The Steelband Raids

Has the City Declared War on the West Indian Carnival?

"If you need shelter, that's all you can get," the official allegedly retorted.

That kind of dismissive attitude worries Dawad Philip, who has long suspected that the Giuliani administration, in cahoots with greedy developers and some ethnic groups, has been instigating resentment of the West Indian carnival, which attracts some 3 million people each year and has been a New York tradition since the 1930s. "But why?" asks the dreadlocked activist, who is affiliated with Pan Rebels, a steelband vying for the championship in this year's Panorama competition. "Why would they resent us when we pump nearly $300 million into the city's economy every year?"

Pan on the move: young steelband rebels defy police raids.
photos: Michael Sofronski
Pan on the move: young steelband rebels defy police raids.

Among a series of changes at the September 4 carnival will be a ban on alcohol sales and consumption, and the requirement that the drivers of vehicles pulling floats pass a police department safety review. Further, the city will mandate that the vehicles have a police officer riding in the passenger seat and require the carnival marshals to undergo training by the department. A mayoral task force said the safety measures are mandatory after two children and an adult were struck and killed last year by floats.

But Philip, who also is editor in chief of the Daily Challenge, the city's only black daily newspaper, says the ban on alcohol sales could hurt the event financially, since it is underwritten in part through alcohol sales during the five-day celebration that encompasses the carnival. Philip blasts the double standard that punishes the West Indian carnival but exempts the Festival of San Genaro in Little Italy from the alcohol prohibition. He adds that West Indians are unfairly being singled out as the city continues its crackdown on drunken mobs at parades. "Why do we have to take medicine for someone else's fever?" he asks. "If people at the Puerto Rican Day Parade got out of hand, why clamp down on us? That's not the way we behave. At the same time, why would you give preferential treatment to organizers of the Feast of San Genaro to sell liquor?"

Comparing carnival under the Koch administration to how it's being treated by the Giuliani regime, Philip asserts that "Koch comes across as benevolent in light of what we're dealing with now to keep this culture alive."

This is not a controversial claim, but Philip is not a reckless blabbermouth. He's devoted his life to promoting tolerance of a culture that some regard as nothing more than the annoying din of "bottle and spoon" and steel drums.

That's the ignorance a phalanx of cops from the 71st Precinct might have been armed with when they swooped down on the Parkside Avenue steelband players at about 8 p.m. on August 16. According to the players' complaint, the raid occurred while they were "assembled and assiduously engaged in the practice and rehearsal of the art form of steelband music." When the players demanded to see a warrant, one cop allegedly replied, "You are being evicted because we are police officers and we say so. You must leave or you will be arrested." The players watched helplessly as the cops removed their expensive instruments, dumped them on the sidewalk, and padlocked the premises.

Philip arrived as police were taking Metro Steel Orchestra captain Anthony Joseph away in handcuffs. He contacted Assemblyman Perry, and they went to the 71st Precinct station house, where Joseph was booked and charged with criminal trespassing. Like attorney Roberts, Perry felt it was inappropriate for the police to act as the landlord's enforcer. The cops confirmed they had an affidavit from Gleich. "So I asked the lieutenant, 'If I have tenants I need to get rid of, should I just sign an affidavit and you'd come and evict them?' " The cops were unmoved. A law-enforcement source says cops targeted Joseph because Gleich had accused him of impersonating the landlord and collecting money from the steelbands and other businesses who'd illegally set up shop on the property. Gleich denies he knows Joseph, who could not be reached for comment.

"He is a liar," says Philip. "Stephan Gleich had a relationship with Tony Joseph for almost six years. Apparently, their relationship soured. What exactly happened when Tony and the landlord fell out, I'm not clear, but what I do know is that all the bands have suffered."

The next day—just as a judge was hearing the charges against Joseph—Philip, Perry, and two other concerned West Indian Americans were meeting with Joseph Fox, commander of patrol borough Brooklyn South, and other high-ranking officers at Perry's district office. The upshot of the meeting was that Fox would work to put an end to the "heavy-handed police action," both Philip and Perry recall. After the meeting, Philip went back to Parkside Avenue. He was shocked to see four high-ranking officers from the 71st Precinct poised to eject the players from the sidewalk. "I mean, they're angry, in your face," he remembers.

Philip says he told the cops about his meeting with Chief Fox and advised them to consult him about changes in tactics that were being considered. "They were ready to go into gestapo mode," Philip says. "One of them told me it doesn't matter who I talked to because tomorrow morning the buildings department is coming to shut this place down." Philip raced to the office of City Council member Una Clarke. "While I was there, one of the guys called me and said the fire department was trying to close us down," he says. "Every time we tried to plug a hole, somebody opened one." Philip talked with a ranking firefighter and passed him on to an irate Councilmember Clarke.

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