A Look At What Happened
It was Labor Day weekend in 1989 at Virginia Beach, Virginia when predominantly African-American college students would ascend on the city to hold the ever popular end of the summer beach parties. It was truly the place to be and the only way to end your summer. While past years ended with the event being the talk of the town because a good time was had by all, 1989 would be the year that changed everything. Upon arriving, the one thing that you noticed was that there were more police than in years past. As we walked the strip, we noticed that there were police every few blocks. If cars stopped too long, they went over and told them to keep moving. Cruising down the street at a snails pace was the thing do. It allowed you the freedom to see the sights, have conversations, and listen to the music blasting above safe listening decibels. As the police were writing citations for noise levels, the people were getting annoyed. After all, it was just loud music and it wasn’t’ hurting anybody. Police seemed to have less patience with us and our free flowing plans of just hanging out on the strip going no where fast because of the traffic. Word had already spread that there wouldn’t be a step show that year at the pavilion, so everyone was steady making plans of what to do. And most of these plans were made on the strip as we stopped and talked to the people in the cars. No one can pinpoint when it all went bad, but as they say, all good things must come to an end and this one came to a screeching halt with the Virginia Beach police in riot gear and the assistance of the National Guard. Included videos caputure the incredible events and show both the police as well as Greekfest goers displaying irresponsible behavior. Applegate, (2009) gives us the following account of what happend:
That Saturday morning Members of the rap group De La Soul mingled with the crowd on the boardwalk. Rappers Q-Tip and LL Cool J added to the scene, temporarily making Virginia Beach the hippest city south of New York.
Virginia Beach police officers and merchants saw students wearing T-shirts that said things like, "It's a Black Thing, You Wouldn't Understand" and "African by Nature, American by Force."
As darkness fell, their were impromptu dance parties around cars parked between hotels. The car's back seats had been replaced with booming speakers. It sounded like a concert.
Some police officers were breaking up these gatherings, writing tickets for "unnecessary noise," the most common offense of the weekend
The Oceanfront, because of the crowds, had swelled. Like tens of thousands of other partiers, they stayed on Atlantic Avenue.
Mike Carey, 33, a police officer working the corner of 21st Street and Atlantic Avenue that Saturday night, had pretty much one job: K eep people moving on the sidewalks and cars moving down the street.
Things were going pretty well until he noticed a pattern. Cars would stop so passengers could talk to people on the sidewalk, forcing pedestrians off the sidewalk to get around. Carey thought maybe this was a problem only at his intersection, but his police radio told him otherwise.
The streets and sidewalks were jammed with cars and people, but it was peaceful. Midnight came and went.
Some merchants were feeling upbeat, too.
Deepak Nachnani had his best day of the year selling T-shirts, sunglasses and jewelry. The night capped off a great season for the 22-year-old college student who, as part of marketing class that summer, had transformed his parents' store, Far East Bazaar, to Coastal Edge, a surf and T-shirt shop.
Flush with success and the night's haul, Nachnani took his staff out to celebrate at a restaurant near Lynnhaven Mall.
When they left the Oceanfront, the huge crowd was still partying.
Lt. Jake Jacocks didn't like what he was seeing in the Comfort Inn parking garage at 23rd and Atlantic. It was about 1:20 a.m. A large group of people had gathered. They were jumping up and down and chanting.
He'll never forget what happened next: A white Suzuki Samurai pulled into the crowd. The back seats had been removed and replaced with huge speakers playing "Fight the Power."
It felt to him like a switch was flipped.
Then came what many people called the turning point.
At 1:28 a.m., the car edged onto Atlantic Avenue. The crowd followed it.
An officer was hit by a bottle, according to the police log.
Jacocks radioed the police command center at the Dome: "We have a crowd of 500 or 600 people or better... They've completely blocked Atlantic Avenue. They're chanting 'F --- the police' and 'B lack power.' "
Jacocks' received his orders immediately: "Bring your people back to the Dome."
Most police officers left the street to change into riot gear.
The Oceanfront, packed with thousands of young people, was virtually devoid of authority.
Pockets of chaos erupted. People surrounded an ambulance trying to reach a young man who'd jumped from a hotel balcony and missed the pool. A wrecker trying to tow a Corvette was run off after someone punched the driver, who was white, and people unhitched the car.
A circling State Police helicopter reported a large crowd at 21st Street and Atlantic Avenue. The crowd chanted, "Too black, too strong."
Police reported people stealing beer and cigarettes from the 7-Eleven at 24th and Pacific.
At 2:27 a.m., 54 minutes after most police left Atlantic Avenue, 120 officers in full riot gear hit the street.
Police estimated 5,000 to 6,000 people were on the street. The police formed a giant V, called a "wedge," and slowly marched south to clear the street.
Mattison knew it was time to leave. Police were closing off streets. He saw some women pushed with riot batons; some were pushing back.
One of the happiest moments of his life had turned to one of the scariest. Holding back tears, he slipped through the crowd to his friend's car and returned to his apartment.
Kim Miller was not so lucky. She was stuck behind police lines. The scene reminded her of one from the landmark civil rights march in Selma, Ala.
She felt small. At 5 -foot- 3 and 100 pounds, she thought "It's just me - little old me."
Miller heard the crash of breaking glass.
Someone is going to get in trouble, she thought. They're going to start bashing heads. But nothing happened. The police didn't go after the looters. They had one objective: Clear the street.
At 2:47 a.m., Jacocks, using a loud speaker, declared an unlawful assembly. Rock- and bottle-throwing intensified. Small groups of looters broke store windows in the blocks ahead of the police wedge.
Officer Carey marched in the wedge. A hotel balcony light fixture filled with urine struck him in the chest. He thought: I knew there would be a part of this job I wouldn't like.
Nachnani, the merchant, arrived home from his celebratory dinner when he saw a circling helicopter. He walked over to Atlantic Avenue to investigate.
A small crowd of people stood outside his store looking at jewelry in the display window. He walked quickly toward the store as objects thrown from hotel room balconies hit the street.
The store's sliding glass door was cracked. He pushed through the crowd, opened the door and quickly locked it behind him. He took money from the register and hid it in the back. People began kicking in the glass door. He called police.
A dispatcher told him to stay put. There are no officers available to respond, she told him. The door gave way. People streamed into the store, smashing glass displays and grabbing jewelry. He gave the dispatcher his parents' phone number and asked her to call and tell them that he loved them.
Then he got angry. He grabbed a T -s hirt, wrapped it around his head and ran at the crowd in his store, yelling, "Oh my God, the cops are throwing tear gas!"
The looters left. He pulled a rod off a T-shirt display from the wall and broke windows from the inside creating a shower of glass onto the sidewalk he hoped would keep people away.
Then he ran outside swinging the bar and screaming. The crowd had moved down the block.
People with armfuls of clothes and fistfuls of jewelry ran by Miller as she sat on the curb.
One man stopped and said, "I don't wear silver. You want it?"
She shook her head.
There is no reliable number of how many people were involved in the destruction. Nine people were arrested for looting. There were no major injuries.
Seventy-two shops, 31 restaurants and 21 hotels suffered damage estimated at $1.4 million.
At 3:30 a.m., city officials requested that Gov. Gerald Baliles send in the National Guard. When the soldiers arrived at 6:45 a.m., the damage had been done.
Images of the devastated Oceanfront were beamed around the world.
Did Lt. Jacocks feel threatened because they appeared to be unmanageable and then overreacted to a group’s cultural way of expressing themselves and because public perception of the song “Fight The Power” was about ignoring police authority or was a police officer getting hit with the bottle the straw that broke the camel’s back from a police perspective and gave them justification for trying to clear the street? Lt. Jacocks’ radio call to the police shifts the dynamics of the whole weekend from unlikeable but manageable to out of control. This frantic call appears to heighten the fear of an outbreak, that the police were expecting, and sets what would be known as the 1989 Greekfest Riots into motion. It was the match that started the bonfire.
Think And Respond:
1. What was the perceived turning point?
2. List some examples of choices and consequences from the
accounts of what happened.