Tens of thousands of people from the Carolinas will head to Myrtle Beach Friday to participate in the Atlantic Beach Memorial Day Bikefest. While they’ll be cruising and taking in the beach and biker shows, in the background will be the tension that accompanies the event every year, a disquiet about a tangential link to violence where large groups of black people congregate.
It’s akin to the baggage that has begun accompanying the annual CIAA Tournament after shootings have been reported for four consecutive years near where Charlotte’s largest annual tourism event has been held. The frustration CIAA Commissioner Jacqie McWilliams expressed in March is shared by fans of Bikefest.
“It was not connected to the tournament,” McWilliams said a couple of months ago when asked about the shootings. “That’s the sad part. Something that is not connected to the tournament or during the tournament, I have been asked to address. And I’m not going to address something that’s not connected to the tournament.”
The frustration is warranted. Tournament organizers can’t be held responsible for people who travel to Charlotte ostensibly for the event but do awful things any more than the Carolina Panthers can. But the Myrtle Beach area offers valuable lessons.
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The city has struggled for decades with similar issues concerning Bikefest, including traffic headaches and bouts of violence that can’t be directly linked to the event but are treated as though they are. Some years that led to overreactions, with ugly claims from members of the public and elected officials that needlessly divided a community that had a collective interest to make sure things went smoothly. Bikefest was often the Myrtle Beach area’s largest event, with tens of millions of dollars spent every day. Members of the Justice Department walked the streets some years to assess potential problems, and the NAACP and other groups filed lawsuits that beat back discrimination but also harmed small businesses caught in the vortex of chaos.
The area was also caught flat-footed in 2014 – after several years of relative calm and near-misses – when a string of shootings, including a triple murder, rocked the area and ignited another round of laws, new procedures and angry residents showing up in force at city hall. Those changes have been in place since and have mostly been deemed successful, with no side fully satisfied, often the mark of an effective compromise.
The lesson from Bikefest, an annual challenge to officials and leaders in several towns in Horry County, is to prepare before something erupts, when cooler heads are likelier to prevail, and neither assume the worst will happen, or won’t happen.
That’s why it remains important that Mayor Jennifer Roberts and Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Chief Kerr Putney deliver a full accounting to the public about violence during the CIAA tournament, including if and how the incidents are connected to the CIAA and what measures the police and city will take to prevent future violence.
Among the most difficult balancing acts for a community is responding appropriately to crime, and potential crime, particularly when the landmine that is race lurks in the background. That, however, is not a reason to avoid confronting this issue publicly, and soon.