The West Indian American Day Parade occurs in New York City every Labor Day, thrown to celebrate Caribbean culture and Carnival. J’ouvert kicks off the festivities hours before the parade starts, lasting from shortly after midnight until sunrise. Hundreds of thousands of people participate in it. The NYPD are instructed to be “hands off” during the festivities, which means that they have to turn a blind eye to the public consumption of drugs and alcohol that occurs every year, and are only to intervene during acts of violence – of which there are plenty. Lately the festivities have taken place in Crown Heights, an area rife with gang activity, but the violence associated with J’ouvert has been lingering since far before the move to Brooklyn. The amount of shootings and stabbings that have ceaselessly occurred throughout the years, fatal and non-fatal alike, is tremendous.
During the 2015 J’ouvert, Carey Gabay, formerly a lawyer to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration, and first deputy counsel for the Empire State Development Corporation, was shot and ultimately died from his wound days later. Though he was not the only person to be killed at that year’s festival (Denentro Josiah was also stabbed to death), clearly Gabay was one of the most high-profile killings to ever occur during the festivities. The political nature of his career brought more attention than ever to the events, and for the 2016 affairs the NYPD increased their presence reportedly more than ever before: there were at least 2,000 police officers present and there was a significant increase in security cameras and light towers. The community also appeared to be more intent on curbing the violence, evident in how J’ouvert organizers worked with the City for the first time ever to get parade permits, and in how they reportedly passed out flyers in the community that implored, “Do not shoot anyone. Do not stab anyone.”
Despite the best and massive efforts of both the NYPD and the community, the 2016 event was mired by two fatal shootings (along with a few other non-fatal acts of violence). 17-year-old Tyreke Borel and 22-year-old Tiarah Poyau were shot and killed, and like Gabay a year before, they were not the intended targets.
This has led several local politicians and political commentators to argue that the parade should be canceled altogether, while the initial reactions of Democrats Governor Cuomo and NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio suggest that both are trying to spin the violence into a gun control issue (which realistically is a minor part of the problem). We at Orderly Conduct, however, wish to use the violence of J’ouvert to springboard into a totally different idea. The debate that we wish to encourage is a much broader, larger, and humanistic one, and the first question we should ask to kick it off is: as American citizens, should we really be promoting any type of ethnic pride parade?
There are many people in this country who purport to want to live in a “post-racial” America, where blacks, whites, and every color in between are all equal. This notion is troublesome, however, when you consider how Americans of every different ethnic background – Italian, Puerto Rican, Chinese, Irish, Greek, Cuban, Norwegian, the list goes on and on – alike insist that they have public celebrations of non-American heritages. Of course the beauty of the United States is that such celebrations cannot, will not, and should not be prohibited by our government. The fact that you can dance in the streets in remembrance of your ancestors from a different time and place is a testament to this country’s unique and great democratic principles. At best, though, these events often are alienating to those who don’t share whatever particular heritage, and at worst they are like J’ouvert – violent and deadly – or perhaps even racist, such as white pride rallies.
Of course, this is really less an argument against ethnic pride parades, and more an argument for a change in the way we identify ourselves. We are not trying to get people to forget where their ancestors came from or to abandon the cultural differences of their food, music, or clothes. At the same time, we should look for more substantive common ground between us as human beings outside of superficial and temporary connections such as that which is behind the saying, “Everyone is Irish on Saint Patrick’s Day.” Why do we continue to consider ourselves Chinese or Irish or whatever when we really are Americans? Why do we fly the flags of countries we have never been to, or have only been to briefly for vacation, but not the American flag? Why don’t we fly our state or city flags for that matter?
Of course, the debate is more complex than just those questions. Other interesting questions are: how do we preserve the culture of new first-generation immigrants and refugees while also promoting an acceptance of a new American identity? How do we address ethnic parades that further complicate the issue by associating themselves with religious figures or events, such as the Irish’s Saint Patrick’s Day? Do non-ethnic pride parades – such as LGBTQ pride – play a role in this debate? And finally, is the notion of pride itself the underlying problem here? Should we strive to be more humble in general?
Permitted or not, J’ouvert will likely occur again next year. Also, it remains to be seen whether the Democrats will be able to convince the public that the main issue at heart here, foolishly, is gun control. And while we should find a way to reasonably regulate gun laws and to keep violence out of our communities, nonetheless we as American citizens should see this tragedy as an opportunity – one in which we can reflect on how the love and pride we have for our own ethnic backgrounds and heritages might actually drive us apart rather than bring us together.