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Orange Crush: Justice is slow but inexorable

I JUST got back from doing something that I rarely do: I went to the beach. I crossed the causeways, shelled out $4 in parking, sat on the pier and ate a chili dog.

I watched other people enjoying ice cream cones, sunning, shopping, sipping pina coladas and tentatively dipping their toes into the surf on a sunny-cool afternoon.

And it reminded me what this story is all about: a day at the beach. This weekend, when thousands of African-American college students come to Tybee Island seeking the same experience, they’ll get something different.

Some businesses will close. And the City of Tybee Island will welcome them with barricades.

I didn’t know the difference between a French barricade and Jersey barricade until the City of Tybee Island issued a press release explaining them and their use during Orange Crush, the black spring break. (French: think bike rack. Jersey: think construction site.)

The City will deploy them to control traffic (and drugs and alcohol, it says!).

The idea that “young” and “black” deserve word association with “drugs” and “alcohol” (my first association is “gifted,” a Nina Simone reference) lies, I think, at the heart of what Orange Crush has become: not the simple, everyday, all-American thing that it is, but instead some kind of local Password game where the wrong answer means “racist.”

I’m happy to report that this year’s Orange Crush has brought some needed changes that make the City of Tybee Island, at least officially, legally and on paper, less racist.

The City also will deploy the French and Jersey barricades, they say, during the St. Patrick’s and July 4th weekends. Equal inconvenience.

Also, the City won’t enforce an ordinance from 2017 and 2018, the one that restricted public consumption of alcohol and amplified music: but only on the weekends of Orange Crush. That policy rightly earned its nickname, the “Jim Crow Ordinance,” and prompted federal intervention.

It’s hard to say how much of these improvements were, as the City says, “voluntarily initiated” by Tybee Island, or the work of a handful of dedicated anti-racist citizens combined with a guy in shades from the U.S. Department of Justice. (I actually don’t know if he wore shades, but all feds should.)

Julia Pearce met the guy.

“We’re still not at a point in our development where we can sit and talk face to face about each other,” says Pearce, a founder of Tybee MLK, who says the negotiations over these changes were so contentious, the parties had to meet in separate rooms with fed shady going between them. “There’s so much fear.”

What hasn’t changed is the fact that the City of Tybee Island is just as determined as ever to crack down on this “unpermitted” event. “Unpermitted!”

Watch this word and how it’s used. St. Patrick’s Day and July 4th also are unpermitted events, outside of the former’s signature parade and the latter’s municipal fireworks displays. And yet only Orange Crush promoters get a stern letter threatening civil and legal penalties for theirs.

Of course, whom would you threaten for St. Patrick’s Day? The bishop? Or July 4th? The Continental Congress? Frankly, Orange Crush’s biggest problem is that it is, in fact, a big and scheduled event promoted by a handful of people to profit from that all-American “Jack & Diane,” “sucking on a chili dog” and “Under the Boardwalk” that we all love.

Orange Crush promoters would do themselves and everybody a favor by working with the City to permit their event. Would that solve the real issue?

Perhaps Tybee Island Mayor Jason Buelterman summed it up best when he told me, “No matter what we do on this, people will be mad at us one way or another.” I’m sure Orange Crush feels the same.

Because I didn’t walk down that pier today with the weight of hundreds of years of socially constructed bias and fear against me. As long as large numbers of young and black people make large numbers of old and white people fear for their lives, it’s an ice cream cone, pina colada and surf toe-dip just over the mountaintop – the promised land.