For years, Atlantic Beach Bikefest has been a word-of-mouth event, but in the 21st century word-of-mouth has become social media.
Some say the anonymity of the Internet is what has caused the event to not only grow in recent years, but also drawn those who want to cause trouble.
“There are three types of people who come to bike week,” said Clarence Middleton, who moderates www.BlackBikeWeek.us and its corresponding Facebook page.
“You have the out-of-state travelers who are coming to party,” Middleton said. “They spend a lot of money – on hotels, bikes, restaurants. There are locals [from South Carolina] who show up in the day. And then you’ve got your criminals. They come with gangs and sell drugs … looking for opportunities to [take advantage of people].”
Atlantic Beach Bikefest began in 1980 as a rally for black motorcyclists and as it grew it began to spill into other areas of the Grand Strand.
City spokesman Mark Kruea said the majority of people who come to town are in the Grand Strand to enjoy themselves.
“It’s a happy event,” he said. “Most of the issues we have with it are from excessive partying. It’s too big. It overwhelms us from a party point of view.”
Taylor Damonte with the director of the Clay Brittain Jr. Center for Resort Tourism at Coastal Carolina University, said accommodations in the Grand Strand will be virtually full Saturday. That means between 200,000 and 400,000 people will be in town on Saturday to enjoy the three-day weekend at the beach or participate in events such as Bikefest.
Middleton said he is upset about the violence that has begun to occur in Myrtle Beach during Bikefest, which turned deadly last year. Three people were killed and seven injured in eight shootings along Ocean Boulevard in Myrtle Beach. The victims of the triple murder last summer all were residents of the Summerville area.
“Those people aren’t bikers, those are the onlookers who come to cause trouble,” he said. The shootings remain under investigation.
Middleton said he’s been urging festival attendees to be safe and have fun.
“No Violence at Black Bike Week 2015,” he recently wrote on the Black Bike Week Facebook page. “All yall local trouble makers Stay home, We coming to Party and have fun, not to start drama.”
Middleton said he’s not happy with the measures the city is taking to address crime this year, such bringing in hundreds of additional police and placing barricades up and down Ocean Boulevard.
“I’d be fine with more police presence if the goal was actually protection,” he said. “But instead they’re focused on harassing the bikers. ... I don’t think it’s a very smart idea in these current times to over-police a large group of black people for no reason.”
About 500 officers will join Myrtle Beach’s force of about 220 officers patrolling this weekend. The city also has created a 23-mile traffic loop that they say will ease congestion and cut down on street parties, which officials say can lead to violence.
Middleton said he believes crime is an issue in Myrtle Beach because officers spend their time walking through parking lots and running motorcycle tags instead of paying attention to criminal activity.
Police spokesman Lt. Joey Crosby said it is not the department’s policy to harass motorcyclists or anyone else.
“The Myrtle Beach Police Department’s philosophy 365 days a year is not to harass anyone,” he said. “We’re fair. We’re firm. We’re friendly. And we’re going to enforce the laws.”
Middleton said he uses his website and Facebook page to share information about hotels, parties, laws and other news.
The Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce requested that Middleton – and those who run other promotional websites – share the official information with their users, including a series of “know before you go” videos.
“We have had very little success in getting promoters to embrace the message of ‘stay safe, have fun and follow the law,’” said chamber President and CEO Brad Dean in an email.
Middleton said he refused to spread the city and chamber’s “propaganda.”
“The goal of the city has been to stop people from coming here,” Middleton said. “They always try to engage me to get to the people that they can’t reach and scare them. I’m not doing that.”
Middleton said he believes the measures the city has taken since last year are a way to punish the bikers that come to town, despite the fact that no bikers were connected to the shootings.
“It’s based on fear,” he said. “They want to scare people away from coming to Myrtle Beach.”
The chamber purchased Internet ads on more than 40 websites, including Facebook, that promote Atlantic Beach Bikefest.
“We also placed varying ads on search engines using targeted searches to reach likely Memorial Day weekend visitors,” Dean said. “In all, our ads covered 19 states.”
Dean was sure to say that the ads did not encourage people to attend Atlantic Beach Bikefest, but instead sought to inform those who were coming about what was expected of them and any changes that had been made.
The Black Bike Week Facebook page features fliers for parties, links to hotel specials and pictures and videos of scantily clad women sometimes dancing for the camera.
Middleton says that seven photographers and two videographers spend time on Ocean Boulevard throughout Memorial Day weekend to get images and videos for the website.
Recently he’s used the Facebook page to urge those attending the festival to avoid the city’s community ambassadors, writing that ambassadors would serve as informants for police.
“All they’re doing is pushing the city’s propaganda,” he said. “We don’t need to talk to them.”
Ambassadors are a way to put a friendly face to Myrtle Beach and remind tourists that while this is where they vacation, others live here year-round, Kruea said.
A new one was created in August, but it is unknown who runs the page. The moderator did not respond to a request for comment.
The page features pictures taken during Bikefest of scantily clad women, large crowds, police vans, trash strewn about the ground, as well as photos of the bodies of those killed during last year’s triple shooting. It’s juxtaposed with a picture of a white family having a barbecue.
“Memorial Day in other cities:” it says above the picture of the white family. “Meanwhile, in Myrtle Beach:” the photo says of a collage over the pictures from Bikefest.
The moderator also posted a comment stating that Myrtle Beach police are told to turn a blind eye to criminal behavior that takes place during Bikefest.
“That is certainly not the case,” Kruea said. “Anyone who believes that sort of misinformation and comes here with the perception that they can break the law will discover that that’s not the case this weekend – or in years past. Police will be enforcing the law, period.
“So there is wrong information from both perspectives,” he said. “There is hyperbole and exaggeration from both points of view.”
In the past year Myrtle Beach has embraced social media, with Facebook pages being created for the police department, the community ambassador program as well as a city-run page called Memorial Day Bikefest.
“We’ve tried to post on the Facebook pages but it appears to be blocked,” Kruea said. “They must want to push a once-sided conversation.”
Crosby said the police department will continue to use Facebook and Twitter to update the public with official information about what is going on that weekend.
Contact MAYA T. PRABHU at 444-1722 or on Twitter @TSN_mprabhu.