DC Carnival Booted Off To Baltimore!

By Faith Nelson
Special To NAN

News Americas, WASHINGTON, D.C., Fri. June 15, 2012: City Hall’s flinty gavel has rapped out no to Caribbean American friendship in 2012.The DC Caribbean Carnival (DCCC) has been forced to move its decades-old tradition from the nation’s capital 35 miles north to a more welcoming Baltimore. While Baltimore’s vibrant art scene is nothing to be sneezed at, Carnival’s ejection from DC is a critical error. The phenomenon along with some of the West Indian shops that once supported life around Georgia Avenue, one of DC’s main arteries, is gone, leaving the Avenue unrecognizable and nearly devoid of color. However, other group celebrations are still in vogue. Barbecue Battles, Cancer Walkathons, Gay Rights Parades, Halloween, Latin Festivals and more will still be recipients of the City’s benevolence and have the freedom to play. A few Washington Post online readers, in a fit of animus towards Caribbean immigrants, cheered when matters first came to light in an April 2012 article.

The Caribbean contribution to American culture has been recorded since the 17th Century. The small but extraordinarily fecund ethnic group has produced the likes of writers, scientists, business leaders, genius administrators and significant political figures like founding father Alexander Hamilton, Shirley Chisholm, John Russworm, Stokley Carmichael, James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay and Maya Angelou to name a few. They have walked the Capitol steps and are honored in the Congressional Record. A cultural celebration in the name of this August group should be able to thrive.

New York has had the foresight to strategically maximize the benefits of Carnival, Toronto, even more so. Why can’t Washington DC be like the City of Toronto? Granted, Canada’s most populous city has had over 40 years to learn to partner with West Indians in nurturing this cultural product into the juggernaut money earner it has become. Toronto City Council documented one million visitors, $260 million in labor income and $198 million in tax revenue generated from Caribana Festival in 2009. That city has been willing to fully integrate the Caribbean community into its ethos and become one of the catalysts for this abundance.

Long before the invasion of TV dance shows, Carnival provided the spectacle and the opportunity to decompress. It should be ranked with other national pastimes, among them Baseball, July 4th celebrations and Thanksgiving. Well-being aside, the DCCC has the potential to assuage DC’s voracious hunger for revenue. Note the City’s aggressive traffic ticketing practice which some agree is designed to break the knees and empty tax-payers pockets.

A recent Howard University School of Business poll shows that Carnival is good enterprise for the District. Ninety-one percent of the local businesses polled thought DC Carnival helped the Georgia Avenue corridor. In addition, the economic impact study estimates sales tax generated from 400,000 attendees to be $1,298,230.00. Ninety-five percent of attendees polled wanted an extension of the parade route. One would think the City would see the expansion of the DCCC as a tremendous financial opportunity.

Without the cornerstone event, Caribbean-American Heritage Month so decreed by George W. Bush, one of the most conservative American presidents, will certainly sputter to a close in 2012. What happened? Was it disenchantment, a need to please the ‘gentrified’ class which now has Georgia Avenue in its cross hairs or was it the paltry $210,000 allegedly owed by the Carnival?

Roland Barnes, president of the DCCC explains the root of the problem, “If one doesn’t take the time to open up and be receptive to a cultural offering being shared, you will not be able to forge a strong relationship. Despite carnival’s strong support from West Indians, the critical relationship, that between the officials and the people, is somewhat compromised.”

When asked about the punitive charges, Loughton Sargeant, DCCC’s executive director said, “The reality is that the assessed fees for the carnival, which should be a free event, have become so insurmountable. Without the assistance of the City or big sponsors, it would be very difficult to raise the funds to sustain the event. The majority of the bill is the cost for police services, which is very high!” Indeed, the DCCC’s case seems to be unusual. We would be hard-pressed to find other cultural groups in the District being slapped with such exorbitant bills for police services.

Despite the rumor, DC Carnival’s respectable, fully-audited financial reports show no misuse of funds. Much of the money flows directly between the vendors and the patrons, bypassing the Carnival structure itself. What the DCCC suffers from is a lack of sponsorship to run its business. Money talks and with no financial wealth to speak of, the Board has very little leveraging power in the District.

Other observers point out a handicap. Caribbean community leaders in general tend to sustain Caribbean-American events with their own money and with no strong thrust towards fundraising within that community. Given this reality, members of the Board who have personally sustained the Carnival for so many years and for the love of it, are understandably stung by the aspersions about misuse of funds.

As it turns out, the City is not worried about misappropriation of funds. It is well aware of the event’s lack of generous sponsors. Further, the DCCC’s pristine accounting meets state and federal requirements. It would appear that the event has been singled out for other reasons. The greater part of Banneker Field, the carnival parade destination, has been inaccessible to the event coordinators in recent years. This practice chokes the life blood from the carnival, robbing it of high caliber live performances by Caribbean artists. Knowingly or unknowingly, the City had been slowly skewering one opportunity the Carnival had to become a completely independent event, not dependent on City funds.

Carnival has an innovative structure in its native Trinidad and Tobago. It’s a superlative demonstration of redistribution of wealth. In the twin islands, the government sponsors the event with assistance from corporations. There is built-in diversity in this way of life. Food vendors, fine artists, artisans, costumers, composers, conductors, marshals, truckers, Pan men, politicians and production assistants all thrive in this universe — a sustainable economic system.

The celebration which grew out of slavery in the islands, has transformed into a vibrant symbol of independence. Color and class lines are tacitly set aside during the phenomenal celebrations. Artistic expression takes supremacy over the accumulation of wealth, and leaps over the racial divide, a rare concept in western municipalities and cultures.

Unlike the US brand of the event, there is no patriarchal observer looking down on revelers as savages. Rarely is there violence in the islands and when it occurs, it is dealt with objectively.

Globally, the Carnival is a showcase for Caribbean mastery and artistic skill. Well-renowned designers are often called upon to lend their extraordinary talent to world events. Award-winning Trinidadian designer Peter Minshall was responsible for the spectacular Olympic openings in Barcelona and Atlanta and many more extravaganzas. Over the decades, Carnival has become an important part of the tourism offering for most Caribbean island nations, boosting visitor numbers during low season. Storefronts and hotels do a rousing business.

By contrast, the District version of the event is burdened by City regulations, over policing, extraordinarily burdensome fees and xenophobia. The nation’s capital is among the top 10 destinations in the US and a mecca for tourists from other parts of the world. Nearly three quarters of a million visitors take their pilgrimage to the Tidal Basin every April to worship the gossamer pink Cherry Blossoms, a living gift of friendship from Japan. The carnival, a Caribbean gesture of friendship should become a part of Washington DC’s tourist offerings capturing America’s vision, creativity and diversity.

Certainly, DC Carnival’s expulsion shows the glaring difference in how some of America’s ethnic groups are received. It could be that the slurs of “savages” and “animals” as quoted in the Washington Post comments section, are the sentiments of the expanding power class in the District. In spite of that, a few far-seeing revelers and optimists are dreaming a big future. They envision the living art of the Caribbean Carnival being universally received – sitting in the same place of honor in the national pantheon as some of our European and Asian symbols, Japan’s Cherry Blossoms and France’s Statue of Liberty.

Meanwhile, political apathy and a deafening silence clouds the Caribbean community. Uncharacteristically, the opinionated group cowers while it’s presence is being quietly erased from the District’s future. Where is our fighting spirit? Who is the Carnival for — the 8-member Carnival committee valiantly trying to save it or the thousands who stand along the route to watch or celebrate? The impasse brings to mind the allegory of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. However, the results are far more tragic in this 21st Century reality show. Unlike the case of Mr. Smith, there seems to be no savior waiting in the wings, no teary eye villain ready to recant and save the day. In other words, there won’t be District officials on the doorstep with a gift-wrapped 2012 Parade.

As the Trinidadians are wont to say, “this is we t’ing” The phrase captures the generosity of their cultural embrace. Indeed, the community is broader than the Trinidadian enclave or the Caribbean collective. The DC Carnival, in the heart of the nation’s capital, is a rampart against the subtle yet unrelenting slide back into insularity and xenophobia. It celebrates diversity and oneness and the District should share in its stewardship.

This celebration of arts and culture has the potential to become truly sustainable. Look to the Canadian example. The thousands who celebrate this event should write to District officials and demand a withdrawal of the $210,000 bill and a reinstatement of Carnival to the nation’s capital where it rightfully belongs.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Faith Nelson is head of F.P. Anthos, LLC – Delivering Writing Solutions and also runs the Tamarind Festival of Caribbean Literature in Washington, D.C.