Dred Scott!

Spring Bling

Riviera Beach could learn a thing or two about hospitality. The city recently hosted BET's Spring Bling '07 — its own version of MTV's televised spring break debauchery, only with a lot more color — and seemed terrified of the urban crowd that showed up.

The three-day event featured hip-pop luminaries like Young Jeezy, MIMS, Jim Jones, and a host of other shit-hot artists who are regularly featured on the television network. And while BET isn't the best barometer for talent, it is good at promoting the music of young black artists. Only two cities have hosted Spring Bling during its seven-year history — Daytona Beach and Miami Beach — so when I heard that members of Riviera Beach's City Council were lobbying for the annual event to be held locally, it sounded like a good thing. The only problem was that not all of nearby Singer Island's residents shared the enthusiasm.

I wasn't particularly interested in checking it out — frankly, the bling just isn't my thing — until early reports started surfacing that some local citizens were hiring their own private security for the weekend and that certain businesses — seemingly in need of a brief economic boom — were closing down instead in fear of the audience that BET attracts. Critics predicted that Riviera Beach would be flooded with criminals... and homicides and gunfights and that such an element would ruin all the festivities.

Murder and mayhem? What is this, the OK Corral? Sure, hip-hop has a bad reputation, one that is justly deserved sometimes, but this was a bit much. Of course, most of the naysayers holding these viewpoints are white, and they weren't comfortable with thousands of black kids — college students or not — bringing an urban element to their sleepy little city by the sea. The most obvious question was: If this were a white spring break event with topnotch rock 'n' roll bands on the bill, would the folks of Riviera Beach react the same way?

I headed to Spring Bling hoping many of these fears were exaggerated, but much to my chagrin, the city's reaction was more aggressive than expected. And they certainly didn't make those who were showing up to spend money and have a good time feel welcome.

Checkpoints and roadblocks were the first sign of trouble. Police in riot gear were everywhere, as were law officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives; Code Enforcement; and the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office. Though the FBI has a special hip-hop task force assigned to monitor rappers (which is the only music genre in American history to have this distinction), it was still surprising that the feds were called in for a spring break event.

Talking to locals on the scene, it seemed the show of force was the biggest disappointment of the weekend. "I've been to the black spring break in Daytona and South Beach, but this is the worst I've ever seen a community react," said Palm Beach-based reggae artist Squad, who was at the event. "There's a lot of [police] all over the place, and things are very restricted. People are saying this is going to be the first and last time that BET comes here. It's not a welcoming experience."

Some police officers said the same thing.

"Everybody is having a great time, people aren't being disrespectful, and we really haven't encountered any problems all weekend," said a white Riviera Beach police officer who asked not to be named. "The fact that we're out here like this in full force because of a hip-hop concert is kind of ridiculous." Other unnamed law enforcement officials felt the same way. Overall, the excessive police presence was an embarrassment. Ironically, Roseanne Brown, public information officer for the Riviera Police Department, said there weren't any arrests all weekend.

Local resident John Bear — white, retired, mid-60s, gray hair, who looked about as hip-hop as Elmer Fudd — thought the police presence was overblown. "If I was one of these kids walking around, I'd feel offended," Bear said. "I know it's a predominately black venue, but these kids aren't going to cause any trouble. And the fact that police are pulling people out of their cars and searching them for no reason is sad."

But the mild panic caused by Spring Bling still speaks to a more pervasive issue: that hip-hop needs to clean up its act to gain respect in the public eye. When the reputation of a music genre causes such a stir and people are forced into police checkpoints because of it, something must change in the way hip-hoppers reveal themselves to the world. So as BET's Spring Bling airs this weekend, what unsuspecting viewers around the country won't see is the way black and brown youth of Palm Beach County and beyond celebrated three days of hip-hop without the slightest aspect of violence ruining the weekend. It's more than just an "I told you so"; it's forward progress. But those who barricaded themselves behind closed doors in fear will probably miss that point as well.

 
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