NAACP warns against profiling, unequal treatment at annual Atlantic Beach Bikefest

Ocean Boulevard is closed to vehicle traffic for about eight blocks as Myrtle Beach Police investigate multiple shootings on May 24, 2014. Police report three people were killed and one was injured.

It’s been a year since unprecedented violence left three Summerville area residents dead and seven people wounded at the Atlantic Beach Bikefest on the Grand Strand.

While state and local law enforcement agencies have launched a “complex” plan to heighten security for the annual Memorial Day weekend festival, their tactics have some warning of potential profiling and harassment surrounding the event, which draws a mostly black crowd in the hundreds of thousands to the tiny, coastal town wedged in between Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach.

The history of Atlantic Beach dates back to the 1930s when it began as a coastal destination for blacks in the segregated South. The town is only four blocks wide with a population of about 400 people, except during bike week. The annual bike celebration serves as a key moneymaker for it and surrounding areas.

The state branch of the NAACP announced this week that it will observe police activity, the treatment of black tourists, the practices of local businesses and watch traffic patterns as part of its “Operation Bike Week Justice.” The effort is in its ninth year, the statement said.

Myrtle Beach Lt. Joey Crosby countered the concerns, saying officers have received additional training to ensure that their practices are “fair, firm, but friendly.”

Lonnie Randolph, the NAACP’s state president, has said that he supports tactics that promote safety, but not those that unfairly target minorities.

The NAACP and others have settled a number of discrimination lawsuits against Myrtle Beach and area businesses alleging unequal treatment toward Bikefest attendees compared with the predominantly white crowd that attends a comparable “Harley Week” each year, according to a statement from the group.

“We’ve had instances when facilities have closed their doors when people of color or African Americans came to eat. They were told that there was a private gathering and that was not an accurate statement,” Randolph said. “And certain facilities locked their lavatory facilities when persons arrived.”

Randolph said he still recalls a fence that separated blacks and whites on the water decades ago.

“We have been working ... over the course of the years to try and make things as fair as they can possibly be under these conditions,” he said.

The organization has intervened in the raising of prices during the black Bikefest, and spoken out against variances on which streets are open to enthusiasts during both weeks.

A hotline the organization runs to field discrimination complaints during the festival receives numerous calls each year, he said.

Last year’s triple homicide fell in Myrtle Beach, about 15 miles away from the town where the festival is based.

Police responded at 11 p.m. May 24 to the Bermuda Sands resort to handle a brawl. They found that 24-year-old Keith Williams had been struck in a shooting. While tending to his wounds, first responders reported hearing more shots fired on the resort’s balcony.

Sandy Geddis Barnwell, 22; Devonte Herman Dantzler, 21; and Jamie Alexander Williams, 28, all of the Summerville area, were killed.

Investigators said the shooting appeared to be tied to Charleston County gangs. A year later, the killings remain unsolved with few leads.

“The big thing is that we’re constantly seeking the public’s input,” Crosby said. “They may see the information as not being related to the event, but they should contact us with any information they may have.”

The Rev. Melody Geddis McFadden, Barnwell’s aunt, said that her family has participated in numerous service projects in the young woman’s memory and united with other victims of gun violence to plead for clues in the case and an end to the killings.

“There’s a bond that we didn’t necessarily want but that we’ve formed against our wills,” McFadden said of the support her family has received from other victims. “We don’t want any new members to our club. We want the violence to stop.”

McFadden expressed frustration in the lack of leads in the case. Numerous witnesses are believed to have recorded video and taken pictures of the melee, she said, but those images have not been turned over to police for fear of being labeled a “snitch.”

“We haven’t stopped thinking about this a day since it happened. We want justice. We want answers. We want information. We want the young people to change their minds because right now they think of giving information to the police as snitching, but we think of it as harboring a murderer. They’re not going to understand until it’s their loved one,” she said.

Barnwell was considered an innocent bystander by police after being struck in the forehead by a stray bullet, McFadden said. It was Barnwell’s first time attending the Bikefest, McFadden said.

Last month, Gov. Nikki Haley referred to the festival as a “test year.” She previously lobbied to have the event canceled in the wake of what had been described as an unprecedented amount of violence, but the town’s officials and others fought against it.

Officials spent months developing new levels of management and cooperation between state and local authorities in preparation for the weekend, including doubling the presence of state agents for this year’s festival, sensitivity training for officers and better control along some of the most popular cruising routes.

A “complex operational plan” this year includes the assistance of State Law Enforcement Division agents and additional officers from across the state and Georgia, Crosby said.

Randolph rebuffed what he described as efforts to label black attendees as violent and unruly. He cited the dialogue surrounding Bikefest in comparison with a majority white biker shootout this month in Waco, Texas, that left nine people dead as evidence.

“Even the press statements and releases described these young men as being members of clubs. That’s very interesting that they would be described in such a manner when persons of color in other instances have been described as being in gangs. Incidents like these just show us how the treatment is different among people,” Randolph said. “I’m here to protect the rights of citizens. The people that come to bike week have a right to be treated fairly and they have a right to have their rights protected.”

He rejected the idea of crime during the weekend being blamed solely on the festival’s black attendees. Crime exists year round in the region, he said, and the majority of attendees are law-abiding citizens.

“I can remember the times when people had serious reasons to be concerned and we still do today,” Randolph said. “I guess that’s the shocking and astonishing aspect of this. Here we are in 2015 and the treatment of citizens of this state and this nation is not much different than the treatment of citizens throughout the history of this country.”