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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