Tybee officials prepare Orange Crush beach party restrictions as criticism grows louder

Savannah mayor among those speaking out regarding island community’s crowd control tactics ahead of weekend bash.
Tybee city workers place traffic barricades along U.S. 80 Tuesday in preparation for the Orange Crush beach party. (Adam Van Brimmer/AJC)

Credit: Adam Van Brimmer

Credit: Adam Van Brimmer

Tybee city workers place traffic barricades along U.S. 80 Tuesday in preparation for the Orange Crush beach party. (Adam Van Brimmer/AJC)

TYBEE ISLAND — The Orange Crush spring break beach party is approaching this seaside town like a slow-moving tropical storm, and local government officials are making hurricanelike preparations.

On Monday, Tybee officials closed one parking lot to all but local residents, positioned barricades to bar access to neighborhoods and suspended metered parking along U.S. 80 in anticipation of this weekend’s arrival of visitors, many of them students of historically Black colleges and universities and other young Black adults. The preparations are part of Tybee’s plan to discourage and control crowds at the annual event after more than 100,000 attendees flooded the 3-square-mile island for Orange Crush last April.

Meanwhile, an event promoter moved to disassociate his ticketed events from the beach bash, scheduling them at clubs in Savannah. Britain Wigfall, whose application to host an Orange Crush food truck festival on Tybee was denied earlier this year, voiced concerns with a new state nuisance law allowing local governments to sue promoters of unpermitted events for damages.

“There are promoters who are saying to come to Orange Crush,” Wigfall said. “I don’t think you’ll stop people from coming down there. I don’t control that, and I don’t have anything to do with what’s going on at the beach.”

Another promoter, operating under the name Vibez R Us, continues to market a beach party for Saturday afternoon at the Tybee Pier. Chatham County officials said the pavilion and pier have not been rented for Orange Crush events for this weekend.

Representatives of Vibez R Us did not respond to repeated interview requests.

The Orange Crush preparations have sparked objections from off-island officials, including Savannah Mayor Van Johnson and Savannah NAACP Chairman Chad Mance. Critics say the crowd control measures are likely a violation of a 2018 agreement between the city of Tybee Island and the U.S. Department of Justice regarding regulation of Orange Crush and similar large events.

Johnson was among the Savannah State University students who organized Orange Crush events in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The event’s name stems from Savannah State’s school colors — blue and orange — and it was a city-approved event from 1988 to 1991.

Speaking at his weekly news conference, Johnson said the Tybee government is responsible for assuring the public has access to the beach and suggested officials have missed opportunities to put an organizational structure around Orange Crush over the past three decades.

“I would have taken it over and owned it. I would have created opportunities for space and parking and managed it rather than someone else coming in,” Johnson said. “The fact is, people are coming.”

Tybee’s shunning of Orange Crush while embracing and sanctioning other events catering to white participants has drawn criticism and suggestions that the race of attendees is an issue. Among the other gatherings that draw large crowds on Tybee are the Pirates’ Fest in the fall, Mardi Gras Tybee, the Tybee Irish Heritage Parade in the spring and the Beach Bum Parade in the summer.

The organizers of those other festivities do secure special event permits, and local residents are heavily involved in those gatherings.

The NAACP’s Mance questioned both the permitting process and the police presence predicted for this weekend’s event. He cited Tybee’s legacy as a whites-only beach that wasn’t desegregated until 1963 following a series of wade-in protests by young Black residents and said overpolicing can be used to bar people from public places.

“We want the response to be proportional and equitable,” he said. “We don’t want these young people to be overpoliced, and we want residents to feel safe.”

Wigfall said he also is disappointed by Tybee’s hesitation to embrace Orange Crush. An Americus resident, he’s made multiple trips to Tybee to attend City Council meetings in recent years and has engaged government officials about getting a permit to hold an official Orange Crush party, such as the food truck festival he proposed for this year.

Tybee Mayor Brian West said Wigfall’s application for the event was denied because it was incomplete.

“My game plan now and in the future has been to try to change the narrative about so-called Orange Crush,” Wigfall said. “People are still going to come, so let’s try and change the nature of it.”