Why Virginia Beach Happened

Posted: September 10, 1989

All the elements for a racial disturbance were there.

Tensions were high between an overwhelmingly white police force and tens of thousands of black college students, alumni and others who had come to Virginia Beach, Va., for the end-of-the-summer fraternity party known as Greekfest.

For two days, from last Friday through Saturday, the black students felt harassed: They were cited for jaywalking; they were made to show their hotel keys when they entered the lobbies of their hotels; only a few of them at a time were allowed in some beachfront stores, and it seemed as if all of the shopkeepers were worried about shoplifters.

"It was like 1963 or something," said Rita Goms, 20, a Lincoln University student who went to Greekfest the year before.

Then, early Sunday morning, as hundreds of college students partied on Atlantic Avenue, from a black van came "Fight the Power," the anti- establishment song by the rap group Public Enemy and the hit single from the soundtrack of Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee's movie about race relations:

Bum rush this show, you got to go

for what you know to make everybody see,

in order to fight the power that be,

What we got to say is power to the people,

no delay make everybody see,

in order to fight the power that be.

The crowd, according to Goms and others who were there, grew frenzied, swept away by the pulsing rap beat and the words that called for them to strike out against the powers that be, to fight back against the white oppressors.

The disturbance that followed raises again the question of the relationship between rap music and violence. And also, when Do the Right Thing came out, some said it would cause a riot.

People who were at Virginia Beach agree that the song did not cause the riot; the situation did. The song, however, played a role just as rock music played a role in anti-Vietnam protests in the late 1960s. And, at Virginia Beach, "fight the power" became the byword of the Labor Day weekend.


On Atlantic Avenue, more people poured into the streets. They waved their fists and cursed police, chanting, "fight the power."

Someone tossed a brick through a storefront window. The brick seemed to be the match that touched off a firestorm that turned into a violent looting and vandalism spree.

By dawn, 100 beachfront businesses were damaged, two people were injured by gunfire, scores were arrested and state police and the National Guard were patrolling the streets.

Violence broke out again Sunday night as riot-clad police clashed with black youths in the streets. Hundreds more were arrested.

Last week, the U.S. Justice Department announced that it and the FBI had formally opened a criminal investigation into whether civil rights had been violated and whether police had used excessive force during the disturbance at Virginia Beach.

How did a traditional beach party turn into a riot? And why was Virginia Beach being accused of racism?

The 1989 Greekfest seemed headed for disaster from the start. City officials announced earlier this year that the event had grown too large to be handled safely. They rebuffed efforts of the Philadelphia area promoters to hold events at the beach or at the Pavilion Civic Center.

And the city council passed new stringent ordinances against jaywalking, loud radios and other actions that are traditionally associated with youths on Spring Break. City officials acknowledged that the new rules were in response to Greekfest.

When it became apparent - all the hotels were booked by July - that thousands of black college students and alumni were still going to come to Virginia Beach for Labor Day weekend, Mayor Meyera E. Oberndorf announced that the event was not welcome in the city. In August, she asked the governor to

put the National Guard on standby alert because of the possibility of rowdy students.

Despite all of this, and with wild rumors of the Ku Klux Klan and the skinheads planning to disrupt the event in mind, thousands of black college students headed for Virginia Beach.

However, James Spruill, 23, a West Philadelphia resident and a 1987 graduate of Penn State University, said, "I went because every time I go, I have a good time. The girls are all out there and there are parties and it is just a fun thing to do at the end of the summer."

The event began in 1985, when the Philadelphia area group Theoroc Promotions, which sponsors the annual Greek Picnic in Fairmount Park, staged the first Greekfest in Virginia Beach. Five hundred people attended.

The event grew until last year, when 40,000 people poured into Virginia Beach. Hotel owners complained of minor vandalism, and one event at the city's Pavilion resulted in crowd-control problems.

Organizers say Greekfest is not unlike the better-known Spring Breaks at Daytona Beach and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. For a few days, the college students - whether at Virginia Beach or Florida - party and try to meet members of the opposite sex.

This year in Virginia Beach, the annual weekend began as usual: "Everybody was on parade, everybody was strutting their stuff," said Nathan Townsend, a Philadelphia designer who chaperoned a church group that visited the beach on Saturday. "I was with a group of older people and there was nothing threatening, it was just amazing."

But some people at Greekfest said they felt unwanted. In the words of Wayne Byrd, 23, of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, there was "an air of racism."

"They seemed to be afraid of us because we were black individuals," said Byrd, a Richmond, Va., native.

Goms, who drove down from Lincoln's Chester County campus with 11 other students, said they felt so discriminated against that "we started carrying signs saying, 'Don't spend your money in Virginia Beach because they don't want us here.' "

And some enterprising person printed T-shirts with Malcolm X on the front and a rap poem on the back that said the Greekfest was unwanted because of the students' "pigmentation." The T-shirts sold like hotcakes.

And "Fight the Power" became an anthem of sorts.

"The song hyped everybody more, but they were already upset and tired of the police harassing them," said Lisa Jordan, 19, a Virginia State University student.

It was about 7:30 p.m. when police formed a wedge and began a sweep to clear the streets. Witnesses said the police rushed the crowd, beating the people with batons if they did not move quickly enough.

One handcuffed youth was kicked by state police as he lay on the ground while across the street a crowd jeered and cried police brutality. Among other incidents, police stormed a supermarket and pushed and threw the black patrons out of the store.

Among those arrested was Gerald Howard, 39, of Southwest Philadelphia. Howard drove down to videotape Greekfest. On Sunday night, as he was filming the police sweep, he said a police officer grabbed him, threw him to the ground and beat him before arresting him.

"I was filming them grabbing people and dragging them," said Howard, who has filed a police brutality complaint with the Virginia Beach Police Department.

Howard spent the night in police custody with 100 others who he said committed only one crime: "Many of the guys in the detention center were guilty of being black and on the street."

Against charges of excessive police force, Oberndorf said the police had to use such tactics because looting had started again on Sunday night.

Reporters, merchants and festival participants, however, say there was no disturbance or trouble until the police sweep began.

In the aftermath of all this, black leaders - while not condoning the looting - say the city mishandled the event from the beginning. Jack Gravely, president of the state NAACP, said the city overreacted to the crowd because its members were black. The NAACP will investigate the police action and then hold a hearing.

E. Stephens Collins, one of the partners in the group that staged previous Greekfests but pulled out this year when the city refused permission to use the convention center, said, "Black kids just weren't welcome at the beach."

He pointed to Philadelphia's Greek Picnic as an example of how well things can go when there is cooperation from the city.

"We never had a problem," he said.

Ed Tenuto, spokesman for the Philadelphia Police Department, said 60,000 people attended the July event this year and there were no arrests and no problems.

"Our presence is in a service capacity - to help with traffic or things like this because we view this as one big party," he said.

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