SAVANNAH HAS MANY rites of spring: St. Patrick's Day, the Savannah Music Festival, azaleas, allergies.
Tybee Island has a particular rite of spring of its own: The annual “Orange Crush” college weekend—now apparently weekends, plural—each April.
What began as a traditional spring break getaway for African American college students has, in painfully predictable fashion, become over the years a lightning rod of controversy due to escalations and miscalculations by people on both sides of the issue.
The sheer number of Orange Crush attendees on the sparsely populated island, combined with the racial aspect—a large, nearly all-black crowd visiting a nearly all-white beach town—makes for a volatile situation full of uncomfortable overtones.
The apparent addition of a second weekend this year—the event happens April 11-12 and April 18-19—is guaranteed to exacerbate the situation.
And the fact that one of those is Easter weekend is clearly not going to help matters.
Sociological issues aside, the chief physical manifestation of Orange Crush, simply put, is the massive amount of trash it leaves behind on Tybee’s beach.
This isn’t just one person’s opinion, and no one with at least one functioning eyeball should be offended by the observation. It is what it is.
A few years ago a YouTube video of the huge amount of litter, much of it near the waterline and thus an environmental hazard, went viral. It showed a lot of trash, by any objective measure.
There is also a certain amount of increased petty crime associated with Orange Crush, most of it fairly typical of large spring break college gatherings on beaches all over America, and certainly little we aren’t used to from St. Patrick’s Day.
As you might expect, Tybee Island has never been crazy about welcoming Orange Crush, even in the early days before it became so huge. Tybee tried police checkpoints in years past, but backed off due to legal issues and ugly PR ramifications.
No one wants to be accused of racial profiling, and this case seemed tailor-made for the accusation. Since, well... setting up checkpoints to discourage African-Americans from coming to town is pretty much the definition of racial profiling.
Savannah State University, which originally helped organize the event but washed its hands of it two decades ago, has tried to make amends by sponsoring volunteer beach cleanups afterwards.
SSU does this even though the historically-black institution retains no formal connection to Orange Crush, even though Orange Crush really isn’t much about college students anymore, and even though increasingly the bulk of attendees aren’t even from Savannah, but generally Atlanta.
The main rallying cry by supporters of Orange Crush is that the beach is public and open to all by law, that telling African Americans they can’t come to your beach is not only racist on its face, but a grim echo of old Jim Crow laws which made it literally a crime for blacks to share the same stretch of beach with whites.
All of which are true and perfectly valid points to make.
Georgia’s beaches are indeed public property, and we’re very lucky to have a generally supportive climate for that sentiment— unlike neighboring South Carolina, where the beaches are just as public, but there are routine shady attempts to de facto privatize segments of beach for some large resort community or another catering to affluent vacationers and second-and-third home owners.
However, the right to occupy a public beach is not the same as the right to trash a public beach.
In striving for social justice, no one should forget that either.
If your idea of attaining equality is to claim an equal right to destroy the environment, well, that’s pretty offensive too.
Another typical defense of Orange Crush is to point out the hypocrisy of Savannah’s high tolerance for the gigantic amount of litter and disorderly conduct which always accompanies St. Patrick’s Day.
Double standard, they say: The “white” holiday’s excesses are glorified and romanticized while the “black” event is disrespected.
It’s true: Green is indeed the more important color. But not Irish green—rather, the color of money.
Savannah does spend an enormous amount of money and resources “tolerating” St. Patrick’s Day, from trash cleanup to police service to traffic disruption to a heightened first responder presence. But Savannah tolerates St. Patrick’s Day because of the copious revenue it generates.
Orange Crush, however, is a net loss for Tybee. Orange Crush attendees, like beach day-trippers of any type, simply don’t spend much cash on Tybee.
That’s how most days at the beach go, for all of us: We stock up on ice and snacks, feed the meter, have fun in the sun all day, then drag our hot, tired asses home.
For its part, Tybee Island’s predictable poor-us schtick is beyond old. Every year everyone knows Orange Crush is coming, but Tybee still insists on pretending to be surprised and unprepared.
(Good heavens, Orange Crush—or someone purporting to represent it—is on Twitter: @OrangeCrushSAV)
Tybee’s song-and-dance that “we’re just a little ol’ beach town, we don’t know ‘bout all this big city type stuff” has become tiresome.
It’s especially tiresome for those of us who’ve had run-ins with Tybee’s very zealous police and parking enforcement every other weekend of the year, when Orange Crush is nowhere in sight.
Tybee has clearly decided the effort of rigorously enforcing the law during Orange Crush and possibly leaving themselves open to accusations of profiling—and maybe another lazy, paint-by-numbers New York Times story about small-town Southern racism— isn’t worth it. That it’s easier to just throw up their hands and play the victim.
So it’s all a bizarre Kabuki dance: Orange Crush supporters trying to have us believe Martin Luther King Jr. fought for everyone’s right to leave mounds of toxic trash behind on a public beach; and Tybee Island, often hyper-vigilant and money-grubbing towards tourists, trying to have us believe they have no ability to control a predictable annual event that has come there for over 20 years.
Until both sides drop the pretense, Orange Crush will continue to be one of Savannah’s more annoying harbingers of spring.