ATLANTIC BEACH, S.C. – Tens of thousands of bikers descend on the Myrtle Beach area on the South Carolina coast this Memorial Day weekend for the annual Atlantic Beach Bikefest — and when they do, they'll be met with beefed up security.
Locals say there are rarely problems during Bikefest in this predominantly black enclave of 350 year-round residents near Myrtle Beach. But during last year's rally, violence erupted in nearby communities that left three dead and seven wounded.
So this weekend visitors to the area — an estimated 400,000 are expected for the rally or to hit the beach for the first weekend of the summer season — will be greeted by dozens of additional law officers, sidewalk barricades and a 23-mile, one-way loop to control traffic.
Bikefest comes just days after nine people were killed in and 18 wounded in a shootout between rival motorcycle gangs in Waco, Texas.
"What happened in Texas is a whole lot different than what's going to be happening here in Atlantic Beach so I don't think that's an issue we need to worry about," said Atlantic Beach Police Chief Timothy Taylor. "If biker gangs do come in we are going to shadow them and see what they are up to."
Following last year's South Carolina violence, Gov. Nikki Haley asked Atlantic Beach officials to end Bikefest, pledging that the state would help the economically depressed community reinvent itself.
She said the town could showcase the history of Atlantic Beach, known as the Black Pearl. During the days of segregation, it was the only place on the Grand Strand — the 60 miles of South Carolina beaches between Georgetown and the North Carolina state line — where blacks could go to the beach.
But Atlantic Beach leaders would not end the Bikefest tradition, which has attracted black bikers to the area since 1980 and provides the town $60,000 or so in revenue on Bikefest fees — a big chunk of its $500,000 annual budget.
Brenda Rowell Bromell, who owns several businesses in Atlantic Beach, doesn't think the traffic restrictions and other measures being taken will affect business.
"It won't hurt Atlantic Beach because the whole object is to get here," she said. "We don't have any problems here. People have fun and they have a safe ride."
Indeed Douglas Cunningham, a disc jockey who goes by the name Sharkey and has performed at Bikefest for six years, said the restrictions may help.
"The chatter on the Internet is everybody wants to come back to Atlantic beach because there are too many restrictions elsewhere," he said. "We're expecting a bigger crowd than last year."
The state National Association for the Advancement of Colored People says it will, for a ninth year, monitor to make sure blacks are not discriminated against by security measures.
"The NAACP supports reasonable law enforcement tactics designed to promote public safety and peace," state NAACP President Dr. Lonnie Randolph said in a statement. "The Association will vehemently oppose any tactics that unfairly target African Americans."
Myrtle Beach, working with other local governments, has spent months developing a $1.6 million safety plan that required a property tax increase to pay for.
Last year, a crowd gathered outside an oceanfront motel in Myrtle Beach and shots were fired wounding a man. Police say a shooter then went to the second floor of the motel and shot and killed three people. The case has never been solved.