What price a community’s soul?: Spring break and The Almighty Dollar

Spring Break:

Rapes,  A Mass Shooting

And Other Debauchery


Several residents of the normally tranquil community of 12,000 in Panama City Beach, Fla., are deeply concerned that the annual rite of spring that brings tens of thousands of college students swarming to their hotels, restaurants, parks, beaches and city streets has gotten out of control recently.

“Chaos,” is how many  of them — and even some city officials — are referring to the gatherings that occur in March and April, featuring plenty of bikinis, swim trunks,  alcohol and drugs.

But the truth is, this prolonged, anything-goes party has been out of control for years. City and law enforcement officials, and many residents, have held their noses, breathed huge sighs of relief — once the students vacate the city limits — then clean up the mess and count the money the students pump into the economy. According to recent published reports, the economic boost, this year, is estimated at $90 million.

That’s a powerful incentive to overlook the excesses, the petty and serious crimes, the injuries, the overall nastiness and disrespect, and the cheapening of the community’s reputation and its desirability as a place for families with children.

What price will a community pay for its soul? That’s the question many have had to face in the past, or are facing now in this age of service economies and economic viability tied mainly to tourism and throwing big parties — Mardi Gras, Super Bowls, The Olympics, Spring Break, Freaknik.

Spring break in Florida and Atlanta’s old Freaknik, however, with the possible exception of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, seem to be in a category of their own.

The anything-goes attitude — with open drinking and drugging, sexual taunting and assaults, nudity, brazen defiance of local laws, and vulgar public displays, such as urinating on lawns in residential areas — appears to be the order of the day.

The tendency, so often, is for those tasked with enforcing the rules and regulations to look the other way, because strict enforcement will tick off those who have come to expect lax enforcement. The fear is they will pick up their beers and their wallets, and do their partying and spending somewhere else.

This season in Panama City Beach has been especially disturbing, however. In Mid-March, a 19-year-old, unconscious woman was allegedly gang raped on the beach — in broad daylight — while hundreds of other partyers watched, took cellphone pictures and video — or simply ignored it. Not one of them did anything to stop it. No one called the police.

The horrific incident would have escaped authorities’ notice, if police in Alabama — while investigating a shooting — hadn’t run across a cellphone video that showed the alleged crime in progress, and turned it over to police in Panama City Beach.

According to media reports, the woman who was the alleged victim of the assault told authorities she believes she was drugged before the incident, and that she didn’t report it because she couldn’t remember it clearly enough to do so.

Three men have been arrested in the case, so far, and charged with sexual battery, multiple perpetrators. Police say there may be other arrests. Two of the three in custody are students at Troy University, in Alabama, according to media reports, and the third is a student at Middle Tennessee State University. News reports say the Troy University students have been suspended by the school.

Even though the alleged sexual assault took place about two weeks before a shooting that injured seven people during a spring-break house party, it did not come to authorities’ attention until after that incident. A suspect is being sought in the shooting, too.

And it’s not just these particular incidents that have many residents riled up. According to reports, spring-break events have led to more than 1,100 arrests this year; the number of reported sexual assaults has doubled over last year, from  six to eleven, and the number of cases involving suspects considered armed and dangerous went up six-fold, from three last year, to 18 this year.

Those are staggering numbers for a community of just 12, 000 residents. But the city’s spring-break population swells to between 250,000 and 300,000, and the event seems to get bigger every year.

That was typical of the Freaknik spring-break “celebration” that grew to rule the city of Atlanta, after modest beginnings as a small picnic among college students who were mostly from the Washington, D.C. area, but attended colleges in Atlanta in the early 1980’s.

At its height in the mid-90’s, the event drew upwards of 250,000 revelers from around the country; and as its numbers swelled, the event became more and more raucous, and more disruptive to the lives of residents and the operations of the city.

There were times when city streets and interstate highways were shut down by thousands of parked cars, while their partying inhabitants were out preening, dancing, socializing, taking photos and videos of the goings-on and the massive disruption they were causing — as if that was the way things were supposed to be.

There many reports of wedding parties trapped and not able to make it to the church on time; of ambulances with emergency patients on board stuck in impossible traffic, trying desperately to get to hospitals.

There were many arrests for drunkenness, drug use, sexual assaults and other crimes. I know, because I was an editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution at the time, and for a while, was the editor in charge of Freaknik coverage.

Those of us at the paper dreaded it each year. The moving, no-holes-barred, and often X-rated, feast was a nightmare to cover — to try and figure out how to deploy our troops; where the kids would congregate; how law enforcement might react; and how those assigned to cover it could move freely amid the chaos. We even had to consider if we could guarantee our reporters’ safety.

The same attitude that was at work at Freaknik — until the big party was basically shut down by city officials beginning in 1996 (when Atlanta was preparing to host an even a bigger party — the ’96 Olympics,) is that students will flock to it because it allows them the kind of freedom they can experience no where else, in no other part of their daily lives.

They can be their worst selves; they are anonymous travelers, partygoers in a strange land, where the only people who know them and their families are the comrades they bring with them.  That anonymity knocks down all the barriers. They can become simply one among a faceless crowd (mob really,) free to act however they want, free to satisfy long-pent-up desires and wishes, free to be hooligans, boors, Bacchanalia lovers — all under the banner of The Foolishness of Youth.

For too soon, they will have to clean up their acts, put on their business suits and go to work, taking care of families, and trying to make a mark on the world.

Students attend these events and act the way they do, because they can. They know anything is permitted, that officials will turn their heads because of the revenue generated by these monster parties. If officials crack down on the gatherings, strictly enforcing the rules, then the partyers will move on to another venue, where city leaders welcome their money — if not their debauchery.

City leaders in Atlanta, under then-Mayor Bill Campbell, eventually had enough of Freaknik. The city refused to grant permits for venues requested by those who wanted to hold events for the crowds. Police cracked down with strict enforcement, and the crowds faded. The revelers soon moved on to Daytona Beach, Fla., for awhile. I don’t know if Freaknik is still a “happening”; don’t hear any rumblings about it anymore.

The point is, yes, such events help fill a city’s coffers; create jobs, and can breathe new life into the financial health of a community. But at what cost? That’s the question Atlanta had to face, and is the question now before Panama City Beach’s leaders.

Eventually, a community must choose. How long do you continue to hold your  breath and hope that nothing much worse will happen? Is the chaos and carnage worth it?

What price your soul?

How many pieces of silver?