One of the youngest members of the D’Radoes Steel Orchestra was feeling especially ebullient. For the third year in a row, the 100-member group to which he belonged had won the top prize in the big steel pan competition held to coincide with J’ouvert, the annual pre-dawn Brooklyn street party that precedes West Indian Day and is, according to organizers, the largest ethnic celebration in the country.
“It was a miracle to get that third win,” said Aidan, a 14-year-old from the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. He’d been introduced to J’ouvert and D’Radoes by his father. His eyes beamed as he stood behind an array of steel pans.
In the early hours of Monday morning, Aidan and other members of the D’Radoes crew mounted their homemade drums on a hand-welded rig pulled by a Penske truck through the festival, past watchful police stationed in pools of artificial light.
This was not the J’ouvert of years past. Police officials, hoping to avert the kind of violence that had become associated with the event, had flooded the streets with cops — more than 2,000 officers in all, as many as serve on the entire Atlanta police force, spread out across just a few square miles of Brooklyn. The officers had brought with them 200 light towers. They said the flood lights weren’t there to spoil the party, for which darkness is a central ingredient, but to keep everyone safe.
By most accounts, the NYPD succeeded in its first ambition. Within a crowd estimated at 250,000 strong, groups caroused in costumes similar to those seen at New Orleans’s Mardi Gras. Many covered themselves (and sometimes nearby revelers) with paint, baby powder, sparkles, and motor oil. People drank, smoked, and ate from food trucks that stayed open late and the informal vendors who set up on the sidewalk with grills and chafing dishes, selling Caribbean specialties like jerk chicken and shark. They danced in the streets.
But the throngs of police and the artificially illuminated blocks did not keep the gunfire at bay.
As 14-year-old Aidan and D’Radoes entered the main throng on Flatbush Avenue, shots rang out a mile down the street, first at the intersection with Empire Boulevard. Half an hour later, there was more gunfire, one block east.
An observer taking in the festival from a rooftop said she saw police responding to the first shooting, then quickly rush to the second. From that vantage point, a body could be seen slumped by the exterior wall of a Western Beef supermarket.
Twenty minutes later, all evidence of violence had been absorbed by the thickening crowd. The victims had been quickly removed. There was no police tape. While video posted to Twitter showed partiers rushing away in the immediate aftermath, many soon returned.
The night’s first volley of bullets struck 17-year-old Tyreke Borel in the chest. He was rushed to King’s County Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Police said he was sitting on a bench, taking a break from the party, when he was hit. Tiarah Poyau, 22, was the second victim. She was fatally shot in the face. According to DNAinfo, police said two more shootings occurred before 7 a.m., both resulting in injuries. One of the people hit in those later bouts of gunfire was a 72-year-old woman.
Borel had moved to Brooklyn from Trinidad four years ago. He lived in Flatbush and was studying to be a mechanic. His mother pleaded with him not to attend J’ouvert, but like thousands of other teens, he wanted to join the party. Poyau, whose family lives in East New York, had graduated from St. John’s University and was finishing up a master’s degree in taxation. She wanted to become an accountant, and aspired to work at a firm that would allow her to travel the world.
The shootings defied city officials efforts to prevent the violence that has marred J’ouvert in the past. In 2015, Carey Gabay, an aide to Governor Andrew Cuomo, was shot and killed a few blocks from the parade route. Another festival-goer, Denentro Josiah, was stabbed to death trying to break up a fight at Grand Army Plaza.
After Gabay’s death, critics called for strict limits on the festival. The editorial board of the New York Daily News wrote that the shootings were “the price for indulging a late-night event whose organizers never obtained a permit, and for throwing quality-of-life law enforcement — against public drinking, drugging and urination — out the broken window.” Left-leaning pundits like columnist Errol Louis demanded a tighter police grip on the event this year.
The lights and extra police supervision were intended to make the event safer without completely spoiling its carnival character. At a press conference with Mayor Bill de Blasio the week before J’ouvert, Chief Steven Powers, who commands the NYPD’s Brooklyn South division, said the police would continue to “use discretion” when it came to the many plainly visible minor infractions that accompany the event.
That restraint was evident outside a Popeye’s Fried Chicken halfway between where the shootings took place. Avery Jackson, 29, stood outside the restaurant with a friend. More than six well-muscled feet tall, with a shaved head and a full, well-kempt beard, Jackson was one of many dozens at J’ouvert openly selling nutcrackers, homemade drinks made from Kool-Aid and high-proof alcohol, repackaged in plastic juice bottles with DIY labels. He loudly touted his wares to the crowd, a sales tactic that qualified as discreet. Other nutcracker sellers rolled entire dumpsters filled with ice and the drinks through the crowd, past hundreds of cops.
He wasn’t worried about the shootings. “Sometimes, stuff happens, man. Not to me or my peoples — it’s a select few it happens to,” Jackson said.
Though his nutcracker hustle was untroubled by law enforcement, Jackson chafed at the heavier hand the NYPD was bringing to J’ouvert. “They’re telling us where to go, but these are our neighborhoods.”
Some of his fellow attendees were less blasé about the threat of violence. Denise, a 55-year-old Baltimore woman who declined to give her last name, said she had attended J’ouvert every year until about a decade ago. She was glad to be back, but still worried. “Ten years ago, you had fun. You didn’t look behind your back to see if someone was trying to choke you out or kill you,” she recalled. Now, she said, the event was dominated by “a younger crowd.”
On the lookout for troublemakers was Mike Tucker, an anti-violence activist who was enlisted by the Brooklyn Borough President’s office to spread awareness of the police’s new plan for J’ouvert. Tucker has been a prominent fixture in Brooklyn anti-violence activist circles since 2005, when his son was shot and killed by police during an altercation.
Tucker said J’ouvert always attracted some people “who wanted to instigate.” But he believes the event remains an overall positive for the community.
After hearing an ambiguous “pop!” from the direction of Eastern Parkway, Tucker dialed a younger son, who was supposed to be nearby. Receiving no answer, he dialed and dialed again. It turned out the noise was innocuous, perhaps a car running over a water bottle.
At 5 a.m., Avia LaCroix stood under a lighting tower at the corner of Bedford Avenue and Sullivan Street to bid some friends good night. It was at this intersection that Carey Gabay was shot last year.
Avia, 40, had been out for four hours. She’d made rounds through the neighborhood, going to smaller barbecues instead of following the main route. This was her twentieth year attending J’ouvert, and she said that it would be her last. She’d had a good time, though could have done without the floodlights. “I don’t like them,” she said. “But I’m kind of a vampire.”
Too young to know what J’ouvert had been, Aidan, the teenager performer in D’Radoes, was philosophical about what it had become.
On the one hand, he said, “Things go wrong at an event as big as this.”
On the other, he didn’t mind all the extra cops. “As long as they don’t stop me from jamming on a girl on the road, I’m good.”
[All photos by Rebecca Smeyne for The Trace]