Political partying

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 June, 2006, 12:00am

If you want to understand New York's cultural and political divides while having a lot of fun in the process, there's no better way than going to some of the city's street carnivals and national-day parades.

These are events where those seeking election don't just kiss babies; they sing and dance to them. And they are often steeped in controversy. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg last week had to appeal to store owners along glitzy Fifth Avenue not to board up their shops during the Puerto Rican Day Parade, saying it would be 'a disgrace'. The uneasiness dated back to the parade six years ago, when a group of young men went on a wild melee and sexually assaulted dozens of young women. This year, though, few stores covered their windows, crime was rare and there were plenty of great floats and bands to please the hundreds of thousands who attended.

Still, a group of Hispanic prison officers pulled out of the parade because they would have been marching behind the Latin Kings, a street gang that has been trying to portray itself as an advocacy group for Hispanic culture. The guards said it would be insulting to follow a gang, whose members they had often battled in the city's jails.

Similar questions arise at many other parades. An Irish gay and lesbian group was barred from participating in this year's St Patrick's Day parade for the 16th successive year. So, newly elected City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a lesbian of Irish descent, boycotted the event.

The West Indian American Day Carnival Parade in Brooklyn often leads to clashes with the authorities, whether over an alcohol ban introduced in 2000 or over wider concern about police relations with the black community.

And there is often an underlying tension as the parade - dominated by pulsating rhythms and bright costumes - passes by the Hasidic Jewish residents of Crown Heights. That tension has in the past boiled over into allegations of anti-Semitism against the black community.

Mr Bloomberg himself walked right into the centre of parade sensitivities in 2002, when he skipped the Italian community's annual Columbus Day Parade after the organisers said he could not bring two actors from the mob drama The Sopranos to march with him. The show denigrates Italians, they claimed.

There is often a serious edge behind these struggles. The end of this month will bring Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Week, including the annual march. The title this year is 'The Fight for Love and Life' - which is particularly appropriate. One of the city's best-known drag queens, Kevin Aviance, was brutally attacked on a city street by a group of youths last weekend - just, it seems, because he was a drag queen.