Arts Desk

Will the Caribbean Carnival Ever Return to D.C.?

Last weekend, a number of D.C.-area Caribbean troupes took to Baltimore with their feathered costumes, pan drums, flamboyant floats, and booming island music for the anticipated Baltimore Washington One Carnival. For any D.C. residents in attendance, the sight may have been bittersweet.

From 1993 to 2011, the D.C. Caribbean Carnival parade took place on Georgia Avenue NW. It happened every year except 2003, when participants marched down Pennsylvania and Constitution avenues downtown. But the District hasn't allowed the parade to return for two years, primarily because of its organizers' outstanding debt to the city.

In the past, District mayors have waived fees associated with parades (and other major events like marathons) because of the revenue they generate for the city and local businesses. In 2012, a Howard University School of Business study estimated that the Caribbean Carnival drew 400,000 attendees (which actually seems like a high number) who spent more than $21 million around the parade, providing nearly $1.3 million in sales tax revenue. But in the aftermath of the 2011 parade, the D.C. Caribbean Carnival owed about $210,000 to the District, most of it for services rendered by the Metropolitan Police Department in 2011 and 2010 (in 2011, the carnival also received a $30,000 community fund award, which it used to pay fees to the Department of Transportation and other city agencies). In a February 2012 letter to D.C. Carnival Executive Director Loughton Sergeant, D.C.'s Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Paul Quander, Jr. wrote that the carnival could not resume until it paid the District $210,000 and demonstrated that it would cover projected 2012 expenses.

Its financial setbacks aren't the parade's only snags: It continues to be accused of fomenting misbehavior and violence on and near the parade route. In 2011, violence on Georgia Avenue NW left one person dead, prompting some people on the Internet to blame the carnival for the bloodshed, despite MPD's statement that the incident stemmed from a neighborhood gang battle and took place hours after the parade ended.

Reached by Washington City Paper, Sergeant declined to comment on the parade's outstanding debt, saying that the organization wants to "do whatever it takes" to bring back the parade. He says it's a peaceful event, and that it's a shame that neighborhood violence has given it a "black eye."

In May, the D.C. Council approved $107,000 in the FY 2014 budget for a fund that would help pay for neighborhood parades and festivals. Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser, a longtime supporter of the parade, trumpeted the budget allotment in a news release. (Bowser's office did not return a request for comment on the parade's future.) But even a big slice of that $107,000 wouldn't put much of a dent in the carnival's sizable debt.

A spokesman for the Deputy Mayor Quander's office says Quander's department isn't interested in working with the D.C. Carnival organization. It is, however, working through the mayor's Advisory Committee on Caribbean Affairs to host a Caribbean Cultural Festival at Freedom Plaza on Sept. 21.

Dr. Claire Nelson, a founding advisory board member of the D.C. Caribbean Carnival, writes in an email, "Not having a Carnival Parade has been devastating to our efforts to promote greater political awareness and civic participation in the Caribbean community." Von Martin, host of WPFW’s Caribbeana, also writes via email, "what is missing is a true sense of belonging that was lost. Caribbean people losing that sense of visible identity that contributes to the American landscape."

Tony Java, who runs the annual D.C. Reggae Awards and a reggae night at Club Timheri, blames the D.C. Carnival board for the parade's demise. "You cannot run a program and depend on other people’s money to keep" it afloat, Java writes in a message. But WPFW reggae DJ Tony Carr says the absence of a D.C. parade is not necessarily just about money and security. Making an exception for Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham and former Mayor Adrian Fenty, Carr says, "I don’t think the city embraced the carnival or even tried."

Photo by Matt Dunn

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  • G

    Thanks for your bias against the "people on the internet", who LIVE THERE and don't like the trash, drugs, and violence that come out on that day. It's not the parade. It's the drinking, drugs and other lack of respect that plagues the neighborhood well after the event is done.
    I've said that to Sergeant's face and gotten nothing from him. He doesn't care.

    Also, ask MPD how they refer to the shooting, despite Lanier's CYA. It's the "Caribbean Festival Shooting". Sure, after the parade, but at the festivities.

  • Ally Schweitzer

    @G, your point is taken that residents don't like the associated litter, noise, etc. Their frustration is justified.

    Our point is that many residents---and not necessarily JUST those on the Internet, but the POP message board provides a very illustrative example---attributed that particular 2011 incident to the parade despite MPD's claim that it was unrelated. That is all.

  • SteveK

    @G D.C. Councilmember Graham and the MPD state it was a gang shooting unrelated to the Carnival.

    "My information is that there was a very specific target," says Ward One D.C. Councilmember Jim Graham.

    He says this was not a random shooting, that law enforcement sources are telling him a well-known gang member was among those wounded.

    "We believe he (the gang member) was the target, and an innocent person died," Graham says.

    Also, the D.C. Carnival Board doesn't want to be associated with litter, noise, drinking, etc. that would hurt the Carnival and that is why they have stated that they have complied with security requirements whether the Festival was held on Georgia Ave or in 2003, downtown.

  • J

    @Ally - sure, there are some loud mouths on POP, but there are real residents for whom the parade goes hand in hand with the neighborhood going crazy. Some parts are great (jamaican food sold all over) and some parts are awful. It's just grating to me when people (including Lanier) say "it wasn't related" because it shows an ignorance of the way things are that day.
    Yes, gang related, but please look at the big picture.

    @SteveK - they comply with the "requirements" but those requirements leave us hanging short once the parade is over. We’re all trying hard to push back on the gangs in our neighborhoods, and having a free-for-all carnival is not helpful. I’m not surprised that there was a shooting.

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  • SteveK

    In researching the piece and based on my own experiences, I know that there are also "real residents" who want safety, clean streets, etc. AND a Caribbean Carnival. The Georgia Avenue area has long been home to Caribbean restaurants and immigrants from the Caribbean, as well as others who are supportive of that community. Yes, there is arguably work that needs to be done though by the City and the MPD and private groups in ensuring that security,safety, law enforcement, trash pickup, etc. is done when events are held in public anywhere in the city.

  • J

    Steve, I'm one of them - I'd love to see it again on Georgia Ave, but only if it's done right. I also have no faith in Sargent that he'd get us there. It starts with him saying "not my problem - it was gang related".

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  • Torrance Gantt

    The Caribbean Festival is about One's culture which is International, but not accepted or respected in an European cultivated society. So, any negativity towards something that is of solidarity in any way to Afrikans is projection. The main ingredient to constant oppression. Scared that those that follow will no longer just because of a major financial collapse that will not recover, or Karma's conclusion to it's overall enigma when referring to those who are domain of today's earth, and it's people! Just watching and it is funny how history repeats itself! The carnival is really not the issue, but you better get you the monetary funds while it's yours! Love, Peace, and Eternity!

  • Paul Williams

    Shut the hell up. Go back where ever you came from. I can tell your not from DC. Don't see you complaining about your beer fest and gay parades.

  • Jeremy-flyboy Alexander

    Bullshit, there's going to be drugs and violence present regardless. You can always have a dry (no alcohol) event. The gangs were there before the carnival, not after... The city is losing revenue.