To Curb Violence, Start Time of NYC Caribbean Festival Is Changed

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A report by Elizabeth A. Harris for the New York Times.

In the city that never sleeps, will it be like moving the New Year’s Eve ball drop to noon?

After enduring a run of violence, organizers of the J’ouvert festival in Brooklyn and New York City officials said on Friday that the annual pre-dawn celebration of Caribbean culture would now be held during daylight hours. The hope, officials said, is that starting the event closer to dawn will make it harder for people to settle disputes under the cover of darknessbefore slipping into the vast crowds that gather.

“The biggest thing for us is sunlight,” said Marco A. Carrión, commissioner of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Community Affairs Unit. “We believe that light is a big deterrent.”

Instead of the usual 4 a.m. start time, this year’s festival, on Sept. 4, will begin at 6 a.m., 26 minutes before sunrise.

J’ouvert, which draws its name from a French term for daybreak, and the West Indian American Day Carnival, which follows, together make for one of the city’s biggest cultural celebrations. Each year on Labor Day, some 250,000 people gather for J’ouvert, according to city officials, and 1.5 million to 2 million people come out for the carnival.

At J’ouvert, devoted revelers wear crowns and rhinestones as they throw white or colored powder and smear one another with mud or paint. The parade includes about three dozen groups: steel bands, rhythm bands, people in costume. Speakers blast Soca music. Sometimes rowdy, it thrums with positive energy.

In recent years, however, the party has been punctured by violence. Last year, despite an increased police presence and numerous floodlights, four people were shot and two of them died. The year before, Carey W. Gabay, a lawyer in Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s administration who was out celebrating with his brother, was caught in a shootout, apparently between rival gangs. He died of his injuries. Another man was stabbed to death that night.

Unlike other major cultural celebrations like St. Patrick’s Day Parade and the Puerto Rican Day Parade that take place in Midtown Manhattan during the day, J’ouvert snakes through residential neighborhoods in the predawn darkness, through pockets of Brooklyn that still struggle with shootings and gangs.

At this year’s event, more police officers will be present, according to city officials. The city also plans to have more floodlights on the street and will set up security checkpoints. Officials said the police, elected officials, parade organizers, clergy members and groups that focus on combating violence were all involved in discussions about how to make the event safer.

“We’ve been working on this since the day after J’ouvert last year,” said James P. O’Neill, the police commissioner.

Yvette Rennie, president of J’Ouvert City International, which organizes the event, said, “So we can make J’ouvert a safe J’ouvert, the groups and the community decided to do it in daylight.” News of the early start time was reported by The Daily News.

City Councilwoman Laurie A. Cumbo, whose district encompasses the parade route, said moving the parade to daylight would “change the environment of the event.” Ms. Cumbo said the event should be a “world-class” festival, but that it had not received that level of support.

“At this stage it should have graduated to being something televised, celebrated,” she said. “Hotels should be participating in terms of promoting the festivities, tourism boards. It should be something welcomed in the city of New York and supported in a way that changes the atmosphere for how people participate.”

Bryant Smith, 53, has lived since the 1970s on Bedford Avenue, a block from where Mr. Gabay was killed. He said that changing the timing of the festival would trample on its meaning without changing much else.

“J’ouvert won’t be the same,” he said. “In West Indian culture, J’ouvert is supposed to start before the carnival. If they try to start it in the daytime, people will just hang out all night anyway. They’ll make their own J’ouvert.”

Mr. Carrión from the community affairs unit said that while there would be nothing in place to stop people from arriving at the parade route early, all they would find there would be the police, and the festival setting up. “J’ouvert centers around an organized event; it would be like showing up at a parade before it starts,” Mr. Carrión said. “Why people show up to J’ouvert, it’s for the cultural expression, the music, the dance, and that would start later.”

Other residents said they were unpersuaded about how effective the change would be.

“Day or night, I don’t think it will be safe,” said Grace Collins, 59, a retired administrator for the Army Corps of Engineers. “People don’t know how to act. It’s a free-for-all for guns, but it’s supposed to be a celebration of Caribbean culture.”

Ms. Collins, who grew up in Brooklyn, said she used to go regularly to the West Indian American Day Parade and some of the events surrounding it.

“We used to follow behind those drums, just dancing,” she said, shaking her hips and showing off her dance moves. But she eventually stopped going because she was concerned for her safety.

This year, Ms. Collins said, she will be tucked away in her apartment when the festival starts, but her 22-year-old daughter plans to attend.

“I don’t want her to go, but I can’t stop her,” Ms. Collins said. “I’ll hug her and kiss her before she goes, but what’s going to happen will happen.”

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