DC Carnival at a crossroads

Steelpan with Caribbean flags

John Blake is Chairman of the DC Carnival Committee Advisory Board

This year, after 19 years of staging DC Caribbean Carnival in Washington DC, this widely anticipated festival is forced to team up with the Baltimore Carnival Organization for a Baltimore/Washington One Carnival celebration.
The DC Caribbean Carnival has attracted crowds of over 500,000 in its best years.
But in recent years, it has been reduced because of several obstacles.
There has been a significant reduction of the route and what some called an insensitivity displayed by the Washington DC Metropolitan Police Department.
Keep moving
The DC police did not allow the masqueraders their allotted time to display their intricate, work-intensive and attractive costumes to the judges and the on-looking public.
The display of the art of costume building is an integral part of the festival and it is not just, as described, a “parade” of bands.
From my location on the judging stage, I witnessed the consistent interruption of the bands and masqueraders by the police officers going through the bands with loud megaphones, motorcycles and patrol cars insisting that the “parade” keep moving.
In fact, the judges complained that they could not properly dispense their duties.
Despite a series of meetings with the DC police chief, political representatives and the mayor’s office, no satisfactory result was produced.
Money issues
After years of negotiating with the city about the outstanding expenses owed, the decision was made that the city could no longer grant permission to host the event in Washington unless those bills were paid.
The total amount owed to the DC government, which included for the most part the DC Metropolitan police and the sanitation departments, is $210,000.
After years of soliciting help from potential sponsors, the business community and the public, the organising committee was unable to pay off this deficit.
The need to raise these funds has given rise to a controversy where the proponents of hosting a carnival celebration in Washington claim that, unless the Caribbean community demonstrates some financial support for the annual event, this event will die.
Paying for Carnival
Then there are those who state that, because viewing carnival in the Caribbean can be mostly free to the public and allow you unrestricted mingling, they expect the same here in the United States.
Therefore, some members of the public complain that they should not have to pay to enter Carnival City at the Banneker field, where the cultural events are held.
At the site, they can purchase food, crafts and enjoy the performances of local and foreign artistes, hang out on the outside and enjoy the sounds and mix and mingle with friends.
Food businesses along the parade route admit it’s their best profit- making day but, in the most part, refuse to make a donation when approached.
So where do we turn in these challenging economic times, where budgets are being cut?
And who listened to a promotion for supporting international cultural celebrations such as a Caribbean carnival in a multi-ethnic community as the nation’s capital of the United States?
I believe that the DC Caribbean Carnival is at a crossroads and this year’s staging in Baltimore will indicate how committed the DC community is to keeping this carnival celebration in Washington DC.
Firstly, I will be taking a keen observation of the turnout by Washington masqueraders and patrons to the Washington/Baltimore One Carnival in Baltimore on Saturday 14 July.
Then there are the responses to the continued financial appeals by the Washington Carnival Committee.
I am also sure that continued financial requests will be made to the Washington DC government.
But, because of other political and budgetary priorities, previously mentioned, unfortunately, not much is expected.
Is the answer a government and corporate-sponsored festival with the assistance of Caribbean nationals, as is done at the Caribana festival in Toronto (which some complain is too regimented), or a Miami-styled carnival led by Caribbean nationals, ably assisted by sponsors and the government?
One thing is for certain, the DC Caribbean Carnival has a vast potential for the city and the Caribbean community.
This would be lost if a workable resolution is not found by 2013.
The DC Caribbean Carnival committee cannot afford to lose momentum after additional years, because it will be very difficult to generate renewed interest and support.
The potential for the city is an obvious increase in tourism and revenue through the booking of hotel rooms, restaurants, 18-ft trailer trucks and generators.
Then there is the invaluable pride of the Caribbean community displaying its culture through their creative energy of costuming, steel band music, Caribbean food and craft at an anxiously anticipated annual festival.
Would we be willing to “put your money where your mouth is?”
Someone once said that, if your culture dies then the community dies as well.
As the forever optimist, I have faith in the community to pull through these tough times.
John Blake is Chairman of the DC Carnival Committee Advisory Board and the host of The Caribbean Experience on WHUR.
(Caribbean Intelligence© on Trinidad Carnival is still available online).