NAACP files discrimination suit against city, police

Saying black tourists face discrimination and decrying a 23-mile traffic loop during Memorial Day weekend, NAACP leaders announced Tuesday a lawsuit against the city and its police department.

"That 23-mile traffic pattern is 23 miles of frustration. Twenty-three miles of humiliation. Twenty-three miles of segregation. And after all these years, after three years and 23 miles of shame, the NAACP has said enough is enough. Time's up on discrimination in Myrtle Beach. Time's up on overly aggressive police in Myrtle Beach," said Anson Asaka, NAACP associate general counsel.

NAACP officials, lawyers and supporters gathered outside of Sandy Grove Baptist Church on Tuesday for the announcement. Several stood around a podium and held signs that read, "I am the NAACP."

The lawsuit filed in South Carolina federal court names the NAACP and three individuals — Simuel Jones and Leslie and Cedric Stevenson — as the plaintiffs. The City of Myrtle Beach and the Myrtle Beach Police Department are the defendants.

The crux of the lawsuit pertains to a 23-mile traffic loop implemented in 2015 for Atlantic Beach Bike Week held during Memorial Day week and commonly referred to as "Black Bike Week." It spurred out of the aftermath of the 2014 violence which left three dead and seven injured, after eight shootings were reported along Ocean Boulevard. The loop turns Ocean Boulevard into a one-way road and funnels traffic out to George Bishop Parkway and back to Ocean Boulevard.

City dignitaries said the loop purpose was to control traffic, ease congestion and reduce crime. But, NAACP officials say that isn't the case. Instead, it is discriminatory and causes people to navigate traffic for hours, according to the NAACP. They also point to the fact the loop isn't implemented for similar events such as Harley week and Carolina Country Music Fest.

The NAACP also asked a federal judge to order an immediate halt to efforts to implement the traffic plan for 2018. Hearings on preliminary injunctions are typically heard within days or weeks of the request.

The court filings state the loop's intention is to make the week "unpleasant for the mostly African-American motorcyclists that they stop attending and the event ceases to exist."

"It is clear to us the real motivation behind this traffic plan is to discourage African-Americans from attending Black Bike Week. It's just that simple," Asaka said.

While city officials contended that loop is for traffic and safety concerns, the suit states that crime is not abnormal for the city, and gun violence and shootings increased during the last several years. There is violence throughout the year, but only the Memorial Day week is singled out for different treatment, the suit argues.

The individual defendants in the case say they were impacted by the loop as they had to alter plans to avoid the hours-long route, according to court records. Cedric Stevenson also noted that during Harley week, people were allowed to ride freely on Ocean Boulevard. Where during the Memorial Day weekend, riders had to navigate a maze of roads and cops frequently shouted at riders to decrease music volume.

"There is no reasonable justification for the city's discriminatory treatment of black tourists during black bike week and we look forward to proving that point," said Dorian Spence, with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Memorial Day weekend is the only time blacks are the majority of Myrtle Beach tourists, Spence said. The history of discrimination during the event is at least a decade old, he said.

Myrtle Beach's city manager John Pedersen and police public information officer Capt. Joey Crosby said on Tuesday they will not comment on pending litigation.

The suit argues that when the city implemented the loop, dignitaries said it was because of the composition of people attending Memorial Day weekend events. It quotes former Police Chief Warren Call, who said the week "creates the atmosphere that draws the bad element to the Myrtle Beach area." People also believe they could do anything they wanted to because of a believed anonymity, he said.

The suit also cites ex-Gov. Nikki Haley efforts to stop Atlantic Beach Bike Week and former-Mayor John Rhodes calls to end the week. Rhodes also responded to request for a smaller loop, by saying they were trying to get people outside of the city.

The NAACP filed a lawsuit against the city in 2003 related to traffic issues and discriminatory treatment during the Memorial Day week. A federal judge issued a preliminary injunction and found that the NAACP showed that Harley week and the Atlantic Beach week were treated differently. The city appealed and a year later reached a settlement. That agreement included provisions about maintaining similar traffic controls during the two weeks and other measures. The settlement expired in 2010.

The same judge, Terry Wooten, that presided over the 2003 case was assigned to Tuesday's suit.

There also have been complaints about businesses closing during the Memorial Day week and other aggressive actions by police. Those issues were mentioned and echoed in the newest lawsuit. One area was the increase in police presence, including 800 officers paroling Memorial Day week events. The suit contends those officers also are instructed "to police aggressively and strictly enforce city ordinances." Those police officers use the traffic plan and gridlock to be more aggressive, including searching cars at a standstill.

The suit alleges that the overwhelming police presence is to intimidate participants and discourage them from visiting Myrtle Beach.

After the 2015 loop's implantation, NAACP leaders said they tried to speak with city officials and attended task force meetings to change the loop, but efforts fell on deaf ears. NAACP Myrtle Beach President Mickey James said they tried to negotiate a new plan, one that wouldn't cause as much hostility, but were rebuffed.

"It's a shame that we've got to come forward with a lawsuit," James said.

When the bike week started in 1980, James said it was with a different attitude, as people were kind. The event has grown and led to animosity. James added the week has challenged Myrtle Beach's attitude and to some the gathering is a nuisance.

"Today is the beginning of a new era for the hope, justice and equality in Myrtle Beach," he said.

The lawsuit says the city's actions violated equal rights, the First and Fourteenth Amendments and other laws. The suit asks for an unspecified amount in damages. The filing argues that the individuals should be compensated for "humiliation, embarrassment, emotional distress, mental anguish and out-of pockets costs." The court also should award the NAACP Myrtle Branch money, the suit states.

According to the preliminary injunction request, the NAACP and the individual plaintiffs would suffer "constitutional and tangible injuries" if the city is installs the 2018 loop. Meanwhile, the city can simply implement its safety efforts utilized during Harley week, the filing contends.

Asaka said they filed the lawsuit because other efforts failed and they had no choice. The suit shows that in 2018, the community doesn't live in a post-racial society, he said.

"We will continue to fight until all visitors in Myrtle Beach are treated fairly regardless of their race."