Charleston officials, in response to a bloody brawl near King Street over the weekend, are increasing the city's police presence, restricting parking and changing the traffic patterns in the central tourism district.
Mayor John Tecklenburg, City Council members and several business owners from downtown Charleston announced the changes at a May 11 news conference. They take effect this week.
The number of officers patrolling King Street during the weekends, Tecklenburg suggested, could "double or triple," depending on what is required to tamp down the recent violence in the area.
The city also plans to cut off northbound traffic on King Street between Spring and Mary streets on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings. The city also has plans to close the parking spaces along the thoroughfare from 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. on Friday and Saturday evenings.
During a meeting Tuesday night, City Council members voted to extend Tecklenburg's ability to call a curfew for another 30 days.
"In light of some things happening around the nation, in our own community, residents and businesses would like a continuation of this option," Councilwoman Marie Delcioppo said.
The incident that prompted the changes occurred on May 9. Charleston Police Chief Luther Reynolds estimated roughly 100 people were involved in what he described as a "melee" that ended with several individuals being stabbed and shot in the street.
One suspect, Zyarie Dazure Orum, 18, of North Charleston, was arrested Tuesday and charged with two counts of attempted murder and possession of a weapon. But Reynolds said the Police Department is still investigating the other shootings and stabbings. Records show she was booked into the Al Cannon Detention Center at 6:06 p.m. May 11.
"We have a very safe city and we are going to do a great deal of adjustment to make sure that we keep it safe," Reynolds said. "We will not tolerate that type of violence."
The promise to increase police patrols downtown came after the city received complaints from neighborhood business owners who warned the unchecked disorder could drive people away from the popular strip.
Since the May 30, 2020, riot along King Street, owners of restaurants and bars which lost revenue and employees to the pandemic have sought to project the message that the area is a safe place to work and relax.
Many businesses in the area were already struggling due to financial losses they sustained during the pandemic in the past year and they are now concerned the stabbings, shootings and disorder could drive away the remaining tourism revenue that is available in the city.
Ahmed Hassan owns two businesses along King Street that are close to where the massive fight broke out on May 9. He watched the violence on his security system and described the brawl as "wild" and "destructive."
The fight eventually sent several people to the hospital with stab wounds. Charleston police officers also reported that they were "overwhelmed by the crowd" as they tried to make arrests and bring the fight to an end.
Hassan, who was not on King Street at the time, ordered his employee to lock the doors and turn out the lights at his College Market convenience store. It was the only thing he could think to do to protect his business, which was damaged last year when a peaceful protest over police brutality turned into destructive rioting.
With the number of coronavirus cases in Charleston ebbing, Hassan had hoped his business prospects would turn around. But he's worried the atmosphere on King Street in recent weeks could scare potential customers away.
Hassan said he is unsure if a broader police presence will be enough, and he wondered whether it would be more productive to shut down the bars and night clubs on King Street earlier than 2 a.m.
That's exactly what some business owners are already doing.
Two months after celebrating the end of a statewide alcohol curfew, which downtown Charleston bar owners blamed for crushing their business, some of the same restaurateurs have begun voluntarily closing early to protect their employees and guests.
Business owners close to the recent fights said an atmosphere of lawlessness has intensified over the past few weeks, despite their appeals to city officials to address the situation.
“They’re dancing on vehicles and calling it a block party,” said Brittany Reed, who manages Deco and Ink near the corner of King and Woolfe streets. “It’s so intimidating after 12 o'clock. I was so uncomfortable I couldn't walk between the two (nightclubs)."
According to Reed, food-and-beverage employees who have stuck with the industry throughout the pandemic are now afraid to retrieve their cars after work without security escorts.
“It’s to point where you cannot move on the sidewalk, and these thuggy guys will grab at girls' arms,” Reed said. “This is a bachelorette city, and they need to make it safe for women."
Mike Shuler, owner of Vintage Lounge, expressed similar concerns in an email to Tecklenburg, Reynolds, City Council members and local hospitality leaders earlier this week.
“This situation has snowballed into the nightmare scenario we are faced with now,” Shuler wrote in the letter, obtained by The Post and Courier, outlining a “powder keg” scene in which hundreds of underage people converge upon the 500 block of King Street to tailgate.
“Bystanders simply out to enjoy a night on the town in our beautiful city were forced to literally scatter when the agitators took control,” he continued, crediting an “outnumbered and overwhelmed” police force with doing what it could to tackle the most serious incidents.
Shuler was one of the business owners to meet with city officials on Wednesday before Tecklenburg and others held their news conference. The city leaders ultimately accepted some of the recommendations Shuler laid out in his earlier letter.
Craig Nelson, owner of Proof, described the recent outbreaks of violence as "unnerving." Nelson's King Street cocktail bar is just south of the area where crowds gather, but he's walked up that way to see what's happening.
"It's pretty intimidating," he said. "That's a pretty rowdy group."
Nelson said he and his bartenders are taking the perceived threat of violence into account when tourists ask where they should get their next drinks.
Previously, they would have suggested that patrons check out Prohibition, at 547 King St. Now, they're more likely to advise weekend visitors to "maybe not go past Cocktail Club" at 479 King St. when barhopping.
That's not the type of environment city leaders want in the heart of Charleston, one of the biggest tourism destinations in the United States.
The changes the city and the Police Department are rolling out, Tecklenburg said, should make King Street "safer, friendlier and more hospitable."
Gregory Yee contributed to this report.