Amid tight security, steel drum bands and paint-splashed, wildly costumed revelers have taken to the streets of Brooklyn on Monday for the West Indian Day Parade, one of North America's largest Caribbean Carnival celebrations.
"This festival means a whole lot. I'm West Indian and it's important to share that heritage, share our color and our food and our music," said Deyon Roman, 53, who had her hair pulled back with the flag of her native Grenada, and was clad in a handmade crochet top and skirt, showcasing Grenada's colors of red, green, and yellow. "This parade represents the melting pot that is the Caribbean."
The huge, vibrant crowds drawn to the city's West Indian American Day events, which included a daytime parade and a street party called J'Ouvert that traditionally begins before dawn, are being accompanied by legions of police officers, checkpoints and floodlights, all intended to prevent violence that has marred the party in the past.
"J'Ouvert is one of the most vibrant cultural celebrations in our city, and we're working with the community to make the festivities are enjoyable for all," Mayor Bill de Blasio said Friday in announcing the safety measures. "No one should have to choose between ensuring their safety and celebrating their heritage."
The J'Ouvert festivities kicked off at 6 a.m. this morning, four hours later than past years. The West Indian American Day parade started at 11 a.m. and is expected to last until 6 p.m.
The city's Caribbean community has held annual Carnival celebrations since the 1920s, first in Harlem and then in Brooklyn, where festivities happen on Labor Day.
J'Ouvert, which comes from the French words "jour" and "ouvert" and means daybreak, features revelers who cover their bodies in paint or oil, wear helmets with giant horns, and toss talcum powder into the air. The highlight is a parade of steel pan bands.
Hours after the J'Ouvert party, the separate and much larger New York Caribbean Carnival Parade is held on Brooklyn's Eastern Parkway, featuring more bands and masquerade revelers in feathered costumes riding on bright floats.
J'Ouvert was once only loosely organized and began hours before dawn, in a Brooklyn neighborhood still dealing with gang violence. Late-night shootings were a concern for years, but outrage grew fervent in 2015, when Carey Gabay, an aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, died after he left his Brooklyn home to attend the festivities and was hit by stray gunfire. Two more people were killed at the celebration in 2016, despite enhanced security. The main parade had also been scarred by sporadic incidents in the last 15 years.
The city police department announced Friday that security for this year's J'Ouvert would mirror steps taken last year. That included a 6 a.m. start time for the steel band parade, instead of the middle-of-the-night start of years ago, along with more officers assigned to the scene, security checkpoints to enter the area, light towers, security cameras, and a prohibition on large bags, alcohol and weapons.
"We want the parade to be safe, so it's necessary to have them here," said spectator Arnold Cherry, 76. "This is supposed to be more free flow and free spirit, but we don't want violence to get in the way of the parade continuing. We can't have one incident be used as an excuse to inhibit it."
"It's a fun day, actually it's safe to me," a J'Ouvert attendee said. "Everybody is like someone's always getting hurt, but nobody's hurt. It's quiet this morning. It's actually nice."
But some criticized the expanded police presence as hampering the atmosphere of the celebration.
"I feel it's been tempered down, it's been dampened," 72-year-old Trevor Lyons said. "There used to be more vendors, more dancing, but now it's gotten too controlled."
"It's not as fun as it used to be. This might be my last J'Ouvert. Because it was so complicated," one parade-goer said. "Normally, you start at the end, by the museum, and you work your way up with the bands. Now, it's hard to dance with the bands."