There have been plenty of words said and written about the shootings during last May’s Memorial Day weekend and Atlantic Beach Bikefest.
But since last year, new words and phrases have entered our national lexicon – Ferguson, Black Lives Matter and I Can’t Breathe. Names like Freddie Gray and Walter Scott have become common in daily discussions. More often than not, these discussions exist in a bubble, devoid of historical perspective or the logistics involved before and after an incident occurs.
This is not one of those discussions.
This discussion takes you into the history of Atlantic Beach, leading up to last year’s debacle, and heads into this year’s event on the Grand Strand. This discussion will also take a deeper look at color – the color green – the color of money.
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“If You Don’t Know Me By Now” – A Brief History of Atlantic Beach
The little swatch of land known as Atlantic Beach was originally developed by the descendants of Gullah Geechee slaves.
“It all started in 1934, when George W. Tyson, a black businessman from Conway, bought 47 acres of land from a white landowner named R.V. Ward for $2,000,” says Sherry Suttles, author or “Images of America: Atlantic Beach” and one-time president of the Atlantic Beach Historical Society. “It was the height of segregation and the depression. Some more people put their pennies together, and they got a place of their own.”
After buying the land, Tyson built the Black Hawk Night Club. Other black landowners and business people bought and developed the four-block area of Atlantic Beach. Motels, restaurants, shops and night clubs sprang up. A couple of years later, the Intracoastal Waterway was built, pouring in commercial shipping and leisure boating.
Atlantic Beach came to be known as The Black Pearl – 128 acres of prime real estate, welcoming those that no one else would. It thrived in the ’40s, ’50s and early ’60s. Black families vacationed in droves.
Entertainers like Count Basie, Ray Charles, Billie Holiday, James Brown, Martha and the Vandellas, Bo Diddley and Otis Redding played the Jim Crow south in surrounding white clubs, but they stayed in the segregated beach town and played after-hours shows at Atlantic Beach’s Cotton Club, Black Magic Club, Hawk’s Nest or one of the other clubs of the time.
But the lines of segregation were always blaring. On the northern and southern borders of Atlantic Beach, property owners ran ropes out into ocean and posted signs for blacks to stay off of their beach. Fences and walls were put up and refortified over the years to barricade the city.
“Then, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 Act were passed and legal segregation stopped. Black people could stay anywhere they wanted on the beach,” says Suttles. “Atlantic Beach incorporated in 1966, and it’s gone downhill ever since.”
The ropes and segregation signs fell, but Atlantic Beach has opted to not annex into North Myrtle Beach. Since its inception, it seems The Black Pearl has adopted an ‘us against the world’ mentality. But maybe, on occasion, it’s been The Black Pearl against The Black Pearl, too. A lack of resources and civic services, paired with government corruption, has given Atlantic Beach a crumbling infrastructure and a bad reputation.
Over the years, local TV coverage is filled with a cavalcade of police officers, town administrators, council members and mayors being brought up on charges of driving under the influence and drug distribution and election fraud and bribery.
And let’s not forget former Mayor Retha Pierce, whose title and rap sheet should be enough to garner the attention of reality show producers. During her stint as mayor and after, she’s been arrested for third-degree assault and battery against an Atlantic Beach town council member, driving under the influence, resisting arrest, reckless driving, trespassing and hit-and-run.
Paul Curry has a very litigious history with Atlantic Beach. He lived there from 2002 to 2012. Curry contests that three of the five current council members are legitimate. He’s filed multiple lawsuits against the town. The court has ordered the town to apologize to him in one instance. He’s been accused of harassment by Atlantic Beach, and he even got into an altercation with Town Manager Benny Webb in Town Hall over the Freedom of Information Act. The tussle ended with Webb being convicted of third degree assault and battery in 2013.
Curry began living in a one-room apartment in Atlantic Beach when he was down on his luck and says he’s bothered by seeing people “getting their rights stomped on by landlords and the corrupt government.”
For the last 40 years, outside developers have tried to come in and revitalize the dilapidated township. But distrust of outsiders runs deep.
“I won’t lay all the blame on city management. Nor do I think the developers should be faulted,” says Suttles. “Everyone has their motivations. Everyone is pulling in different directions. They restrict developers until nothing is viable. The people there just can’t get it together.”
But to look at Atlantic Beach, you can feel the decay from the top down. Crime rates soar. Population plummets.
“They think they have a divine right to exist, and everyone should be obligated to help them,” says Curry. “It’s a town whose time has passed.”
Tiffany Gerald grew up in Atlantic Beach. After years of her husband’s urging, she finally moved to North Myrtle Beach. She grew up there. She misses it, but believes it’s impossible to get ahead while living there.
“The government and the landowners there are like crabs,” says Gerald. “When one gets ahead, the others just pull them back down.”
Today, these few self-segregated blocks are one of the poorest communities in South Carolina. The golden age is long gone for this oceanfront property. Only 350 permanent residents remain with a household median income of a little more than $24,000. The average per capita income is only $12,492. The surrounding Grand Strand only grows grander as The Black Pearl sinks deeper in debt.
“Fantastic Voyage” – A Rundown of Bikefest
But let’s back up a minute – back to 1980, when a lightning strike of an idea came into fruition – Atlantic Beach Bikefest was launched on Memorial Day weekend to compete with the already entrenched Harley-Davidson spring rally. Harley riders had used the month of May to rally in Myrtle Beach since the 1940s.
“The bike rally started as a way to generate funds for Atlantic Beach. Black bikers were already going to the other rally,” says Suttles. “It started with hundreds of bikers, then thousands, then hundreds of thousands. It became too much, and the surrounding beaches got the overflow.”
The streets soon filled with food and merchandise vendors. Bikers rolled into town, and along with them came tricked-out cars and anyone else looking for a party. The town did make money, but it wasn’t a game-changer. After the expense and promotional costs, Bikefest makes up less than 10 percent of Atlantic Beach’s total income.
The Grand Strand rapidly found out it wasn’t prepared for back-to-back rallies filled with noisy parties, bumper-to-bumper traffic, general rowdiness and the violence usually accompanying masses of people and alcohol.
“With more people came more headaches and violence,” says Suttles. “All of that gets blamed on Atlantic Beach.”
“It’s a crazy event, but Atlantic Beach does a great job coordinating the festival with the assistance of other law enforcement agencies,” says Benny Webb, former Atlantic Beach town manager and retired SLED agent. “They never had any major problems until the festival spilled over into Myrtle Beach. But what else are you going to do? Atlantic Beach can’t hold 250,000 people.”
Almost from the beginning, Myrtle Beach tried to push the event back out of city limits. But why? Is it because minorities become the majority for one weekend? Is it because white people are forced to come face-to-face with black culture? Is the populous of the Grand Strand really terrified of hip-hop music and revealing bikinis on the backs of bikes?
In the ’90s, some Grand Stand politicians and business owners rallied to control the festival with the National Guard. A few businesses started to close over the weekend. Traffic rerouting and looping began on Ocean Boulevard.
“The more welcoming we are the fewer problems we’ll have. We welcome the money, but we don’t welcome them,” says Shai David, owner of the Oasis Motel in Myrtle Beach. “It’s a large volume of people having a good time. Let’s accommodate this important part of our economical ecosystem with more trash cans and port-a-potties.”
In 2003, in a bid to ban Atlantic Beach Bikefest in Myrtle Beach, Mayor Mark McBride compared Bikefest with the Harley rally by saying, “Black Bike Week is rowdier, younger and much more crowded.”
“Bikefest crowds in Atlantic Beach are always well-behaved. They’re actually an older crowd, mixed with younger people,” says Webb. “A lot of the same people have been coming to this thing since it began. I’ve met some of the nicest people at the festival.”
But lines were drawn. Problems continued in 2003 when several black bikers joined the South Carolina chapter of the NAACP to sue the restaurants that closed during Memorial Day weekend and the City of Myrtle Beach for discrimination. The NAACP called the suits “Operation Bike Week Justice.” The NAACP won all the federal discrimination suits.
“At one point, Myrtle Beach tried to buyout the rally so they could cancel it,” says Suttles. “But the [Atlantic Beach Town] council refused.”
Bikefest raged on and in 2008, a Coastal Carolina University student was shot. Apparently, bikers weren’t involved, but the tragedy was used as a red herring to pass ordinances targeting bike rallies – ordinances involving loitering in downtown parking lots, loud muffler noise, harsher vendor restrictions in city limits, and the highly contested helmet law.
Court hearings ensued over the ordinances and most of them, including the helmet law, were reversed. Harley riders took the hint and moved on to surrounding beach towns. But black bikers and their friends still gather, still party, still bring their money to Myrtle Beach.
Curry believes Atlantic Beach Bikefest should be billed as an “outdoor bizarre for counterfeit goods” because of raids in the last three years, resulting in arrests and the confiscation of thousands of dollars in knockoff products.
“I’d estimate 75 percent of the vendors are selling counterfeit goods,” says Curry. “DVDs, CDs, purses, perfumes, sunglasses, cellphone covers, NFL gear, sneakers – they sell all kinds of illegal stuff.”
More trouble boiled up in the last two years. Six bikers died in traffic accidents in 2013. Then the catastrophe of 2014 – eight shootings occurred on Ocean Boulevard – seven people were injured and a triple homicide occured near Bermuda Sands motel.
Atlantic Beach Bikefest and Myrtle Beach became a national news story and prompted Gov. Nikki Haley to travel to Horry County on May 30 and announce, “It is time for Bikefest to come to an end, and that is the way that I am going to talk to the elected officials of Atlantic Beach.”
Haley addressed Atlantic Beach town council last July. Atlantic Beach Mayor Jake Evans publicly called Haley’s comments, “just politics.” He also made sure everyone knew, “We didn’t have any problems in Atlantic Beach. Everybody abides by the laws. Why can’t they do the same in Myrtle Beach?”
At a September summit, Haley addressed a room full of South Carolina law enforcement officers. “I just wish we could get more respect and involvement out of the people in Atlantic Beach. I’ve gone and talked to their council. …We’ve gotten nothing,” she said. “If you see all of these other communities working so hard to keep the area safe it would really be nice if the city of Atlantic Beach would step up and say, ‘You know what? We have a role to play in all this and we should step up and do something.’”
Atlantic Beach Town Manager William Booker responded at the same summit by saying, “We’re willing to work together. We don’t want to see any more of these tragic events in our area.”
Booker was terminated in November, because his job performance was “not favorable.” But even without Booker, there’s no intention of Atlantic Beach ever caving in on Bikefest.
And Haley finally relented like an exhausted parent, “They can continue to have Bikefest if they follow our rules.”
Haley’s language even denotes separation – notice the “our” in her statement. She doesn’t say “the” rules but “our” rules, as if they’re not everyone’s rules.
“What bike week has grown into isn’t all positive, but we feel like most of the riff-raff has gone to Myrtle Beach, and good riddance to that,” says Gerald. “We know the police everywhere are working long hours and jumping through hoops, and we want them to stop the crime and lock up the bad guys just like everybody else does.”
But what if Atlantic Beach did cancel Bikefest? Are the bikers and partiers going to stop coming? And why would Atlantic Beach trade 35 years of tradition because of an isolated incident in another city?
“I love the energy of Atlantic Beach during Bikefest,” says Suttles. “It’s like a great street fair.”
“Every bike week, I go back to those same four streets,” says Gerald. “It’s always the same. The same vendors, the same people come back. We catch up every year. It’s like a reunion.”
And in Myrtle Beach, it’s become economically ingrained. A lot of business owners we talked to didn’t want to go on the record, but most agreed that you can’t bitch on the way to the bank.
“Mo Money Mo Problems” – Funds Generated from Calamity
After last year’s bike week, emergency council meetings were called. Community gatherings were called. People came together to solve the “problem.”
“We need to get away from this mentality of generalizing an issue. We can’t let isolated incidents and fear change the way we think,” says David. “I’ve never had any problems with Bikefest. The money I make carries my business to mid-June. To take an economical opportunity like this away because of noise and trash would be foolish.”
“The [Myrtle Beach] city council addressed the issue and got a lot community support,” says Mark Kruea, public information officer for the city of Myrtle Beach.
The support came in the form of increased funds raised from additional property taxes, hospitality fees, short-term leasing fees and the reshuffling of budgets. The results are an estimated $4.1 million to be spent over the next two or three years.
What does four million bucks get you this Memorial Day weekend? For starters, it covers 200 body cameras for the Myrtle Beach police officers, 9,600 pedestrian and vehicular barricades, an on-street surveillance camera and operating system (125 cameras are already recording on 60 blocks of Ocean Boulevard), 500 additional police officers and overtime to cover the extra Atlantic Beach Bikefest traffic and other stuff like traffic cones and message boards.
“We have more trouble with white kids coming in here and stealing than we’ve ever had during Bikefest,” says Gary Finkenbiner, owner of Kilgor Trouts Music and More in Myrtle Beach. “Myrtle Beach has a year-round crime problem.”
In answer to that, Kruea is quick to point out, “There was a need to take advantage of this new technology that has year-round uses. Even if the first time we use these new tools are on Memorial [Day] weekend, we now have them in our toolbox.”
One of these first-time uses will culminate in a massive 23-mile loop to direct traffic. The loop goes in effect from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. May 22 to 24 and acts as a vein, pumping traffic along 29th Avenue North to Ocean Boulevard south to Kings Highway to Harrelson Boulevard to George Bishop Parkway to Waccamaw Boulevard, onto S.C. 31 heading north to Grissom Parkway south, then back to U.S. 17 Bypass and down 29th Avenue North.
“The traffic will be evaluated at 2 a.m.,” says Lieutenant Raul Denis, public information officer for the Horry County Police Department. “If it’s still too heavy, we’ll extend the loop’s hours.”
The plan brings back a dedicated emergency lane, which Myrtle Beach stopped using in 2008. Strategically placed emergency vehicles will have access to Ocean Boulevard 24 hours a day all weekend. Emergency vehicles will also be stacked all over Horry County.
Because of Atlantic Beach’s limited two-person police force, about 20 SLED officers and highway patrol officers will help enforce the packed streets. Just like the last 10 years, a traffic chute will be put in place at the entrance to the Atlantic Beach Bikefest at 30th Avenue South from May 22 to 25.
“I’m glad they’re taking steps to get ready for Bikefest, because last year, there weren’t any police to be found,” says Finkenbiner. “There were accidents and people lying in the middle of the street. It took hours for emergency vehicles to respond. I was scared, not because I was surrounded by black people but because it was crazy.”
But the main purpose of the loop is to keep people moving, to avoid clotting, aka socializing, aka partying on the streets.
“We’re not going to be the Gestapo out there, but we are going to enforce the laws,” says Denis. “Problems come from large congregations of people, so if people start gathering in parking lots, they’ll be told to move along.”
“A 24-hour street party isn’t a desirable traffic component,” says Kruea. “The loop only runs 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. because midnight tends to be the peak.” When we ask about the party component, he quickly adds, “Turning a private parking lot into a public party will also not be allowed.”
We’re not sure how effective these measures will be when thousands of people are collecting in one place to meet and party.
“It’s just the Myrtle Beach psychology that everyone is coming here to cruise,” says Finkenbiner. “They just don’t know how to entertain black people, so they give them a traffic lazy river.”
“I’m going to lose thousands of dollars in business because this loop blocks off the streets,” says David. “And these barricades are dangerous. I’ve seen it in New York City on New Year’s Eve. They block in people like cattle. They’ll be injuries and deaths if something does happen.”
But Suttles agrees with the new approach, saying, “The best you can do is try to control the traffic and the parties from getting out of hand.”
“The loop will also cause problems with GPS,” says David. “Streets are cut off. People won’t be able to find their way around in the maze.”
Many believe by separating pedestrians from vehicles, and keeping social discourse clogged on certain sidewalks or shuffled along the loop may cause disconnection with the city where they’re vacationing.
“The problem with the loop is businesses like mine are completely blocked in,” says Finkenbiner. “Nobody’s coming in or getting out of the middle of the loop all weekend.”
“The city is concentrating the small percent of troublemakers instead of the 99 percent of good people coming to have a good time and spend millions of dollars,” says David.
But in Atlantic Beach, visitors will be greeted by a banner reading, “Welcome.” Under this warm message will be a temporary phone number for anyone who needs police assistance.
Bumped-up numbers of police officers allow for smaller areas patrolled and for more crowds interacted with. It’s up to police, tourists, business owners and locals to make these interactions count.
Timothy Taylor has only been the police chief of Atlantic Beach for nine months, and he’s been planning for Bikefest for the last six or seven months.
“I anticipate a lot of large crowds, and expect all of us to be respectful, to interact and to get along,” he says. “I’m looking for everyone to be on their best behavior.”
It seems to be a case of preparing for the worst but hoping for the best with an estimated 110 officers patrolling the small patch of Atlantic Beach throughout the day. “They can come down here and have a good time on vacation,” says Taylor. “Or they can cause problems and leave on probation.”
Along with Myrtle Beach’s new body cameras and surveillance system, the city also spent $140,000 for a SkyWatch surveillance tower last fall. SkyWatch is a climate-controlled room made for two with four surveillance cameras and two spotlights that can be lifted in the 25 feet in the sky. SkyWatch will also be in full effect on Memorial Day weekend.
“It’s nice to have the equipment, but if people want to commit crimes, it doesn’t matter how many cameras you have. They’re a deterrent, not a guarantee,” says David. “I just hope that the police aren’t inside monitoring cameras when they could be out on the streets preventing it.”
Right now, Horry County officers aren’t equipped with body cameras. There are plans to include them into future budgets, but in the meantime, they do have an armored vehicle.
“That thing is staying in the garage,” says Denis. “It would take an extreme circumstance to bring it out.”
Good, because the state of the nation and the tragedies of last Atlantic Beach Bikefest call for tolerance and understanding on all sides. That reputation is probably more important to the Grand Strand than the fear of a police state in the protection of the tourism economy.
“We can always be more inviting and accommodating,” says David. “This is a free city, not a prison.”