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South Carolina braces for bikers

Hundreds of thousands of bikers are expected to descend on South Carolina’s Myrtle Beach area this Memorial Day weekend — and when they do, they’ll be met with beefed-up security.

Locals say there are rarely problems during the Bikefest in Atlantic Beach, a predominantly black enclave of just 350 year-round residents outside the popular resort town of Myrtle Beach. But the deadly violence that erupted on the fringe of last year’s Atlantic Beach Bikefest and the shootout in Waco, Texas between rival motorcycle gangs that resulted in nine deaths have given authorities extra reason for caution.

As a result of last year’s violence, this weekend’s visitors to the area — an estimated 400,000 are expected for the rally or to hit the beach for the first weekend of the summer season — will be greeted by dozens of additional law officers, sidewalk barricades and a 23-mile, one-way loop to control traffic.

“What happened in Texas is a whole lot different than what’s going to be happening here in Atlantic Beach so I don’t think that’s an issue we need to worry about,” said Atlantic Beach Police Chief Timothy Taylor. “If biker gangs do come in we are going to shadow them and see what they are up to.”

There are several other motorcycle rallies around the country this holiday weekend, including the Red River Motorcycle Rally in Northern New Mexico that is expected to draw 20,000 bikers and the annual Rolling Thunder Rally in the nation’s capital that organizers say attracts upward to 900,000 bikers and spectators.

Following last year’s South Carolina violence, Gov. Nikki Haley asked Atlantic Beach officials to end Bikefest, pledging that the state would help the economically depressed community reinvent itself.

She said the town could showcase the history of Atlantic Beach, known as the Black Pearl. During the days of segregation, it was the only place on the Grand Strand — the 60 miles of South Carolina beaches between Georgetown and the North Carolina state line — where blacks could go to the beach.

But Atlantic Beach leaders would not end the Bikefest tradition, which has attracted black bikers to the area since 1980 and provides the town $60,000 or so in revenue on Bikefest fees — a big chunk of its $500,000 annual budget.

Brenda Rowell Bromell, who owns several businesses in Atlantic Beach, doesn’t think the traffic restrictions and other measures being taken will affect business.

“It won’t hurt Atlantic Beach because the whole object is to get here,” she said. “We don’t have any problems here. People have fun and they have a safe ride.”

Indeed Douglas Cunningham, a disc jockey who goes by the name Sharkey and has performed at Bikefest for six years, said the restrictions may help.

“The chatter on the Internet is everybody wants to come back to Atlantic beach because there are too many restrictions elsewhere,” he said. “We’re expecting a bigger crowd than last year.”

The state National Association for the Advancement of Colored People says it will, for a ninth year, monitor to make sure blacks are not discriminated against by security measures.

“The NAACP supports reasonable law enforcement tactics designed to promote public safety and peace,” state NAACP President Dr. Lonnie Randolph said in a statement. “The Association will vehemently oppose any tactics that unfairly target African Americans.”

Myrtle Beach, working with other local governments, has spent months developing a $1.6 million safety plan that required a property tax increase to pay for.

Last year, a crowd gathered outside an oceanfront motel in Myrtle Beach and shots were fired wounding a man. Police say a shooter then went to the second floor of the motel and shot and killed three people. The case has never been solved.