The 1989 “Greekfest Riots” in Virginia Beach, Va. was a clash between police in the beach town and thousands of Black college students celebrating a popular annual event. Because of the tactical deployment of city police and the state’s National Guard, many attendees of Greekfest took it that they were unwanted there and haven’t returned since. Racial tensions in Virginia Beach were already tense as many Blacks steered clear of the city even before the riots.
But in the late 80’s, the Greekfest event grew in popularity and began to attract large crowds. By 1988, Greekfest attendees overwhelmed the city and widespread looting was reported. Then mayor Meyera E. Oberndorf, announced that Greekfest had grown too large for the city to handle.
Mayor Oberndorf would not allow Greekfest organizers to rent facilities, so 100,000 attendees took to the oceanfront. Word got out to the revelers that the state’s National Guard was called in to monitor activities, which created a situation that pitted Black college students and other young people against an aggressive police and military force.
According to several accounts, cops began enforcing curfews and arresting attendees for petty offenses such as jaywalking, loud music and related charges. Others had to show their hotel keys everywhere they went, and many weren’t allowed to enter stores unless they were in small groups.
There were also reports of police roughing up people on the street. Attendees viewed these tactics as racist and grew tired of being forced away from the beach.
On September 3, 1989 thousands took to the streets in anger. Public Enemy’s popular “Fight The Power” song, which came from Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing” film was said to be the soundtrack that riled up the masses. Over 100 storefronts were damaged and a reported 650 people arrested over the next two days.
A flying object thrown from a hotel balcony killed a police horse. A clear record of how many people were hurt is unclear, but several injuries were reported. The riots soured Black people from attending the beach for for two decades, with groups of families now just visiting the southeastern Virginia region in recent times.
Citing looting and numerous examples of disorderly conduct, officials balked at claims from the NAACP that racism was the key source of the division in the riots.
(Photo: WTKR Screenshot)