AS MUCH as any other local controversy or event, Orange Crush lays bare the Savannah area's uneasy racial politics.
For those of you new to town, Orange Crush is a yearly Spring Break-style beach gathering of college-age African Americans on nearly all-white Tybee Island, which is normally patrolled by a nearly all-white police department (more on that later).
This year’s Orange Crush happens Saturday, April 18. We know this only through informal social media updates, as Orange Crush has no centralized authority or contact person or group.
Not only is Orange Crush rife with potential for racial unrest, it’s a huge logistical challenge. Tybee’s year-round population is only about 3,000, but Orange Crush attendees are typically at least double that number for the weekend.
The complaints, and there are many, are mutual:
Orange Crush attendees have complained about racial profiling at now largely discontinued police checkpoints; dismissive treatment by local merchants and residents; and racism and general hostility towards the idea of large groups of black people on an entirely public beach.
(The latter point is especially sensitive given that Tybee Island was indeed off-limits to African Americans under the law during the days of segregation in Savannah.)
Tybee residents, on the other hand, have complained about an increase in crime and the sometimes staggeringly large volume of litter left behind on the beach—often swept out to sea by the tides to create problems for marine life.
While the rest of us are enjoying Easter and a dose of Spring Fever, for Tybee Island Mayor Jason Buelterman, April is always the most difficult month of year.
“Dealing with Orange Crush and all the issues around it has been the biggest challenge in my role on Tybee by far,” Mayor Buelterman says. “Especially with what’s happened over the past year with regards to police relations with minority populations.”
Keenly aware of the ever-expanding political minefield, Buelterman and his staff spent the year since the last edition of Orange Crush fine-tuning their approach for the weekend of April 18.
Buelterman insists Tybee’s issues with Orange Crush have nothing to do with race.
“Young college-age people are prone to get in trouble at Spring Break. White kids, black kids, Asian kids, whoever. Panama City had multiple shootings last year, and that’s why they don’t want any kind of Spring Breakers at all anymore,” says Buelterman.
“Some people perceive that Tybee doesn’t want black people here. That couldn’t be further from the truth,” he says.
“It’s young people unsupervised, with no coordinated activities that cause the problem. Some of whom are of age, and frankly some of whom are not.”
Buelterman says the first step every year is checking social media to find out when Orange Crush is happening.
“It would be great if someone came forward similar to other events on Tybee, like the Pirate Fest. But we just get word of it via Twitter and Instagram,” Buelterman says.
“Then our police department secures commitments from other agencies to help, under the rationale that anytime you have a large number of unsupervised young adults that’s a recipe for a problem,” he says.
Given the vastly increased volatility surrounding the issue of race with recent national and local incidents involving black men being killed by police -- just this week a North Charleston cop was charged with murder in such an incident -- this year’s planning has taken on an extra layer of sensitivity and solemnity.
“We’re obviously trying to be as cognizant of that climate as we possibly can. We are actively trying to partner with agencies with a lot of minority officers,” says Buelterman.
“The simple math is that if you have a predominantly white community, usually you’re going to also have a predominantly white police force. And Tybee’s no different.”
Most crucially, Buelterman says,Tybee Island officials have been working with the U.S. Department of Justice on issues surrounding Orange Crush.
“Our Police Chief contacted the Justice Department, and we met with them along with our City Manager and City Attorney. We told them our plans and Justice said they support them 100 percent,” he says.
Additionally, Buelterman secured a meeting with City of Savannah Mayor Edna Jackson—herself a graduate of historically black Savannah State University.
“We wanted to make sure we had her support, as we did last year,” Buelterman says. “She’s working with us making sure Savannah/Chatham Metro Police are supportive of what we do.”
Speaking of police, Tybee’s small local police department will be augmented Orange Crush weekend by officers from Savannah/Chatham Metro, Savannah State University Police, Chatham County Sheriff’s Department, and Georgia State Patrol, in addition to some Tybee police added on a seasonal basis.
Buelterman says other than the temporary seasonal hires, Tybee taxpayers don’t pay extra for additional police presence during Orange Crush, since Tybee police often assist other jurisdictions during special events off-island, such as St. Patrick’s Day.
While the mayor says race isn’t an issue, he’s quick to say that unfortunately there is indeed a public safety issue associated with Orange Crush that can’t be ignored.
“We’ve had some pretty serious crime incidents, actually. I requested that the chief give me all police reports from last year. There were some gun issues. There were drugs—and I’m not just talking about marijuana, I’m talking about serious drugs. So there have been serious issues.”
The other issue is with regards to the trash that’s left behind.
"We get criticized over that, but St. Simons Island has the same issue the weekend of the Georgia/Florida game, and that’s mostly white kids," says Buelterman.
"So this year, knowing there will be trash issues we’re getting out there -- not the next morning but the night before – before the high tide comes up," he says.
"The concern is that tides don’t care about daylight or not, and we don’t want all that trash to get washed out into the ocean by the high tide. Also, we want to get out there to avoid the situation of TV cameras waiting for us at 5:30 a.m. to make us look bad."
With Orange Crush, Tybee is on the horns of a familiar modern governmental dilemma:
Some attendees insist they’re racially profiled by police, while some residents maintain police are too lenient for fear of being called racist.
Buelterman says it really boils down to the numbers.
“We get criticized for being too vigilant on Orange Crush weekend, but usually the opposite is true,” he says.
“For example, if you’re caught with glass on the beach July 4th weekend, you’ll get a $500 ticket. But at Orange Crush police are so outnumbered, sometimes people get away with more. It’s just simple logistics.”