The Steelband Raids

Has the City Declared War on the West Indian Carnival?

We have insisted and continue to insist that the uniqueness of the West Indiankar-na-val is one that has to be understood in its own cultural context. This is not a parade. We're not marching. This is not a festival. We don't put on cultural dances. This iskar-na-val.
—rebel steelband advocate Dawad W. Philip


 

Almost nightly since August 16, police, firefighters, and building inspectors have raided a Brooklyn lot occupied by steelband players and masquerade designers preparing for the Labor Day West Indian carnival. The crackdown coincides with borough-wide raids, which have disrupted or completely shut down some pan yards, mas' camps, and backyard parties, and the Giuliani administration's ban on the sale of alcohol during the nation's largest ethnic gathering.

On Friday morning, acting on information obtained from steelband advocate Dawad W.

Philip, a lawyer for the Pan Rebels, Metro, and Nu-Tones steel orchestras filed a complaint in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn seeking to bar the NYPD from "proceeding with the threatened closure of their assembly and rehearsal location" at 660, 670, and 680 Parkside Avenue in Flatbush. According to the complaint, Philip and steelband captains Anthony Joseph and Anthony Trebuse allegedly had been "informed and instructed by high-ranking officers" that August 24 would be "the last night to practice and rehearse . . . since [cops] would be closing down the block" between Rogers and Nostrand avenues. The complaint also names Mayor Rudy Giuliani, newly appointed police commissioner Bernard Kerik, the fire department, and the Department of Buildings as defendants.

Although the Parkside Avenue steelband players and masqueraders had grown accustomed to sporadic harassment from police over the years, it was an unusual collusion between cops and Klyn Properties Inc., owners of the lot, that sparked a 10-night, tension-riddled standoff with authorities. Shortly before the new spate of raids, the landlord—bypassing legal proceedings in which he might have obtained a warrant for eviction—filed an affidavit at the 71st Precinct station house, complaining that the steelbands, which have occupied three buildings on the lot rent free since 1994, were trespassing. Instead of marshals and sheriffs, the revelers suddenly had to contend with the station house's private eviction squad. "The cops acted as surrogate marshals," insists Philip. "Once the landlord made the call, it became convenient for the police. More than likely they viewed the nightly congestion on the block as a nuisance—these natives running wild—and ordered the place shut."

Stephan Gleich, the attorney who represents Klyn Properties, acknowledges that he filed the affidavit that "authorized the police to make arrests." He likened the occupation by the steelband players to "a criminal attack," adding, "It's no less than burglary." But Edward A. Roberts, the attorney who filed the federal complaint on behalf of the steelband players, questioned the relationship between Gleich and the 71st Precinct. "You can't get cops to evict people even when the marshal has a warrant," Roberts says with a smirk. "How can you get them to respond so quickly to an abandoned building without a court proceeding? Any rookie officer can walk across the street and say, 'Cut off the music. Everybody go home!' That's how bad it is. Totally whimsical."

For a short period, prior to the filing of the federal complaint, it seemed as though Giuliani would respond in favor of the steelband players. Last Tuesday, as the mayor left a funeral service for the wife of Carlos Lezama, head of the West Indian American Day Carnival Association, which organizes the annual bakanalon Eastern Parkway, he was confronted by Brooklyn assemblyman Nick Perry. "I informed him that there was a potential crisis situation on Parkside Avenue that needed some understanding and sensitivity in order to arrive at an appropriate solution," says Perry, who along with State Senator John Sampson, City Council member Una Clarke, and Congressman Major Owens has thwarted several illegal attempts to evict the steelbands.

Perry adds that Giuliani "did not appear to be aware" of the controversy but promised to look into it and get back to him. On Thursday, as the deadline drew near for the cop-led eviction, Perry says he tried to contact Giuliani but was told that the mayor was traveling upstate. He was contacted later by Deputy Mayor Rudy Washington, who is black and is the mayor's point man for the carnival. "Rudy called me with a solution that he apparently had thought up without taking the time to listen to the facts about the situation," Perry told the Voice.

Washington put Perry in contact with an official at the New York City Housing Authority, who offered to relocate the steelbands to an abandoned warehouse in Long Island City. Perry recoiled at the "absurd suggestion," saying it was not a compromise he could take back to the steelband leaders. "I said, 'If you have any idea at all about what this is about, you'll know that if you take these guys to Long Island City you're effectively eliminating them from the carnival because they would never make it back to Brooklyn for Labor Day.' " The official's smug response was, essentially, "Take it or leave it."

"You guys aren't listening," Perry said.

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