I LEARNED a few things from the reader response to a recent column, "Tony Thomas and his many enablers," in which I devoted a small percentage of space to a comparison of St. Patrick’s Day and Orange Crush.
Unsurprisingly for those familiar with how Savannah works, that little segment garnered the vast bulk of responses to the piece.
Here’s what I found out:
• If for whatever reason you want to round up all the racists in Savannah, all you have to do is write the words “Orange Crush.” They’ll come out of the woodwork to sign up, put on a nametag, and happily tell everyone how racist they are.
• If you dare to show even the most basic human empathy for people of color, that means you’re “making it all about race.”
• People who otherwise fancy themselves fans of “small government” suddenly become city planning experts on how permits are granted and what they should be granted for.
• If you’re a newspaper editor without much sense and you ever want to distract from an otherwise great point, mention something about racial issues.
Anyway, since people here seem to want to talk about racial issues so much... let’s talk about ‘em.
Orange Crush, for those new to town, is a predominantly African American spring break event which occurs on Tybee Island each April over two weekends.
Controversy surrounds the event, both for the typical spring break activity which takes place there, as well as for Tybee Island’s annual attempts to crack down on or eliminate the event.
The juxtaposition of an overwhelmingly white beach community trying to keep out an overwhelmingly black group of visitors strikes every available nerve in a region which was segregated — including Tybee’s beach itself — within living memory.
To be fair, the sheer amount of visitors involved in Orange Crush, the nature of the activity, and the small number of available law enforcement have created a perfect storm in which there are legitimate concerns on the part of Tybee Island as to how best to manage the event.
I don’t envy any public official or police officer on Tybee the task of trying to placate residents while remaining an open community charged with stewardship of a great natural resource.
However, the nature of this faceoff means no management decision can be made in a vacuum.
Unfortunately, Tybee City Council made just such an uninformed, even reckless decision last week, one which will raise the intensity level of this issue to new levels of mutual rancor and distrust.
In a 4-1 decision, Tybee finally made good on its frequent blustery threat to outlaw public alcohol consumption pretty much all over the island, including the public beach.
But here’s the catch: The island-wide public drinking ban is only in effect the two weekends planned for Orange Crush.
I’m not a lawyer, constitutional or otherwise. But as I’ve written before, this comes close to what the founders called a “Bill of Attainder,” i.e. a law passed specifically to target a single person or entity.
Such a thing would be unconstitutional, and in my very amateur legal opinion it might be one reason the new Tybee law could eventually be struck down.
However, the real issue here is not necessarily the legality of the two-weekend public drinking ban, which seems almost unenforceable in practice. I feel for the police officers tasked with enforcing it.
The real issue here is also not the frequently discussed issue of permits, which in my opinion is a red herring.
Yes, St. Patrick’s Day has a permit and organizing body, and Orange Crush doesn’t. But the St. Patrick’s Day permit is just for the parade itself.
The Parade Committee has no control over, and claims no control over, the massive multi-day celebration which surrounds the parade, and which Savannah gleefully encourages.
The simple truth is Savannah will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day whether or not permits are issued. And if Tybee Island really wanted Orange Crush, they’d find a way to issue some kind of permit, to someone.
The real issue is that the vote last week by Tybee City Council may or may not have legitimate legal authority, but it definitely lacks legitimate moral authority.
It’s a bad law for a bad purpose, and will make a bad situation that much worse.
Any simpleton could tell you that such an alcohol ban would have to be consistent across the board — as with Hilton Head’s year-round ban on alcohol on the beach — to have legitimate moral authority.
(This is one reason I’m personally opposed to changing to-go cup laws only for St. Patrick’s Day, but I digress.)
However, with this new law, Orange Crush festival-goers who will still arrive at Tybee now have concrete proof of their worst suspicions — that they are rejected only because of their race.
Unfortunately, even the best-intentioned local officials, residents, and police officers will be tainted by this ruling.
Last week’s vote is also reminder of how more productive ways of addressing Orange Crush haven’t even been tapped.
If a lack of permits is really an issue, some organization and/or some event could be created and then permitted, whether a parade or some other gathering.
And then.... charge for something! Whether for wristbands or whatever. Take a page out of Savannah’s playbook and monetize the hell out of everything.
Looking a little bit greedy is still a million times better than looking a lot racist.
And then at least some kind of relationship would be formed between Tybee Island and Orange Crush, to replace the utter lack of a relationship that exists now.
Here’s a crazy idea: Maybe pay a few hundred bucks to put up a billboard on Hwy 80 that says, “Tybee Island Welcomes Orange Crush.”
Sounds ridiculous? Maybe it is.
But imagine the kind of goodwill even that simple, inexpensive gesture could instill in an environment in which literally no goodwill of any kind currently exists.
There is nothing positive going on in the Tybee vs. Orange Crush saga right now, so any small step forward would signal a potential ray of hope.
Meanwhile, Tybee Island has taken a negative step with ramifications that go far beyond a couple of weekends of loud music, litter, and the same kind of mass public intoxication Savannah romanticizes very lucratively a few weeks earlier on St. Patrick’s Day.
It’s my hope that cooler heads can eventually prevail and bring the community back from the precipice. But that ship, sadly, may have already sailed.