God Help Us

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of hip-hopness

Wars on drugs, terrorism, and press freedoms aside, the U.S. government is also committed to ensuring the rights of all Americans to peaceably party, particularly when the celebrants are tens of thousands of young blacks. Over the past two decades super-fetes attended by large numbers of college-age black kids have become a tradition in post-segregation America. The preferred locations for these rites of pleasure have been Atlanta (Freaknik); Philadelphia (Greekfest Week); Galveston (Texas Beach Week); Virginia Beach, Virginia (Labor Day weekend); Myrtle Beach, South Carolina (Black Bike Week); and Daytona Beach (Black College Reunion). A newcomer to the list is South Beach (Urban Beach Week), where to the surprise of local police commanders, about 250,000 visitors showed up on Memorial Day weekend last year. Local authorities are preparing for a human tsunami twice that size to roll in starting May 23, for this year's installment.

The federal point man in Florida for ensuring that everyone's civil rights are respected is 49-year-old Tom Battles. The talkative bureaucrat, whose dark-green blazer and large eyeglass frames hint at Seventies-style hipness, is director of the Miami field office of the U.S. Justice Department's Community Relations Service. In his small, dingy war room on the sixth floor of the Federal Building in downtown Miami, the conciliator uses phrases like "sensitivities," "police accountability," and "moral litmus test."

Congress created CRS in 1964 under the Civil Rights Act to help local governments resolve or prevent racial conflicts in a nation still suffering from its twisted history of slavery and bigotry. The Miami field office opened just before riots broke out in Liberty City and other black areas in 1980 when an all-white jury acquitted four police officers charged with bludgeoning to death a black insurance salesman named Arthur McDuffie.

Happiness is embracing a few hundred thousand hip-hoppers, says the Justice Department's Tom Battles (center)
Steve Satterwhite
Happiness is embracing a few hundred thousand hip-hoppers, says the Justice Department's Tom Battles (center)

The CRS's top priority is to mediate "police-community disputes," Battles explains. "You know, excessive-force concerns. Rodney King-type situations." He also offers his services when discrimination disputes erupt at schools and workplaces. And several times a year he joins a five- to ten-person CRS team and heads to such coastal towns as Daytona Beach, Myrtle Beach, and Biloxi to help prevent racially charged unrest from breaking out when masses of young black citizens pack into the hot party locale of the month. Increasingly he has been driving east across MacArthur Causeway to offer his expertise to concerned Miami Beach officialdom.

Battles knows the lay of the land. He grew up in Liberty City in the Fifties and Sixties, played quarterback at Miami Central High School, earned a master's degree in criminal justice from Florida A&M University. He was an advisor on race-related matters for Gov. Bob Graham from 1978 to 1984, when he joined the CRS.

Since then he and counterparts in Houston, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and elsewhere have been gradually refining a strategy for keeping the peace at large-scale gatherings with high potential for racial conflict. The latest version is contained in a 31-page planning guide, the result of an analysis of their experiences managing racially explosive situations in eight cities that host "large gatherings of minority college-age youths" each year. Battles and his colleagues presented their findings at a 1999 conference in Atlanta attended by cops (including two from Miami Beach), businesspeople, and government officials from all over the eastern United States. "This is the playbook," Battles says proudly.

In their analysis the CRS men and women identified a list of nineteen recurring concerns voiced by locals when such fetes invade their towns. The main ones are that:

•Traffic congestion heightens pre-existing tensions.

•Inevitable public urination due to shortage of bathroom facilities increases tension.

•Lewd behavior and "inappropriate attire" leads to overt sexuality in public places.

•Partiers leave large amounts of litter.

•They also cause property damage.

•The local residents fear some minorities.

•Local criminals use such events as cover for crime sprees.

•Residents feel like hostages in their own communities.

The CRS team also determined that partiers had their own concerns, including:

•Problems entering and exiting the event, caused by congestion and heavy police presence.

•Feeling unwelcome.

•A sense that laws were more strictly enforced against them than against whites.

•A feeling of widespread racial discrimination.

•A fear they might be assaulted by other partiers.

To ensure that future massive celebrations would go right, the CRS analyzed the ones that had gone wrong. In Atlanta's Black College Spring Break, a.k.a. "Freaknik," things had gotten so intense by 1988 that the party had outgrown Piedmont Park and spilled over into the downtown Atlanta streets, snarling traffic and impeding emergency responses by police, fire, and rescue personnel. It became a car-cruising event, with students coming from surrounding states and causing gridlock, wrecked hotel rooms, crime, and lewdness (in fact it became so notorious Tom Wolfe lifted the opening scene of A Man in Full from real-life reports in the Atlanta Constitution). By 1993, according to the CRS playbook, "the mayor of Atlanta rejected the event and many hotels did not accept reservations from black youth." But 100,000 came anyway and disturbances led to 100 arrests.

Up the coast in Virginia Beach, late-night rioting broke out over Labor Day weekend in 1989 when more than 100,000 people crowded into the small resort town, traffic backed up, tensions rose, and the whole thing exploded in riots and looting. According to the CRS, damage was estimated at $1.9 million. Residents and partiers criticized the police department for handling the situation poorly.

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