New York Mayor Bloomberg and New Pioneers Terrorize Steelband Youth

A clear case of reckless endangerment of youth, family and community... The terror, that terror wants...

Michael Bloomberg
New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg - the face of New York Steelband horror

New York, USA - What is terror?  Terror is like slavery.  It is living with the knowledge that at any moment the loss of so-called ‘liberty,’ limb and/or death can be visited upon you.  And there is nothing you can do about it in that instant.

Close your eyes and envision over one hundred people with guns, armored vehicles, assault-teams - waiting for the word to move in.  Afghanistan, Iran, Gaza? Nope!

Like a scene out of ‘Die Hard’ or ‘The Siege,’ there were lights flashing, horns blaring, dozens of squad cars, paddy wagons and over one hundred police officers equipped with guns and other ‘arms’ ready to use them. They cordoned off the entire block from one end to the other - and waited for the order to move in. Only this is not a movie and it sure is not Hollywood. This is real-life and it’s Brooklyn, New York on Friday, September 3, 2010, just after 10:00 p.m.

NYPD take up assault position outside of Sonatas Steel Orchestra's pan yard
Countless NYPD officers take up assault position outside of Sonatas Steel Orchestra's Pan yard - (photo: Adrian Lovell)

There were so many police present on this one block you would think there must have been a serious breach of national security! But nothing was further from the case. This grand show of ‘force’ was by the NYPD (New York Police Department) - such that it could make the 81st Airborne blush.  And what was the reason for the mounting of such a large contingent of deadly force that was prepared to arrest, inflict bodily harm, and or/kill on command?  Who were the targets?

Jubilant and excited, then-defending champions - Sonatas Steel Orchestra's group picture - taken two days before the siege
Jubilant and excited, then-defending champions - Sonatas Steel Orchestra in group picture -  taken two days before the siege
Teenage musicians in Sonatas Steel Orchestra display NYC commendation
Teenage musicians in Sonatas Steel Orchestra display commendation

The ‘offenders’ who had merited so much attention were none other than a bunch of young musicians, most of them college students - one himself then heading off to join the US Navy, teenagers (pictured, holding the New York City commendation received by the very same orchestra’s leader earlier this year), pre-teens, tiny-tots and babies (and lots of parents) and visitors from out of town, some elderly.  The musicians in the orchestra were simply practicing their age-old craft for the last night before they participated in the September 4 New York steelband music competition as documented in the Caribbeat section of the New York Daily News.  They are the members of New York steelband Panorama champions, Sonatas Steel Orchestra.  A quick mention must be made that the orchestra of one hundred-plus youths had been practicing for two months until then without incident, interruption - or the police ever showing up.  Moreover, the institution has been practicing in the same spot, going through the same seasonal musical ritual for over thirty years.

Sonatas is easily the most multi-cultural, multi-racial and diverse New York orchestra of any kind, reflective of players of a wide variety of backgrounds. It is one of the best steel orchestras in the world. In fact there are many players who travel from out-of-town from universities and colleges, and from other countries, to take in the Sonatas panorama experience for the season - all of whom were actually practicing when this incident took place. Yet none of that seemed to matter to New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg who had to know that he was also putting these young people and others at risk, and potentially in harm’s way.

Indeed Mayor Bloomberg, New York City and the ‘new pioneers’ are saying that after more than forty years - there are no traditions or cultural norms of the indigenous people of this Crown Heights/Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood, that they have to consider, recognize, or respect.

Undoubtedly NYPD knew it was not going to encounter the Jets and Sharks of West Side Story, or even the Bloods or Crips.  So who was all this firepower and show of force for?

Was it for the grandparents and young children who can be found in all the pan yards of New York on any given night?  Or the music dignitaries and University educators who were seated taking in the music?  Was it for the out-of-town college students performing every year with the world-class champions Sonatas - as they would in an exchange program where they study abroad, or on an internship? No! This was about intimidation, and the setup for a tragic incident.

It is obvious to see that Mr. Bloomberg clearly wanted an incident to facilitate future objectives that do not include the presence of the steel orchestras in these neighborhoods. What took place recently on that Summer evening, a few weeks ago was irrational, mean and terrifying.

Sonatas as recorded two days before the “siege” of their pan yard, and three days before they again emerged victorious as 2010 New York Panorama Champions

The pattern of the last night or two leading up to Labor Day celebrations on Eastern Parkway has remained unchanged for more than forty years.  Pan yards and mas camps are a-buzz with last-minute preparations for the season.  In the case of Pan, it is practice, practice, practice - and practice again! - into the early hours of the morning before the Saturday night competition.  This results in sweet steelpan music as the orchestras each put the final touches on what would be their ultimate performance in less than twenty-four hours.

So this is not a new phenomenon to New York City or its leadership.  In fact the very same leadership, in this case the Mayor, has himself ‘marched’ in the Labor Day parade on Eastern Parkway, especially when it is an election year.

And in the case of a few orchestras, especially Sonatas, there are music degree students from colleges and other out-of- state musicians who re-join the orchestra each year to practice and perform for the competition.

So - without warning or reason on the last night of practice before the competition, Sonatas Steel Orchestra was ordered to stop practicing at 10:00 p.m.  Invoked by the NYPD was a “permit“ that only allowed practice until 10:00 p.m.  But the orchestras, including Sonatas had been practicing sometimes until 1:00 a.m. or even later.  What is it about the Friday night on the Labor Day weekend that produces this violent reaction toward the pan yards and mas camps?  The very same weekend where millions of dollars flow into the coffers of both New York state and the Mayor - from the very same celebrations and activities, that the very same besieged Caribbean community is preparing for?

For the New York steelpan community traditionally, Friday night before the Saturday event has always been a very special night - a ‘family night,’ a ‘community place.’  It is the night when community members, family, friends and countless visitors from out-of-town and other countries visit the pan yards to see and hear how the panorama-bound steelbands are doing.

Terror is enjoying a summer evening with family, friends and neighbors - singing, laughing - enjoying music, living your culture in the protective enclave of what you thought was your neighborhood sanctuary, and then - BANG!  In an instant you are thrown into a blind panic, now faced with an out-of-control situation threatening your calm, your joy, your space your moment.  You are no longer able to protect your family, friends and neighbors - in fact you are now faced with, pain, loss of liberty and even death. A real game-changing situation.

Mr. Mack Scott, President of Sonatas Steel Orchestra
Mr. Mack Scott, president of Sonatas Steel Orchestra is honored by the City of New York

In speaking to Mack Scott, the president of Sonatas Steel Orchestra, who, ironically a mere two months ago was honored by the New York City Comptroller’s office in recognition of his great work, with the very same Sonatas Steel Orchestra, and the very same young  musicians - we learned that the operation mobilized by the NYPD resulted in a volatile, very tense and extremely dangerous situation.  Fortunately, there are people like Mr. Scott leading these orchestras to navigate the young people of his organization through these provocative and potentially deadly moves by Mayor Bloomberg, and by extension the ‘new pioneers’ entering the neighborhood.

Let us be perfectly clear: “terror” was thrust upon an unsuspecting community a few weeks ago.

What makes this incident so sad and unbelievable is that there is so little left that we can give our youth and community that is not barbaric and mean.  The pan yard is one of those few great community life experiences still in existence.  It is simply incredible that Mr. Bloomberg would threaten that, and further, try to dehumanize the people of this community.

Again, this could easily have been a very tragic situation.  So many things could have easily gone wrong.

Totally oblivious to the level of what was unfolding, the Sonatas youth told WST (When Steel Talks) that they were wondering what was going on when they saw all the lights and commotion - never once making the association that this could be about them.

Why would the mayor give orders violating the sanctity of the steel orchestra’s pan yard, making it become hostile and toxic to its own citizens?  Why would the mayor jeopardize the safety of many young people and hard-working parents by sending what one would have to call an assault force?   Exactly who was being threatened by parents and community members enjoying and supporting the achievement of their young citizenry - delivering music performances?  So many things could have gone wrong.  Clearly, the Mayor was ready to say “I take full responsibility” had something gone wrong - and that is a very scary thought.

This could not have happened in Little Italy, Park Slope, Bensonhurst, Howard Beach, Bay Ridge, Williamsburg or any of the other city neighborhoods where people of color are in the extreme minority.  But this happened in Crown Heights because there is now a large ‘pioneering’ contingent of ‘new citizens’ which constitutes the re-gentrification of the area.  

And it was the mayor who put this behavior in the works.  The mayor, in a not-so-subtle manner is letting the long-time neighborhood residents know that the presence of these new pioneers heralds the death of the residents’ culture and their norms.  Moreover, he is fully prepared to accept the consequences and responsibility for what could have gone very wrong.

Those who are part of the re-gentrification wave jokingly refer to themselves as “pioneers” when they converse, but when the mayor calls for the actions we saw this year at the pan yards, they - the pioneers - now constitute an invading force whose presence is responsible for the wipeout of the original culture and people of the area. 

New York steel orchestras have been under siege before, as documented by Village Voice writer Peter Noel in his article:  The Steelband Raids.

Generations of Despers USA practice in their pan yard days before the NYPD 'siege'
Generations of Despers USA Steel Orchestra practice in their pan yard days before the NYPD ‘siege’

Unfortunately the Sonatas incident was not the lone siege, as not far away, terror was also visited upon Despers USA Steel Orchestra on the same night.  Despers USA is another institution that has decades of history and outstanding musical accomplishments in Brooklyn, and are themselves past Panorama champions.  Incredibly, Despers USA is one of the several orchestras where one will find entire family units playing together - fathers, sons, daughters, mothers, nieces, nephews, and even grandparents are members of the same orchestra - and all practice together.  And poignantly, this is the same Despers USA which, at its panyard was featured and pictured exactly one week prior in the prestigious New York Times under the headline - A Steel Symphony, Pounded Out in Brooklyn - while the orchestra was practicing.  But one week later, it all changed - while the orchestra was practicing.  And if it was up solely to a single belligerent, irrational, female officer (who was part of a large force in full riot gear outside the band’s pan yard) waving a billy club (baton) and threatening to destroy their instruments, Despers USA would not have had any instruments for any of their one hundred musicians to go to panorama, or perform again - ever. 

This leads one to the realization that the Friday night shutdowns of the pan yards by the Mayor stemmed from a premeditated decision.  This was coordinated and conscious mobilization.

To the credit of both distinguished organizations - Sonatas Steel Orchestra and Despers USA - at no time were they disrespectful to officers.  Moreover, at no time did the orchestras allow themselves to be provoked into a confrontation.

Upon returning to school, the question “What did you do for the Summer?” - should not be answered with “I won the prestigious steelband music panorama 2010 title in New York with Sonatas - and I was also part of the siege on Camp Sonatas pan yard orchestrated by Mayor Bloomberg.”  It would be far more productive and beneficial to New York City’s educational, social and cultural landscape, for the mayor to experience the genius, musical intellect and joy of the young people and vibrancy of the communities’ culture - rather than to demonize, criminalize and place them in deadly situations.

Next year, 2011, on the last Friday before Labor Day at 10:00 p.m., before the champion Sonatas again defend their title for a third consecutive run - it would be noble, respectful and decent if the mayor would be present at their panyard.  Sonatas represents one of the finest steel orchestras in the world.  They are the ‘Yankees’ and ‘Lakers’ of this Brooklyn community.

It is interesting that President Barack Obama picked up two tenor pans for his daughters on his visit to Trinidad.  They could have even been part of Sonatas Steel Orchestra that night, practicing for panorama as so many young people were doing in New York.

Again, ‘Terror’ is leaving your child and/or loved ones at, or taking them to - an environment that is known to be safe - only to have it turned into a battle zone by the very people who are sworn to “protect” them.

It would be good for the mayor to contact the management of Sonatas Steel Orchestra.  These are very hard working, intelligent, industrious and successful citizens of New York who could teach the mayor and new pioneers of the community something about civility, courtesy, culture and existing harmoniously in New York.

This type of decision-making is not done in a vacuum.  Mayor Michael Bloomberg was prepared to take full responsibility for all that could have gone so very wrong on that Friday night not so long ago.  And that is a very, very scary reality.


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