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Hostile Environments?

Hostile Environments?

Conference Attendees Suggest Localities Embrace, Rather Than Reject, Black Festivals

ATLANTA —  Cities should treat spring festivals for Black youth  no differently than other large gatherings, according to officials who attended a two-day conference on events such as Freaknik in Atlanta or Black College Reunion in Daytona Beach, Fla.
“These events are no different from other mass gatherings and should be treated the same,” says Efrain V. Martinez, a conciliation specialist with the Community Relations Service, a branch of the U.S. Department of Justice that sponsored last month’s conference.
Some attending the meetings say police and officials in some cities have found they cannot stop Black youth who want to party, so they have decided to embrace the festivals and plan ahead.
“The attitude toward the event is what makes all the difference,” says Karen Doering, a lawyer from Tampa, Fla., who has represented Black activists in fights against the city of Daytona Beach.
Advance planning also is key, says an official from Atlantic Beach, S.C., on the Grand Strand, where the annual Bike Festival draws 100,000 Black bikers.
“One thing that I got out of this conference was that we need to get more people involved in the planning,” says Atlantic Beach Police Chief Franklin Eagles. “Atlantic Beach needs to get its own task force together to plan for the event.”
Doering says officials in Galveston, Texas, and Asbury Park, N.J., have done a good job of planning ahead and getting the community involved in welcoming the students. Other cities are not as far along on the learning curve, she says.
Most officials who attended the event say it was a good chance to share ideas about what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to dealing with the crowds, traffic and racial tension that often accompany Black student festivals.
“I think law enforcement learned that they have to take a look at being more sensitive,” says Thomas Copeland, president of the company that organizes Black College Reunion in Daytona Beach.
About 200,000 people came to the annual Freaknik street party in downtown Atlanta in 1994. But because of police crackdowns and competition from other parties, those numbers have dwindled to around 50,000 this year.
A spokesman for the mayor’s office said the city of Atlanta wants to welcome college students. He pointed to community groups like the Friendship Force who walk the streets during Freaknik and greet students.
“As cities, we have to make sure we are ready to welcome all visitors,” says Michael Langford, director of the mayor’s Office of Community Affairs.
South Carolina Human Affairs Commissioner Willis Ham says he wants to see the state adopt a uniform policy for dealing with all special events —  whether they are attended by Blacks or Whites.
Conference attendees, which also included representatives from Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania, say the meeting was so successful that they want to do it again next year.
“It was a good first step,” Doering says.   
—The Associated Press

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