The West Indian Day Parade: An Island Woman's Perspective

Forget Christmas, New Year's Day or even Presidents' Day, my favorite holiday remains Labor Day, and I choose to celebrate it in Brooklyn. Why? Every Labor Day Monday a stretch of Eastern Parkway, from Utica Avenue to Grand Army Plaza, is transformed into a temporary stage showcasing music, talent and culture from across the Caribbean. The production, more familiarly referred to as the West Indian Day Parade, unfolds annually to the delight of the millions of spectators and paradegoers. So imagine my consternation when I read an article in which members of the New York Police Department were referring to the parade as the "West Indian Day Massacre" and a "scheduled riot."

Yesterday, headlines on the front page of The New York Times read, "N.Y.C. Police Maligned Paradegoers on Facebook". According to the article, members of the police department posted comments in No More West Indian Day Detail, an online group comprised of 1, 200 members strong, formed for "N.Y.P.D. officers who are threatened by superiors and forced to be victims themselves by the violence of the West Indian Day massacre". Members of the group referred to paradegoers as 'animals' and 'savages', and viewed the West Indian Day Parade as "the worst detail to work!!"

For more than a decade, I have been a regular paradegoer, usually with my younger sister in tow. Our Labor Day routine would run like clockwork. The alarm goes off at 6 o'clock. We were ready and headed out the door by 7 o'clock, bound for Atlantic Avenue station to catch the No. 4 train to Utica Avenue. First we attended the kickoff breakfast, then took part in festivities along the parade route.

In 2009, I authored a policy report in which I noted that the West Indian Day Parade is the largest cultural celebration in New York City. Now in its 44th year, the West Indian Day Parade draws onlookers and celebrants in the millions, from as far north as Canada and as far south as Florida and beyond. Not only is the West Indian Day Parade a major economic windfall for New York City's economy, generating revenues in the hundreds of thousands, but it has become a major magnet for politicians, incumbent and newcomers alike, courting the Caribbean American vote. In 2003, then Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton was a Grand Marshall (photos here); Congressman Charles B. Rangel has been a regular fixture. Organizers of the parade also honor the achievements of notable Caribbean Americans such as (Ret.) General Colin Powell, who was Grand Marshall in 2009.

Admittedly, the West Indian Day Parade has not been exactly incident free. In years past, paradegoers have sustained injuries, some of them fatal. But following each incident, the organizers of the parade, usually at the behest and direction of local authorities, have put mechanisms in place to avoid repeat occurrences.

Nevertheless, I am stunned by the disparity in perception on the part of police officers and the reality of my experiences at the West Indian Day Parade. Moreover, I can't help but wonder how their perception informs their approach when dealing with paradegoers. Last month, the New York Department disciplined three officers who detained City Councilor Jumaane Williams and Public Advocate Bill Di Blasio's aide, Kirsten John Foy, during the West Indian Day Parade. And next year?