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VOL. 133 | NO. 172 | Thursday, August 30, 2018

Memphis City Council Debates Reality vs. Perception on Beale

By Bill Dries

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“... We need to come up with a solution that works that will help us mitigate the risk of a catastrophic incident happening on Beale Street. It’s a powder keg.”

– Council chairman Berlin Boyd

A stabbing in the Beale Street entertainment district the Saturday night before Memphis City Council members took up safety and crowd-control recommendations from a task force added some urgency to an already emotional subject.

The district’s spring and summer peak season ends with the Labor Day weekend.

The council debate on Tuesday, Aug. 28, did little to resolve basic questions about the most controversial of the measures – the possible return of a cover charge to enter the city-owned district, which had been in place until 2017 on Saturday nights after 10 during the spring and summer peak.

Council members are still debating whether a cover charge was the reason there were no stampedes while it was in effect. Most of the stampedes before and after the “Beale Street Bucks” cover charge, as tallied by the Downtown Memphis Commission and Memphis Police, happened Saturday night into the predawn hours of Sunday.

“We know who is committing the violence. We know typically just based upon the stampedes, based upon the gang fights, based upon that information,” council chairman Berlin Boyd said. “We know the common denominator. It happens between that 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. time frame. We know that.”

But council member Martavius Jones said that’s also when such incidents happen in other parts of the city.

“I would like to know whether it was an overcrowding issue when we have these incidents,” Jones said. “I want to take a close look at the data and see if there is any cause and effect with that. … Is there any association that we can say – if we would have had this fee that this wouldn’t have happened. I still haven’t heard that.”

Council member Kemp Conrad says the data on stampedes is proof the cover charge is working.

“25% stampedes on Memorial Day weekend, 22 of 23 stampedes when no charge, 89% after midnight, and in 2018 40% of time over 10k on street,” Conrad tweeted Tuesday after the council session. “Frustrating two members blocked a debate on this reasonable position that prevented targeting on Saturdays only – the purported issue with study.”

“Those are the facts,” Conrad said during the council session of the data used by Event Risk Management Solutions (ERMS) to track stampedes in the district from 2013-2017. “All of these stampedes but one, we didn’t have the charge.”

Jones replied, “The facts are, too, that the incidents happened from 2 to 6 a.m. Part of the charging is for crowd control. What is that safe number? If we are talking about doing this for crowd control, safety control — if there are stampedes or an incident where there are 5,000 people on Beale Street that has nothing to do with crowd control.”

The ERMS report shows that less than half of the stampedes tracked from 2013 to 2017 were at times when the district was at capacity. ERMS puts capacity at around 13,000 people, not counting those in the nightclubs and other businesses.

“There does not appear to be a direct correlation between density and probability of stampedes,” the preliminary report read. The report instead concludes the stampedes are triggered by “deliberate anti-social behavior” and driven by “anxiety” – “general fear and anxiety of visitors becoming the victim of violent crime.”

The task force and council members, in the past, have questioned why police couldn’t simply close the district to any new entries once it reaches a certain headcount and reopen it when the number drops.

Council member Jamita Swearengen, who led the charge to abolish the cover charge entirely in November 2017, said the charge on Saturdays was “racially polarizing” and a bad message to visitors to the city as well as Memphians.

“I can’t foresee charging an individual, first of all, to get on a public street,” she said. “They pay for parking. They pay for a cover charge to get in the business. They pay for the drinks. They pay for food. Is there anything for individuals in the city of Memphis to do free of charge?”

Swearengen noted Overton Square doesn’t charge to get into the square area. “And they don’t have those types of problems,” she said. “I think we need to beef up security. But I would hate for us to look like we’re Dodge City.”

The council first voted to lower the $10 cover charge to $5 and eliminate coupons from Beale Street merchants for purchases in the nightclubs by those who pay the cover. The council then voted to abolish the cover charge entirely.

Conrad’s solution was for the council to accept other recommendations from the task force and its consultant, ERMS, apart from the cover. He then moved to make the cover charge applicable at any point where the head count in the district is more than 10,000 people, without specifying a particular night.

That brought Boyd to the reality of perception.

“If you say it’s on an as-needed basis, what would constitute as needed?” he asked. “Is it when the African-American kids come on the street that it’s needed?”

Boyd headed the task force that made the recommendations and it included Memphis Police, Beale Street merchants on both sides of the cover charge controversy and the Downtown Memphis Commission.

Boyd asked if the solution is to open up Beale to auto traffic at 9 p.m. just to get people out of the street and into nightclubs.

“We need to find a resolution – a solution to the problem. Right now, we’ve been fortunate not to have any fatalities on Beale Street,” he said. “I just think we need to come up with a solution that works that will help us mitigate the risk of a catastrophic incident happening on Beale Street. It’s a powder keg.”

He also said there is the perception of the cover charge to consider.

“The problem is as long as it looks like it’s a discriminatory act or practice, folks in the city of Memphis are not going to like it. Therefore, if it looks like you are charging black folks on one particular night, it’s going to raise all kinds of hell and backlash to us,” Boyd said. “It’s a perception issue. And if we said we can charge Monday through Friday, everybody would be cool with it. I’m just putting it out here.”

Conrad agreed, in making the case for his amended recommendation on the cover charge. “I don’t see anything in here about Saturday nights.”

Conrad’s move to add the other recommendations and the amended item on the cover charge to this week’s council agenda was blocked with the objection of Jones and Swearengen to suspending the rules. With that, the item is on the council’s agenda for discussion and a possible vote at the first council meeting in September.

Council member Ford Canale was among those who argued to accept the recommendations and leave the cover charge for a later discussion.

“We need to take some of these recommendations and start putting them into place so that we are proactive instead of reactive,” he said. “I don’t think we need to let a lot of good recommendations be thrown out because of one thing. … There’s a lot of other good items in this whole package.”

Even though there is no cover charge, there are still five security checkpoints to enter the district on Saturday nights that include wanding for weapons. Those on all sides of the cover charge issue questioned how someone got a knife through the checkpoints with or without a cover charge.

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