A Georgia beach aims to disrupt Black students’ spring bash after big crowds brought chaos in 2023

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TYBEE ISLAND, Ga. (AP) — Thousands of Black college students expected this weekend for an annual spring bash at Georgia’s largest public beach will be greeted by dozens of extra police officers and barricades closing off neighborhood streets. While the beach will remain open, officials are blocking access to nearby parking.

Tybee Island east of Savannah has grappled with the April beach party known as Orange Crush since students at Savannah State University, a historically Black school, started it more than 30 years ago. Residents regularly groused about loud music, trash littering the sand and revelers urinating in yards.

Those complaints boiled over into fear and outrage a year ago when record crowds estimated at more than 100,000 people overwhelmed the 3-mile (4.8 kilometer) island. That left a small police force scrambling to handle a flood of emergency calls reporting gunfire, drug overdoses, traffic jams and fist fights.

Mayor Brian West, elected last fall by Tybee Island’s 3,100 residents, said roadblocks and added police aren’t just for limiting crowds. He hopes the crackdown will drive Orange Crush away for good.

“This has to stop. We can’t have this crowd anymore,” West said. “My goal is to end it.”

Critics say local officials are overreacting and appear to be singling out Black visitors to a Southern beach that only white people could use until 1963. They note Tybee Island attracts vast crowds for the Fourth of July and other summer weekends when visitors are largely white, as are 92% of the island’s residents.

“Our weekends are packed with people all season, but when Orange Crush comes they shut down the parking, bring extra police and act like they have to take charge,” said Julia Pearce, one of the island’s few Black residents and leader of a group called the Tybee MLK Human Rights Organization. She added: “They believe Black folks to be criminals.”

During the week, workers placed metal barricades to block off parking meters and residential streets along the main road parallel to the beach. Two large parking lots near a popular pier are being closed. And Tybee Island’s roughly two dozen police officers will be augmented by about 100 sheriff’s deputies, Georgia state troopers and other officers.

Security plans were influenced by tactics used last month to reduce crowds and violence at spring break in Miami Beach, which was observed by Tybee Island’s police chief.

Officials insist they’re acting to avoid a repeat of last year’s Orange Crush party, which they say became a public safety crisis with crowds at least double their typical size.

“To me, it has nothing to do with race,” said West, who believes city officials previously haven’t taken a stronger stand against Orange Crush because they feared being called racist. “We can’t let that be a reason to let our citizens be unsafe and so we’re not.”

Tybee Island police reported 26 total arrests during Orange Crush last year. Charges included one armed robbery with a firearm, four counts of fighting in public and five DUIs. Two officers reported being pelted with bottles, and two women told police they were beaten and robbed of a purse.

On a gridlocked highway about a mile off the island, someone fired a gun a into a car and injured one person. A white man was charged in the shooting, which officials blamed on road rage.

Orange Crush’s supporters and detractors alike say it’s not college students causing the worst problems.

Joshua Miller, a 22-year-old Savannah State University senior who plans to attend this weekend, said he wouldn’t be surprised if the crackdown was at least partly motivated by race.

“I don’t know what they have in store,” Miller said. ”I’m not going down there with any ill intent. I’m just going out there to have fun.”

Savannah Mayor Van Johnson was one of the Black students from Savannah State who helped launch Orange Crush in 1988. The university dropped involvement in the 1990s, and Johnson said that over time the celebration “got off the rails.” But he also told reporters he’s concerned about “over-representation of police” at the beach party.

At Nickie’s 1971 Bar & Grill near the beach, general manager Sean Ensign said many neighboring shops and eateries will close for Orange Crush though his will stay open, selling to-go food orders like last year. But with nearby parking spaces closed, Ensign said his profits might take a hit, “possibly a few thousand dollars.”

It’s not the first time Tybee Island has targeted the Black beach party. In 2017, the city council banned alcohol and amplified music on the beach only during Orange Crush weekend. A discrimination complaint to the U.S. Justice Department resulted in city officials signing a non-binding agreement to impose uniform rules for large events.

West says Orange Crush is different because it’s promoted on social media by people who haven’t obtained permits. A new state law lets local governments recoup public safety expenses from organizers of unpermitted events.

In February, Britain Wigfall was denied an permit for space on the island for food trucks during Orange Crush. The mayor said Wigfall has continued to promote events on the island.

Wigfall, 30, said he’s promoting a concert this weekend in Savannah, but nothing on Tybee Island involving Orange Crush.

“I don’t control it,” Wigfall said. “Nobody controls the date that people go down there.”

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