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Coast infrastructure can`t handle big events

Between the Lines

OCEAN SPRINGS — I dreaded Black Springbreak long before it ever arrived on the Coast. After the recent turmoil surrounding flying a Confederate flag on public property brought out a dismaying surge of racism, I was afraid the Black Springbreak had the potential to turn into a race riot. Fortunately, the Rebel flag issue had gone on the back burner before the students arrived.

I’ve been on college spring break trips before, and believe I can say on good authority that the kind of raucous behavior that caused such a stir on the Coast during Black Springbreak are common wherever college student convene for spring break. Had this been a multi-racial spring break activity, I think there would probably have been just as many problems with public nudity, drunkenness and outrageous behavior. Look at the spate of Hollywood movies about spring breaks. The movies glorify sex, drugs and alcohol. Look at what Florida towns have had to put up with.

If someone in Panama City was upset with the behavior of spring break students, it wouldn’t translate into feelings of racial hatred against whites. But I fear that the Black Springbreak has done as much as white, Rebel-flag-waving rednecks to fan the fires of racism in south Mississippi.

As most of our readers have probably already heard, about 20,000 blacks students converged on the Mississippi Gulf Coast the second weekend in April. Most shunned the planned activities at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum, and instead hung out at the beach, the Edgewater Mall and other locations along U.S. 90.

The Coast was completely unprepared to handle crowds of this magnitude. There was total traffic gridlock on U.S. 90 Saturday with the result that people who needed to go to work couldn’t, and people who had plans that required using this major east-west traffic corridor were stymied.

Although there must have been a tremendous surge in local spending due to 20,000 out-of-town visitors, it also disrupted business. People couldn’t get to work, some businesses closed early because they couldn’t handle the crowds and traffic gridlock is never helpful because customers can’t get to the businesses to spend money.

Most of the students were well behaved, if a bit rowdy. But there were complaints about public profanity, nudity, drunkenness, attempted sexual assaults and urinating in public.

Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway said he would try to prevent Black Springbreak from ever returning to the Coast.

“The behavior was disgusting, obscene and deplorable,” Holloway said. “There was no regard for private property or for public safety. As mayor, I plan to do everything I can to see that this event never comes to our city again.”

One spring breaker definitely won’t be returning. A 20-year-old black college student from Columbia was shot and killed by a white Gulfport police officer. Investigations are continuing into the case that is being closely watched by the NAACP. This unfortunate incident has the potential for, as has happened again and again in other cities, dividing people on lines of color.

The Harrison County Board of Supervisors, which includes one black supervisor, voted unanimously to ask the Mississippi Coast Coliseum to not book events like this in the future. But Coliseum director Bill Holmes said that might not be legal. And there seems to be general agreement that, since most of the kids had their spring break independent of the Coliseum activities, it will make no difference if the Coliseum is closed to the event.

One of the most coherent things I’ve heard said regarding this issue is that it is easy for people to look at everything that happened during Black Springbreak and dredge up negative racial stereotypes of the past. But race isn’t the point. The point is the Coast can’t handle being promoted as a spring break Mecca.

“It doesn’t matter if we set out to attract black kids, white kids or purple kids,” said a friend who had accompanied me on a trip to the mall the Friday evening it was filled with black students. “Regardless of the color of the kids, we were not prepared for it. We’re not big enough here. We don’t have the road infrastructure or the police infrastructure.

“The other thing is that it almost doesn’t matter what the city council or board of supervisors do. We’re probably going to have a lot of visitors this same time next year, and we are probably going to have to spend some money in order for the police to organize it better. At similar big events in Atlanta, the police are put out before the crowd builds, so as the cars come in, they can control where they do and don’t go.”

My friend also expressed sympathy for all the law-abiding black Coast residents who would never think of indulging in some of the outrageous behavior seen during that weekend. They shouldn’t be treated any differently because some rowdy college students came to town one weekend.

How did this many kids find out about Black Springbreak to begin with? Evidently, as is common with these kinds of events, it started out as a listing on an Internet site. So, short of hacking a Web site, there may be little that can be done to prevent another similar event coming to the Coast this time next year.

It could be less than a year before the issue comes back up again. A Black Beach Week is being promoted on the Internet for Aug. 3-9, 2000, in Biloxi.

Becky Gillette is a staff writer for the Mississippi Business Journal. Her e-mail address is mullein@datasync.com.

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