We will discuss ways to not simply manage this 'event' but stop it from ever happening again.
– Jason Buelterman, Tybee Mayor
THOSE WERE the words of a frustrated Tybee Mayor the Sunday morning of an Orange Crush weekend which saw one person wounded in a shooting at the pier Saturday and numerous other gun violations, including shots fired from car to car on Highway 80 on Friday evening.
They were also the signal that Tybee Island will enter a new phase of how it deals with the annual African American spring break observance after two decades.
A joint release from Buelterman and Tybee City Council this past Monday said in part:
"In order to prevent a recurrence of the island-wide threat to public safety that occurred this weekend, the City will be creating a task force of local and state officials as well as local residents and business owners whose charge will be to make specific recommendations that could include banning of alcohol on the beach during such events, enlisting an even heavier law enforcement presence, utilizing solutions developed by other beach communities that are faced with similar challenges, and other possible solutions."
But make no mistake: to deliver on its promise of "never again," Tybee will have to discourage all spring break activity across the board, not just target Orange Crush.
The alternative simply bears too high a moral price.
While tension is running high on Tybee, there's still plenty of time for the island to take a deep breath and consider this an opportunity for real soul-searching.
Let's start with the obvious: If there were an easy answer as to how to balance the civil rights of Orange Crush attendees with the public safety of Tybee residents, it would have been done years ago.
The fact that there is overt and disgusting racism directed towards Orange Crush is as undeniable as it is ugly.
The fact that beach communities in the South didn't allow African Americans to be physically present on 99 percent of the region's beaches within living memory is impossible to set aside.
That said, shooting people, like racial discrimination, is also very much against the law.
While Orange Crush is unavoidably caught up in very real issues of race, as the Tybee statement alludes, most every beach town in America which hosts or has hosted big spring break crowds eventually reaches a breaking point like this, and a crossroads.
It's a myth that you can't keep spring breakers away. Beach towns around America can and do push out spring break celebrations all the time. The crackdowns always come when crime and/or congestion become real public safety problems.
Ft. Lauderdale was the first to take the plunge in the '80s, replacing its notoriously debauched spring break scene with a more family-friendly, and more economically lucrative, vacation scene.
(That crackdown is still described by some as a "police state.")
Daytona Beach was next to crack down in the '90s, followed by Galveston, Texas.
Myrtle Beach has long struggled with issues surrounding both Bike Weeks which hit the Grand Strand each spring, a struggle which also includes racial overtones.
Tybee's experiences are still incredibly tame compared to the ongoing carnage on the mainland in Savannah—a triple homicide last week—and compared to Panama City Beach, Florida, whose quarter-million-plus annual spring break crowd dwarfs Tybee's many times over.
That city is struggling with far more profound spring break problems: Seven people shot and killed at a house party, a woman gang-raped in broad daylight on the beach.
In the history of American towns pushing out spring break celebrations, I know of not a single instance where a town regretted that decision in the long run.
But it will be a big step for Tybee to do what's really necessary to move beyond a spring break economy. It will require more than just banning alcohol on the beach or increasing police patrols.
To be done right, it will require a holistic retargeting of public works, zoning, policing, and business practices to change the entire economic draw of what Tybee Island has to offer any visitor.
It would, in short, require a real look forward rather than a look back.
And I wonder if Tybee's ready for that yet.
Having learned hard lessons in the past about the need to keep the beach open to the public during Orange Crush—and this year facing the additional challenge of a toxic national environment with regards to police/minority relations—Tybee Island could not have planned or executed their public safety plan any better.
Tybee went out of its way to get the stamp of approval from the Obama Department of Justice for its public safety plan, specifically to avoid racial profiling.
Still, there were problems—problems which could easily have turned fatal, problems the like of which are sounding the death knell for other spring break celebrations throughout the country, celebrations with predominantly white crowds.
The comparisons to St. Patrick's Day have always been something of a red herring.
Certainly, there's a double standard: The excesses of the Irish-themed St. Patrick's Day are romanticized as good harmless fun. But the same white people who like to get their freak on during St. Patrick's Day tend to freak out over Orange Crush.
However, you can also make the case that St. Patrick's Day in Savannah, while featuring lots of ugly law-breaking, also has zero track record of people shooting each other.
If such a thing were to happen during St. Patrick's Day—and if it were captured on video as this weekend's pier shooting was—there's no question in my mind there would be a huge outcry to improve public safety.
It would no doubt make national news. We'd all stop snarking about wristbands for awhile, that's for sure.
Moving forward, a better comparison for Orange Crush isn't to St. Patrick's Day, but to other spring breaks.
And the way forward will require Tybee to make a deliberate choice:
Either welcome Orange Crush with truly open arms, or become the type of place that doesn't welcome spring breakers of any kind at all.
Either path is absolutely doable, but they are very different paths. cs
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