The police called it a "riot." That's pretty harsh, but whatever happened on Folly Beach on Independence Day, video and photos show a mass of drunk and disorderly people, some of whom fought with police and were ultimately arrested.
Last week, Folly Beach City Council, responding to a chamber full of angry citizens, did what it should have done years ago: It banned alcohol from the beach, albeit temporarily.
For years Folly has promoted itself as the only beach for miles around that permits alcohol on the strand. Now the bill has come due on this foolish policy. And as anyone who has lived long enough and viewed enough human behavior knows, alcohol does more than make responsible people act irresponsibly — it attracts a certain element. In an unstructured environment like a beach, it signals that the rules are suspended, that anything goes.
What happened on Folly Beach on the Fourth of July was inevitable. We even got a preview of it on July 4, 2009, when an estimated 1,000 boaters invaded nearby Morris Island and left 1,000 pounds of litter that local volunteers had to clean up. In recent years Folly Beach has seen even rowdier behavior, with several highly publicized fights and arrests. The only surprise is that it took so long for an outburst like the one that happened two weeks ago to finally occur, for the people of Folly Beach to finally say, "Enough!"
My friends who live on Folly have apprised me over the years of their rising alarm and disgust about life there. Behavior that was once funky and nonconformist has become criminal and antisocial. Noise and litter are the least of their concerns. Sexual assaults, burglaries, and other thefts have been on the rise. People do not feel safe on the streets at night.
One of my friends lives near ground zero of the recent riot. She e-mailed me that she has witnessed men urinating and women throwing used tampons in her yard. A drunk called her a "fucking bitch" when she complained.
My friend doesn't really expect things to change. She says that when she was in court a couple of weeks ago to testify against some of her offenders, she saw a line of people paying fines for drunkenness, disorderly conduct, glass on the beach, or parking in someone's yard. She said she doesn't believe the City of Folly Beach wants that revenue stream to disappear.
After years of living at Folly, she says she may have finally had enough. "Goodbye, Folly Beach," she e-mailed. "The drunks can have it."
As one resident told town council last week, "I never thought I would see the day when Folly Beach would make Myrtle Beach look classy."
That might have been another overstatement. As someone who lived at Myrtle Beach for three years and wrote a book about the experience, I can tell you that Folly has a long way to go to make that standard. But people all along the south Atlantic coast point to Myrtle Beach as the place they do not want their towns to become.
I don't blame them. I don't want to see Charleston or Folly Beach or Sullivan's Island or any of the other tourist towns along our coast become another Myrtle Beach. Which is not to say there is anything wrong with Myrtle Beach. It has its history and its culture and its market. People who go there generally know what they are looking for and where to find it. I just don't want them coming here thinking it's Myrtle Beach.
But even Myrtle seems to be rethinking its place in the tourism industry. It has taken steps in recent years to curb motorcycle rallies, littering, and other obnoxious behavior. I wish them luck, as I wish Folly Beach, but it is hard to change habit and behavior once they are established.
This is where the personal freedom monkeys usually start whining and screaming about their god-given rights, to which I say, "Aw, shut the fuck up!" Drunks, motorcyclists, and litterers are not the only ones with rights. The people who live in these coastal towns have the right to a safe, clean, livable environment. Even Myrtle Beach residents like to sleep at night and have access to their streets and roads. They don't want their town treated like a motorcross track or a garbage dump by people who obviously have no respect for them.
The people of Charleston County could take a lesson from Myrtle Beach. We have our own drunks, litterers, and noisemakers who need to learn some manners. Let's treat them like the public nuisances they are.