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.

"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?"

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.

"I just opened your new firehouse," Clarke reminded the firefighter. Suddenly, he said, "We don't see a fire," and ordered his men to pull back. With elected officials like Clarke, Perry, Sampson, and Owens applying pressure, the steelband players were allowed back into the buildings temporarily.

On August 18, just as the cops promised, Department of Buildings inspector Anthony Carbone showed up at the premises. In the presence of the police, Carbone declared 670 Parkside Avenue "hazardous" due to a "failure to maintain [the] building." He found that the "roof joists at various locations [were] cracked and water-rotted." The roof itself was "collapsed in several locations." In his summons, Carbone recommended that the steelband players "make conditions safe immediately" and "upon completion [they were to] submit a letter of stability from a professional engineer." Despite the violations, Carbone declared that the building "essentially" was structurally sound, according to the players' complaint.

"Unfortunately for us, when the inspector came it was raining and the roof was indeed leaking," says Philip. "He gave us some time to pull out the instruments and then told the police to close us down. It would have been that or the instruments would be locked up in the building." Later that evening, a crew of building inspectors returned in the company of Chief Fox. The inspectors ordered the buildings vacated and again locked out the players.

"We brought in an engineer but then the landlord changed his rules," Philip charges. "He began to ask for rent, repairs, and liability insurance. Then he said he didn't want any activity in the building. He told me, 'We need our building.' He stacked the deck to make it impossible for us to do repairs." On August 21, the sanitation department hit the players with a $250 summons for having "steelband floats, steel drums, [and] wooden platforms . . . completely blocking [the] sidewalk." Says Philip, "We received at least three more citations."

A bewildered Philip wonders what will happen to the scores of young steelband players that he and others like Anthony Joseph and Anthony Trebuse mentor. "Nobody is helping us with transportation for these young people who we bring to this place every night," he sighs. "We don't get a dime in federal endowment monies."


Additional reporting: Amanda Ward

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