Proponents of a permanent ban on alcohol on the beach in the famously eccentric island town of Folly Beach were in no mood for compromise last Thursday night, and council members gave them what they wanted. Twice. Whether the old adage "Be careful what you wish for" will come back to haunt them after the town's advisory referendum in November remains anyone's guess, but on the day the island's emergency alcohol ban took effect, fed-up residents felt ready to gamble everything on an all-or-nothing vote.
In what may go down as one of the biggest political gambles in the history of a town aptly nicknamed the Edge of America, booze-ban proponents successfully pushed back against a draft referendum that would have given voters the option of supporting alcohol restrictions but stopping short of a complete ban. After multiple speakers called for swift action on a permanent ban and criticized the idea of offering a choice between banning alcohol or allowing it "with some limitations to be decided by council," Mayor Pro Tem Eddie Ellis moved to strike the compromise option.
He followed that up with another motion, this time calling on council members to promise to abide by the outcome of the November advisory referendum. It passed too, again to public applause.
Of course, the crowd's sense of triumph presumed that the electorate will turn out to support an all-or-nothing ban on Folly Beach, a quirky community with a celebrated tradition of colorful characters, laid-back attitudes, and bumpy relationships with authority. And Ellis' symbolic second motion — essentially demanding that council members promise to tie their votes on resolving the island's beach-booze problem to the results of the referendum — could make a defeat worse.
Because if there's anything that islanders seem to agree on in the wake of this year's Fourth of July debacle, it's that something needs to be done about a situation that is spiraling dangerously out of control.
The last straw
It's easy to watch a room full of occasionally overwrought retirees complaining about unruly college kids and dismiss their concerns with a snarky "Get off my lawn!" But in the case of Folly Beach, the numbers behind their tales of obnoxious and intimidating behavior are no laughing matter.
On a run-of-the-mill summer weekend, Folly Beach attracts an estimated 30,000 beachgoers. Big holidays, like Independence Day, can double that figure, pitting 60,000 visitors against a narrow island with just 2,400 residents, 16 police officers, lousy parking, virtually no public restrooms, and an antiquated street grid that backs up as fast as a daycare toilet with a diaper down its drain. Compound those numbers with Folly's status as the last beach community in the Southeast where it's still legal to drink on the beach, and it's easy to trace the outlines of the problem.
As for the details of the problem, they've been boiling out of pissed-off locals ever since footage of the July 4 quasi-riot near East 10th Street went viral on YouTube (see below), apparently triggering the release of years of pent-up frustration. Folly Beach is mad as hell, and it's not going to take it anymore.
Witnesses recount stories of infuriating and frightening encounters. Drunks pouring out of party buses. Illegal DJs. Public nudity. Illegal frat parties. Physical threats. Out-of-state party promoters. Unrelenting traffic. Trashed yards and streets. Though the apocryphal incidents are impossible to verify individually, the similarity of the stories is striking. Even those who question the wisdom of a ban agree that laissez-faire Folly has got to do something about its alcohol problem.
And by "alcohol problem," it's worth noting that residents specifically mean their island's summer-long 20-something douchebag alcohol problem. Because when you talk to people on the island, you repeatedly hear that the issue isn't alcohol on the beach per se, or young people in general, or even the occasional problems that arise when other demographics abuse the substance. They believe the problem is that Folly now attracts a distinct breed of heavy-drinking, young-adult jerk, and like an alien species of water plant that invades a local pond, the aggressive newcomers are choking out the natives.
"I've never seen people not respect law enforcement," said City Councilman Tom Scruggs, a former member of Folly's Beach Patrol. "Up until recently, if law enforcement asked you to pick up your trash, you'd do it. These guys picked up their trash and threw it at [officers]. Once the words gets out that this is going to be the place to party, everybody gets on Facebook. Everybody's so synced in to all of that, they're like, 'We're going there.' We didn't have that kind of communication in years past."
This isn't the first time Folly Beach has fought back against unruly day-trippers and disruptive beach behaviors. The city established a controversial leash law in the mid-1990s and cracked down on littering and boorish behavior in 2009. What's different this time is the sense that the majority of islanders — even those who say they want to preserve its libertarian traditions — seem fed up with one thing or another.
After this year's Independence Day incident, angry residents packed the regularly scheduled council meeting on July 6, convincing council members to pass an emergency 60-day ban on alcohol on the beach and to propose a non-binding referendum on the subject for the November election. On July 12, with the emergency ban finally in effect, council members prepared for the special meeting that evening where they would hammer out the details of the November referendum.
"Don't get lost in the Fourth of July," cautioned Mayor Tim Goodwin. "The Fourth of July was just the straw that broke the camel's back."
The police report
Considering the 49 arrests that took place on July 4, 2011, this year's problems weren't unanticipated. According to Director of Public Safety Dennis Brown, the department stationed county deputies at the troublesome walkovers between East 10th and 13th streets in the morning, while Folly police officers patrolled the beach. That's roughly the four-block area just before the Washout, which locals say doesn't get the same problems because "surfers police their own."
However, the Independence Day crowd at East 10th Street quickly overwhelmed the capabilities of the four officers initially assigned to it. Police said the beach was already packed by 9 a.m., with officers assisting the day's first unconscious drunk before 10 a.m.
Brown said he spent part of the morning at the hospital with a family member, and when he arrived at East 10th around 2 p.m., he immediately spotted multiple violations in the "extremely compact and congested" crowd, including illegal amplified music. Officers on the scene told him they had been unable to reach the DJ because each foray into the crowd had been impeded by too many violations encountered along the way.
The public safety officer then said that he "forced his way through the crowd" to the DJ for After Midnight Parties, a Georgia-based party promoter, and told him to shut down the music. The man complied. "It wasn't a big DJ setup that folks tend to think. It was just a laptop and some speakers." And the "dance floor" others have described? "They had four traffic cones where people were dancing," he added.
Yet almost simultaneously with the shutdown of the AMP event, Brown said he heard the now-memorable chant of "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" as revelers encircled a struggle between police officers and beachgoers.
According to police, the incident began when an officer tried to take a bottle away from a person in the crowd, and the accused struck the officer. By the time police got things back under control, four Folly officers and one county officer had been injured, and six people had been arrested for inciting a riot and lesser charges (A seventh person was arrested later). The day's notable stats: 16 arrests on the island and 128 55-gallon garbage bags of trash from the East 10th Street area alone. According to multiple sources, apologetic members of the crowd pitched in to clean up. All four Folly officers were back on duty Thursday, though the county officer was more seriously injured.
Was it a riot? "I'm very cautious with that word," Brown said. "I was being pounded with beer. They were throwing glass bottles at us, beer cans, they were hitting officers with Wiffle ball bats. Several officers had people try to pull their guns from their holsters. If it wasn't [a riot], it was as close as I would like to get to one."
The numbers raise another question. If this year's Independence Day debacle was so much worse than last year's, why did 2011 produce 49 arrests, and 2012 only 16?
"The crowd was so large at 10th Street, it monopolized all our officers," Brown said. "We didn't have the ability to go out and effectively patrol the crowd like we should have, because the crowd was so immense." All 14 of the town's available officers wound up working the 10th Street area.
"A lot of folks are looking to find blame in this, and they're upset and they're angry," Brown said. "What I've been telling everyone is that the folks who are to blame for this are the ones you see in the video, the ones who were arrested. To be fair to everyone, that's where their anger and their resentment needs to lie. We took a bad situation and stopped it from getting worse.
"Those folks who say that we should have done something differently, I agree that there were some things that we could have learned from this, and we're going to address that through our internal review and try to learn from the experience. But all in all, I think it was handled very well."
Count Eric Rowland among the department's critics. Rowland, a magnificently bearded clerk at the island's iconic Bert's Market for the past four summers, said town police are either unwilling or too inept to deal with the alcohol problem head-on. He theorized that the town sees open-container tickets as a revenue source (pre-ban local rules allowed alcohol in a cup, not a can, and prohibits bottles entirely) and said the town could fix the problem by enforcing existing laws. "Once you handle one or two rowdies, everybody else gets in line."
Rowland's comments came Thursday during an arranged interview with Mayor Pro Tem Eddie Ellis, an energetic island landscaper who arranged to meet at Bert's and emerged from the grocery with Rowland in tow, suggesting that the meeting take place out back by his pickup under the live oak at East 2nd Street and East Cooper Avenue.
With Ellis and Rowland continuing what appeared to be a previous conservation, the discussion soon became a friendly public debate. Bert's owner Omar Colon sat down on the wooden planter beside Ellis a few minutes later, and Councilman Scruggs, who noticed the discussion when he passed in a golf cart on his way to the post office, joined in, too. Over the course of about an hour, at least four different motorists rolled down their windows at the intersection to offer opinions to the group, or to quip about the alcohol controversy.
Scenes like that are part of what makes Folly Beach so damned romantic to longtime Lowcountry residents — particularly boomers who grew up surfing the Washout in the 1960s, when the island's distinctive surf culture was just emerging. Like a cross between an acid flashback and a rerun of Green Acres, Folly has a weird way of inspiring nostalgia for a past that most of its fans weren't even alive to experience.
While Ellis and Scruggs asked questions and parsed the political side of things, Colon and Rowland delved into philosophical questions.
"What I want is for moderate voices to be heard," Colon said. "I was very disappointed [at the Tuesday meeting] that people that got up to say 'Let's get more information and make a studied decision' got booed and interrupted. If they find through gathering information and they make a real scientific effort to figure out what's going on and make a tailored solution, if they find that banning alcohol is the solution, then how can I be against it? But I'm disappointed that anybody who got up to speak ... who had any kind of moderate, reasonable voice ... was not welcomed."
The wink-wink solution
First-term Councilman Paul Hume, a 16-year Folly resident previously from Wisconsin, began last Thursday morning with yard work and worries about the results of the island's sudden rush toward restrictions.
"There's a group of people on this island who believe with all their hearts that if you ban alcohol on the beach, [the problem 20-somethings] won't come out here anymore," Hume said. "I personally think that's a bunch of crap. The issue isn't so much the drinking as much as the fact that you can't enforce anything with 50,000 people that don't want to do what 10 cops want them to do."
Hume would rather see the town study more targeted options, like a permit-based system that doesn't penalize law-abiding locals, instead of adopting a straight-up ban like other beaches. His reasons are part philosophical, but they include a pragmatic streak. He thinks something must be done, but he's not convinced the no-alcohol-on-the-beach people will have the votes to win an all-or-nothing ban in November.
Of course, anyone who has been to a public South Carolina beach has seen people who drink beer, cause no problems, and come and go without being hassled by the police. Multiple Folly officials on Thursday referenced the idea that a ban coupled with enlightened enforcement wouldn't destroy the tradition of laid-back beach drinking that locals enjoy.
Hume disagrees in principle, saying that what he calls "wink-wink" enforcement still turns law-abiding citizens into law breakers and gives those who feel like hassling their neighbors by ratting them out to police tremendous power. He said he favored an above-board approach.
But as the Thursday night meeting unfolded, Hume's attempts to articulate that message repeatedly failed to connect with either the audience or his fellow council members. His suggestion that the council didn't need a referendum to tackle the issue won applause, but his idea that the council seriously study multiple solutions seemed to go nowhere.
On the beach
Despite front-page headlines about Folly's beach ban taking effect, last Thursday passed peacefully on the island. Crowds were light and parking spaces went begging, but business in the commercial district was steady. Day One of the ban opened to rave reviews from locals on the east end of the island, who said the number of cars parked on their street dropped by half.
Whether that was because of worries about strict enforcement or a byproduct of recent thunderstorms remains to be seen. There were relatively few groups of young people on the beach last Thursday, and beachgoers questioned about the ban provided a grab-bag of responses ranging from surprise to indifference. Though most seemed aware that something had changed, others had clearly not gotten the memo.
Brown said the department has instructed public safety officers to educate beachgoers on the new rules. "We're not going to change 50 years of history in two days," he said. "We need to be as compassionate as we can be, but we still have to enforce the law."
Meanwhile, 69-year-old Folly native Bryan Porter took the long view. Like Hume, Colon, and others, he's not convinced a ban will pass a public vote. His logic? The island's permanent residents and registered voters tend to live farther away from the beach, on the back side of the island, where they are less affected by the problems.
Like others, he thinks change is needed. Quality of life on the island is at an all-time low, he said.
"Folly, in my opinion, has always had an identity crisis," he said. "They can't make up their mind whether they want to be a residential or a business district. And of course a healthy city is made up of both."
Footage of the arrest scene at Folly Beach on July 4th. Posted by YouTube user MrPkzip.