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NAACP sues Myrtle Beach city government and police over handling of black biker rally

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File AP

People walk along a street in Atlantic Beach, during the annual Atlantic Beach Bikefest. South Carolina Gov. File/AP

MYRTLE BEACH — The NAACP has filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Myrtle Beach and its police department claiming the traffic pattern used during the annual Memorial Day Bikefest rally is discriminatory. 

Bikefest, also known commonly as Black Bike Week, started in nearby Atlantic Beach almost 40 years ago and has grown across the Grand Strand. In 2015, Myrtle Beach instituted a 23-mile traffic loop late at night to move visitors through the city during the rally.

The traffic pattern is not in place during other events that bring mostly white bikers to the area, such as Harley-Davidson gatherings in the spring and fall. 

"Like the despicable signs that were raised up during the days of Jim Crow, this traffic plan is for colored people only," Anson Asaka, associate general counsel for the NAACP, said Tuesday.

He called the city's traffic loop "23 miles of frustration, 23 miles of humiliation, 23 miles of segregation."

Myrtle Beach City Manager John Pedersen, Mayor Brenda Bethune and Police Chief Amy Prock declined to comment on the pending legal action. Prock said the city plans to use the same traffic pattern this year. 

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Florence, lists three individual plaintiffs in addition to the NAACP: Simuel Jones, a resident of Chicago, and Leslie and Cedric Stevenson, residents of Suwanee, Georgia. All three were "offended, inconvenienced and otherwise adversely affected by the traffic restrictions and police presence" as they attended Bikefest in the years after 2014, according to the suit.

The NAACP is seeking an injunction to stop the city from using the loop this year, arguing it is more restrictive than a previous traffic pattern that was scuttled in 2005 when a judge granted an injunction against the city. 

Dorian Spence, an attorney for the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said the traffic pattern is not meant to keep vehicles flowing as city officials have said, but instead is designed to make Bikefest so unpleasant that the mostly-black visitors won't return.

"We know that this tactic has been used before and we've defeated this tactic before," Spence said.

The traffic plan also has been controversial among residents. Many businesses on Ocean Boulevard close early to send their employees home before the loop is put in place.

During last year's municipal elections, Bethune said she was in favor of studying passes for locals that would allow them to move through town more freely.

On Tuesday, she said she was still interested in bringing the idea up for discussion before City Council. 

The current loop was instituted after three people were killed and seven were injured in shootings during Memorial Day weekend in 2014.

The spate of violence prompted then-Gov. Nikki Haley to ask Atlantic Beach to end its festivities. The town, which was one of the few places where blacks could vacation on the Grand Strand during the Jim Crow era, has continued to hold its annual street fair connected to the event.

Meanwhile, Myrtle Beach recently recruited more police officers from around the state to help patrol during the weekend. The city also instituted the loop, which forces all traffic to move southbound on the central section of Ocean Boulevard and then out into Horry County.

The loop is in effect on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights during the weekend, and resulting travel times can stretch to hours. 

"I have been a victim, if you will, having been caught in that traffic loop," said Dwight James, the executive director of the South Carolina NAACP.

James said he could not recall another recent public event in South Carolina that concerned NAACP officials as much as Myrtle Beach's handling of Bikefest.

Mickey James, president of the Myrtle Beach branch of the NAACP, said there had been several attempts to negotiate a different plan for the weekend with Myrtle Beach officials but police had declined to change their tactics to manage the flow of vehicles as thousands descend on the Grand Strand during the holiday weekend. 

A hearing date on the NAACP's requested injunction has not been scheduled, according to court records.

"We've got to take a stand on this," James said. "And the people of Myrtle Beach have got to accept people of color, because we're not going anywhere."

Reach Chloe Johnson at 843-735-9985. Follow her on Twitter @_ChloeAJ.