Checkpoint Babylon

“Checkpoint Babylon.” That’s what one man dressed in white and carrying a conch shell horn kept repeating over and over as we inched forward in a line on Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn at 6 am on Monday morning. “We living in Trenchtown,” a woman next to him with a Jamaican flag bandana wrapped around her hair responded. The police patted us down, checked our bags, asked us if we had any weapons or alcohol, and confiscated any drinks – even bottled water. It felt like going through a TSA checkpoint at the airport. At least we kept our shoes on.

Image credit Dauwd El.

The scene was incongruous for the wee hours of Labor Day in Brooklyn, but may become the depressing new norm for J’Ouvert, one of the most vibrant grassroots cultural traditions in the immigrant metropolis of New York City, and one that New York City government and the police department are crushing under the weight of onerous restrictions.

For decades, those few hours have been transformed by this Caribbean cultural practice, a patois contraction of the French jour ouvert, to open the day. A spiritual descendent of the Trinidadian 19th century tradition canboulay (another patois for cannes brûlées, burnt canes), J’Ouvert is the wild and free midnight cousin to the increasingly safe and sanitized (no matter how sexualized) daytime Carnivals in the streets of Port of Spain and elsewhere throughout the Caribbean diaspora.

Image credit Dauwd El.

For fleeting precious hours before daybreak on Carnival Monday morning, revelers parade in the streets, dance to the rhythm sections of steeldrum bands and other percussion styles like tamboo bamboo and tasso, and cover each other with paint, mud, and oil. It’s a messy affair, no doubt, but also a prime time for masqueraders to come out on the street dressed up as characters from Caribbean folklore, like jab jabs (devils) or dame lorraines (exaggerated satires of plantation mistresses), so-called “ole mas,” a contrast to the bikinis-and-feathers “pretty mas” that dominates the daytime Carnival processions.

With such a large immigrant population living overseas, Trinidadian Carnival is absolutely a transnational affair, as one scholar has called it, and Brooklyn’s version has actually become more traditional than the homeland. While sound trucks blasting high-decibel soca are now a fixture on the streets of Port of Spain at 3 am during J’Ouvert parties, the Brooklyn version retains a live percussion only policy. Unique J’Ouvert bands representing specific islands start out from different “mas camps” – empty lots, local restaurants and bars, or rented event halls temporarily dedicated to the purpose of prepping for Carnival – throughout central Brooklyn. Under cover of darkness, they wind their way through residential neighborhoods, slowly building a momentum of rhythm until they converge on the wide expanse of Eastern Avenue, Grand Army Plaza, and Flatbush Avenue – the kinds of monumental boulevards and plazas dreamed up by 19th century city planners and perfect for a parade of this magnitude.

Image credit Dauwd El.

For years, Brooklyn J’Ouvert has been marred by an association with violence. It seemed like every time there was a holiday weekend shooting within 20 blocks of the parade route, it was deemed a J’Ouvert-related incident. That correlation was sketchy at best, but sadly the last two years saw high-profile gun crimes very much in the midst of the J’Ouvert revelry. In 2015, Carey Gabay, a Jamaican-American lawyer and aide to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, got caught in crossfire and died a few days later. Last year, a female college student was shot and killed after refusing the aggressive wining of a male reveler.

In response, neighborhood cultural boosters Caribbeing hosted a street fair to counter negative perceptions of Caribbean cultural celebrations. Last month, they held an artist residency at the Brooklyn Museum where they organized a public forum, think J’Ouvert 101, and a panel discusion on consent during Carnival.

But following the media firestorm after the last two years’ gun crime incidents the city cracked down hard. They established checkpoints for anyone wishing to enter the main parade route, banned alcohol (while open container is illegal, cops have typically looked the other way), and most damningly, pushed the start time back from 4 am to 6 am.

Image credit Dauwd El.

“The idea of greeting the sun as it rises is therefore lost,” Michael Manswell, artistic director of Caribbean arts collective Something Positive told me before J’Ouvert. “It’s the idea of illuminating the darkness, shining a light on what can be a mysterious kind of process.”

Something Positive provided this year’s performance element – elaborate costumes of balancing scales, cross-dressing dame lorraines, and larger-than-life puppets – for Pagwah, a Brooklyn-based J’Ouvert band that celebrated its tenth annual run this year. I played with Pagwah, joining them as we set out from a party hall in a rapidly gentrifying corner of Brooklyn at around 4:30 am. The sky was already beginning to lighten as we marched to the rhythm of a tasso band, passing signs for luxury condominiums, Swedish espresso, and artisan ice cream. I wondered how many new residents to the neighborhood unaware of its Caribbean history called the city’s info line to register noise complaints, a classic dilemma for everything from street parades to music venues in the changing demographics of global cities like New York.

Image credit Dauwd El.

To that extent, the city’s J’Ouvert crackdown had at least one victim. For several years I had watched the wildest and craziest J’Ouvert band emerge blackened and oil-soaked on Eastern Parkway. The Greenhouse Jab Jabs are a Grenadian crew who play Jab mas. In 2014, I joined them for a midnight procession through Crown Heights that was nothing short of chaos, bodies crammed into narrow blocks, black paint everywhere, and a feverish non-stop rhythm section playing from the back of a truck. The cops followed with a close eye and occasionally an NYPD helicopter flew overhead to shine its floodlights on us. But the masses didn’t seem to care – painting or wining up on a police car was greeted with a shrug by the uniformed blue.

But this year, the Jab Jabs retreated indoors. They threw a J’Ouvert fete inside an East Williamsburg warehouse – a serious change of venue and scenery for a group that usually parades through the friendly streets of its own neighborhood. As a private event, they avoided police trouble and were able to spend a few solid hours drinking rum and splashing oil all over the concrete floors and each other while wining down to hits like Charly Black’s Party Animal, Konshens’ Bruk Off Yuh Back, JW & Blaze’s Palance, and the ultimate jab jab anthem – Skinny Banton’s Soak It Good. It was a damn good party and playing J’Ouvert with an ear-splitting sound system was a treat for a Caribbean dance music aficionado like myself, but it didn’t compare to the transgressive act of actually taking the streets. For me, the magic of Carnival has always been the idea of temporarily subverting the normal function of the city. Streets normally used for car traffic and commerce are given over to revelry and music.

Image credit Dauwd El.

While I heard reports of some renegade bands like a Haitian crew that sounded its way through Prospect Leffert Gardens, and of course Pagwah marched loudly and proudly the several blocks from its home base to the official parade route, once on Flatbush, the overwhelming police presence was a serious vibe killer. Electronic road signs flashing “Lower Music” and then “No Music” were anathema to an event that runs on rhythm, and by the time costumed and painted up revelers subjected themselves to the humiliating experience of a stop-and-frisk pat down on the one night of the year that was supposed to offer liberation from daily life in the city, many looked defeated. The crowds were vastly diminished from years past now that the sunrise no longer served as the climax after hours of street parties.

Band leaders have pledged that they will continue J’Ouvert whatever conditions are imposed upon them. This year’s lack of violence along the route is a good start to beginning a conversation with the city in order to negotiate more relaxed rules that will allow the event to recapture its spirit. I want to remain optimistic but having just finished reading Vanishing New York, which easily could have dedicated a chapter to the J’Ouvert saga in its chronicle of how neoliberalism is destroying every cultural fiber of the city, it’s difficult.

Around 3 am, I took a stroll out from Pagwah mas camp and hung out for a bit on Nostrand Avenue with a half-dozen middle aged guys outside of a store selling Caribbean flags, t-shirts, and other apparel – the kinds of accessories nearly everyone sports on Labor Day. They had a small boombox playing this year’s Carnival Road March on repeat: Ultimate Rejects’ “Full Extreme.”

Image credit Dauwd El.

The chorus, “We jammin’ still,” was a fitting repartee to the city’s crackdown. As the group danced and sang on the sidewalk, blasting an airhorn, a cop sauntered over. He told them they could keep the music on but they had to cut the horn. It was these minor indignities that made this year’s J’Ouvert feel like death by a thousand cuts. But the crew soldiered on, put away the horn, and kept singing: “We jammin’ still”, adding, sotto voce, “officer!”

Greg Scruggs

Greg Scruggs writes about cities and culture with a focus on Latin America and the Caribbean.

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