COLUMBIA, S.C. – The city of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, was motivated by race when it created a traffic plan designed to “suck the fun” out of Black Bike Week, a federal jury has found. But the same jury sided against the bikers, saying the city probably would have imposed the plan anyway.
Civil rights groups accused the city of racially discriminating against the Black tourists by treating them differently than white bikers who attend Harley Week earlier each May, and who are responsible for many of the same public nuisances, from binge drinking to noise complaints.
The Black bikers have been particularly frustrated by a 23-mile (37-kilometer) one-way no-exit traffic chute that funnels them out of town during the peak nights of Atlantic Beach Bikefest, otherwise known as Black Bike Week. The city also puts up barricades and increases its police presence in ways that don't apply to the mostly white bikers during their event, their attorneys said.
The jurors - five Black and four white — deliberated for more than three hours before delivering their verdict on Thursday. They agreed that “race was a motivating factor,” but they also found that Myrtle Beach “would have made the same decision anyway, even if it had not considered race in its official actions regarding Black Bike Week.”
The decision means the city won't have to change its traffic plan for now. The city also won't owe damages to the plaintiffs, which include the local NAACP branch and several festival attendees.
Attorneys for the city had argued that precautions were made in the name of public safety after a spate of shootings and robberies during Memorial Day weekend six years ago, and that “different traffic control strategies” apply to each festival.
“The jury’s decision confirmed that the safety plan was the right plan for the event, given the number of people, vehicles and pedestrians and the violence and other safety challenges which arose through the years," Myrtle Beach spokesman Mark Kruea wrote in an emailed statement following the verdict. “The public’s safety always has been and will continue to be the city’s top priority.”
Kristen Clarke of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told The Associated Press that the plaintiffs are pleased that “the jury agreed race was a factor” and would “look carefully at our options” following the verdict.
During the trial, attorneys for the NAACP presented evidence such as emails from city leadership suggesting the loop could “suck the fun out of the event” and traffic camera footage to show the loop didn't relieve congestion, news outlets reported.
The NAACP has tussled in court with the city, as well as local restaurants and a hotel, over their responses to the Black bikers for nearly two decades. The city eventually settled with the NAACP after a federal judge found that a 5-mile-long (8-kilometer-long) traffic plan established in the mid-2000s for Bike Fest was racially motivated. That settlement expired in 2015, when the new traffic plan was established.
Michelle Liu is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.