean community agree that it should be canceled, curtailing a street festival that has its origins as a secret, essentially illegal celebration might not be that straightforward.

Some have suggested the violence associated with J’Ouvert stems more from its location — adjacent to neighborhoods where gang violence remains endemic — than from any quality of the celebration itself. And, thus, a new location might be part of a comprehensive approach by authorities to make future J’Ouverts safe and enjoyable for everyone.

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