VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - Twenty years ago, Virginia Beach experienced the worst civildisturbance in its history. The Oceanfront was a populardestination for "Greekfest" every Labor Day weekend.
It was a loosely-organized event named for the historicallyblack sorority and fraternity members who gathered for socializingon the beach and in hotels.
In the late 80's, police reported public drunkeness, fights,vandalism and other disorderly conduct causing business owners andresidents to say enough is enough.
And even though the NAACP, Norfolk State University and cityleaders tried to prepare for a crowd that was bursting at theseams, it all came to a head in 1989, when rioting and lootingbroke out.
Former Virginia Beach Mayor Meyera Oberndorf said, "Afear had grown up on both sides by the guests who were coming whowere ages of students in high school and college, as well as theentrepreneurs and the people who live here year-round. "
"We didn't expect that the business owners would not receivecollege students well, and we were concerned about,"said Georgia Allen, current president of the Virginia BeachNAACP.
And as thousands of people began to fill the streets and hotels,the fears became reality.
Our cameras were there to witness the mayhem: riots and lootingbroke out.
"There was one young African-American woman who had opened aBenetton store," said Oberndorf, "and the kids didn't realize whoowned what. They broke in and tore it to pieces and she certainlyhad not done anything that would have caused that type ofbehavior."
What sparked the initial disturbance isn't clear. Many blame iton racial tension that had been building from previousyears.
State police in riot gear joined Virginia Beach and otherlocal police, as well as the National Guard, to quell theviolence.
So what's the biggest difference at the Oceanfront on Labor Dayweekend now? For one, there's an organized schedule of eventsgeared towards the family.
"We have the 'Rock N Roll 1/2 Marathon,' we have the AmericanMusic Festival, we have people who volunteer," said Oberndorf.
Virginia Beach Police public information officer Jimmy Barneswas a detective during Greekfest. He said, "We're spread out allover the Oceanfront, parks, streets, Atlantic Avenue. We'll havedifferent events going on to keep the crowds from gathering in onespot."
But Allen says that's not enough.
"A lot has not changed in the City of Virginia Beach," Allensaid. "We still currently don't have representation on CityCouncil. So while Greekfest is no longer here we still don't have atrue replacement for Greekfest where young people can come."
Longtime hotel owner Bruce Thompson gave us this statement aboutGreekfest:
"It was a tragic event that probably served to point out cultural differences and provided an opportunity that has since allowed us to shape the Oceanfront character in a manner that's been more inviting and accepting as evidenced by the fact that we not only have not experienced anything close to the tragedy, but also look forward to each and every Labor Day celebration."
Seems everyone learned something from that fateful weekend.
"If you're not willing to look back at your history, look atwhat took place, and look at how you can make things better," saidAllen.
Officer Barnes added, "Twenty years ago, that was a differenttime, a difficult time for all of us. We all grew, we alllearned.... We've increased African-Americans on our department byover twenty-percent at the said time."
More than 500 people were arrested that weekend and more than100 stores were heavily damaged.
The following year, 1990, the City helped organize events forLabor Day weekend, but attendance was much lighter than the yearbefore and Greekfest soon fizzled out.
After the 1989 Greekfest riots, the City of Virginia Beachdeveloped a Labor Day Review Commission which included the creationof various committees focusing on human rights, community policing,and special events at the Oceanfront.
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