Plagued by sexually-lewd behavior and violence, one of the largest Black fraternity gatherings in the country is no longer a public event and some say that while it’s unfortunate, it may be the wave of the future
Philadelphia — At first, it seemed that the 1999 Philadelphia Greek Picnic had all of the support that most Black events never enjoy: free publicity on a popular radio station, high visibility sponsors, and widespread press coverage. But in the end, the picnic was a victim of its own success, and the violent excess of a few of its guests.
After drawing more than 200,000 visitors this summer, the sponsors have decided that smaller is better. Just a day or two after the picnic, the Alumni chapter of the Philadelphia Pan-Hellenic Council (APPHC) announced, “The Philadelphia Greek Picnic as you have come to know it over the past decade is no more.”
In the future, according to organizers, the event will no longer be a public picnic. It will be a members-only affair to which only fraternity and sorority members will be invited.
“The move to make the picnic a ‘Greeks-only’ affair is strictly an effort to reclaim what is ours and prevent the bastardization of it by those who are outside the system,” says Dwayne Dixon, executive director of Iota Phi Theta.
Dixon blames the non-Greek element attending the picnic for much of the unruly and sometimes criminal behavior during the event.
“There was a sincere effort on the part of all interested parties to make this year’s event one that would be representative of the best of Black ‘Greekdom.’ As we know however, this year brought the same sort of incidents that we’d hoped to avoid. And yet again, these incidents were perpetrated by non-Greeks.”
A Trend of Recklessness
In the past decade, the Greek Picnic is only one of several large Black college reunion-type events around the country that have gotten out of hand. The worst of these was the 1998 Atlanta “Freaknik” which resulted in 10 sexual assaults, four shootings, and 481 arrests. Mayor Bill Campbell was so horrified by that event that this year, he ordered the police to take a zero-tolerance attitude towards any rowdy or indecent behavior. He cracked down so hard that many who attended the 1999 Freaknik said it was no fun.
Campbell’s heavy-handed approach was tolerated by Black leaders because he is the Black mayor of a predominantly Black city with many Black police officers. However, when the Daytona Beach authorities planned a similarly aggressive strategy for that city’s annual Black College Reunion, local NAACP activists denounced it as racist.
“It is a notion of upper-middle-class Blacks — their sons and daughters going away to stay in hotels for spring break,” says Dr. Charles E. Jones, chair of African American studies at Georgia State University. He says events like Greek Picnic, the Black College Reunion in Daytona Beach, and Freaknik are a phenomenon of the post-civil rights movement. “Blacks now want access to the private backyards of White folk, which often raises the discussion of regulating these events. You know the notion of more than three Blacks in one place…”
Jones has studied the events leading up to the 1989 civil unrest during the Labor Day Greekfest in Virginia Beach, Va., when Black college students and state police, backed by the National Guard, clashed in the city’s attempt to keep party-goers away.
He notes that while the rapes and other violent crimes chronicled at these events cannot be condoned, much of the behavior exhibited is just what happens when youth go away from home and alcohol acts as a conduit for mischievous behavior.
“We have to be careful of what kind of behavior we assign to one group over another,” Jones says. “Much of this is not genetic to Black folk. It is a combination of youth and alcohol and today’s pop culture.”
Dr. Walter Kimbrough, director of student activities and leadership at Old Dominion University who has followed Black Greek-letter organizations closely, stresses that a distinction needs to be made between events like Freaknik, the Daytona Beach spring break, and the Greek Picnic.
He points out that the Greek Picnic is the only Black Greek-sponsored event while Greek-related activities, such as step shows, have become a part of other Black college party venues, drawing crowds and making money for promoters.
“Greeks have been linked to a number of bad activities associated with these events, while most have been committed by those outside the Greek community. That’s not to say that some Greeks haven’t been involved but in most cases they have not,” Kimbrough says.
He also notes that the attention that Black Greeks have received from mainstream media since the late 80s, was summoned in part by Spike Lee’s film School Daze and the television show A Different World.
“There has been a high-profile linkage with negative activities during these events while there has been no direct connection,” Kimbrough says. “Black Greeks have gotten a lot of media exposure and become major icons in pop culture … and that’s been a double-edged sword.”
Policy Shift Out of Necessity
According to news reports, there were many more elder Greeks and family members there than had attended in previous years. A massive police presence kept the huge throng under control and despite a few incidents, the event was remarkably free of alcohol and drug use. But while event itself was generally orderly, with only two arrests — one for robbery and one for drugs — much of the behavior at the picnic was sexually explicit and lewd. The picnic also was marred by the open defiance of the National Pan-Hellenic Council’s ban on pledging.
Given the initially favorable reports of the 1999 Greek Picnic, many Greeks were surprised when the APPHC announced that they were never holding another open picnic again. The official announcement included the following statement: “It only took a few ignorant outsiders to wipe out everything we worked to build over the past year, the nature of these crimes were enough to overshadow the good feelings experienced at the events we produced and sponsored.”
The statement ended by declaring that the next event will have no publicity, high visibility sponsors, or official radio stations. It said that the council was still brainstorming the details, but that “we know that it will be an event that is all but closed to the public.”
The Philadelphia council finally decided that the only way to control the event would be to control the attendees.
With each of the nine organizations holding national conventions that draw literally thousands of members to a given location, totally devoid of any serious problems, the council will likely adopt a similar format for the revamped picnic.
Kimbrough sees the Philadelphia Pan-Hellenic Council’s plan to close the Greek Picnic to the public as a good one.
“I think it is a noble effort on their part to try to bring structure and have a positive event,” he says.
But the council should be aware that the transformation might take time.
Kimbrough notes that when Freaknik planners and the city of Atlanta tried to reinvent Freaknik by renaming the event Freedomfest in 1995, there was still a counterculture that appeared for the event and it’s taken years to combat that element. He says Philadelphia may have a similar wait.
“There will always be that culture that exists that says ‘We are going to Philadelphia on this date.’ But hopefully with a new structure, they will be clearly outside of the planned event.”
Dr. Michael Gordon, the executive director of the National Pan-Hellenic Council endorsed the picnic’s new direction.
“Of course they have to try a ‘members only’ approach,” he says. “We cannot any longer continue to support things that cause injury and harm without evaluating new approaches. The only thing we cannot afford to do is give up.”
— Robin M. Bennefield
contributed to this report
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