The NAACP requested a federal injunction yesterday on behalf of two Baltimore police officers and nine other plaintiffs to stop what it charges is discrimination by Myrtle Beach against participants in the South Carolina city's Memorial Day weekend Black Bike Week.
The lawsuit from the Baltimore-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored People alleges that Myrtle Beach is discriminatory in its plan to limit Memorial Day weekend traffic on the beach's main drag - Ocean Boulevard - to one-way, instead of two, making it the only weekend of the year to do so. The action was filed in U.S. District Court in Charleston, S.C.
"African-American motorcyclists and tourists, they deserve the same rights accorded to all citizens," said Angela Ciccolo, NAACP general counsel. She said Memorial Day weekend is the only time of the year that the majority of tourists at the oceanfront city are black.
Mark Kruea, spokesman for Myrtle Beach, declined to comment on the latest legal action, though he has said in the past that previous NAACP's lawsuits against the city are groundless.
Baltimore police Sgt. Lewis Ely, and his fellow sport-bike riders, known as the Black Tiger's Motorcycle Club, have made Myrtle Beach's motorcycle weekend a ritual since 1997.
"When we go down there, it's vacation for us, you know," said Ely, a plaintiff. "We hang out." The second city officer in the suit is Detective Craig Williams, lawyers for the NAACP said.
But since 1997, Ely said, Myrtle Beach police officers have swarmed the event, making arbitrary arrests and harassing bikers. "They put up roadblocks so the traffic all goes southbound and the officers walk on the sidewalk and pull bikes over randomly," Ely said.
One year, he said, he was stopped three times within a five-mile stretch.
For years, black participants have complained that they are not treated the same by police, businesses and city tourism officials as participants of the mostly white Harley Week, which draws about 250,000 bikers in mid-May. Harley Week permits two-way traffic on the beachfront road.
Yesterday's request for the injunction is the latest in a series of legal actions against Myrtle Beach and some businesses. The NAACP has charged that during Memorial Day weekend, hotel prices were inflated, businesses shut their doors and the city hired twice as many police officers as Harley Week.
But Kruea said the city sees distinctions between the Harley event and Black Bike Week, which has its origins in nearby Atlantic Beach, S.C.
"The Harley event is spread over a 60-mile area; the Atlantic Beach event is three blocks deep and 60 blocks long," he said. "It's not about the race of the participants at all."
The NAACP's plaintiffs disagree, saying both events are known for a raucous nature - people in their 20s and 30s on Ocean Boulevard showing off motorcycles and flirting with the opposite sex. The only difference is race, they say. "I know guys I work with who go down there who say the streets aren't blocked off, they are partying and having fun and racing," Ely said. "That's stuff we wouldn't think of being able to do."
Known as the Bikefest, Black Bike Week and Atlantic Beach Memorial Day Bikefest the tradition dates to the 1940s with a small gathering of enthusiasts in historically black Atlantic Beach. During segregation, it was one of the few area beaches open to blacks.
The event reached its peak of about 400,000 in the late 1990s, but diminished to about 300,000, some participants say, because of the police presence. The injunction request says many motorcycle enthusiasts won't come to the event because of its reputation.