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More Than 100 Stores Looted in Resort City Riot During Fraternity Fest

September 4, 1989

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (AP) _ Thousands of young people here for a Labor Day weekend fraternity gathering went on a rampage down the main thoroughfare of this resort city early Sunday, firing shots and looting more than 100 stores.

After a tense but uneventful day in which store owners cleaned up gutted storefronts, police turned out at mid-evening in riot gear and cleared the streets, arresting dozens more young people during a 35-minute sweep.

Two men were wounded by gunshots in the earlier confrontation with police, and at least two others were injured, authorities said.

City officials say some of the estimated 100,000 young people who clogged the resort strip looted more than 100 stores along Atlantic Avenue, the city’s main beachfront thoroughfare.

Police said 160 people were arrested and brought into the station between Friday evening and early Sunday evening, and 395 others had been issued citations for various offenses. They did not have a breakdown of the kinds of arrests.

At the request of city officials, Gov. Gerald L. Baliles dispatched a military police detachment from the National Guard and state police troopers to the area.

″It is a local law enforcement situation and it is being managed by city officials and state police officials who are on the scene,″ said Baliles’ press secretary, Chris Bridge.

She said Baliles ″is receiving state police briefings and reports on - I don’t know if its an hourly basis - but he’s received several reports today.″

At 8 p.m. Sunday, city officials closed the downtown beach area to incoming traffic. State and local police patrolled the area on foot and by helicopter.

Several people threw bottles at state troopers, who began making arrests, and onlookers taunted National Guardsmen who marched through city streets, armed with batons and assault rifles.

Shortly after 9:30 p.m., about 75 Virginia Beach police officers formed a wedge and began moving south on Atlantic Avenue, which runs parallel to the oceanfront one block away.

The Virginia Beach officers were followed by a state police armored truck, which announced over a public address system that the approximately 350 young people in the street represented an unlawful assembly.

Officers were pelted with bottles as they walked along the street and made arrests. Several officers who went into an adjoining motel parking lot to arrest someone were showered by bottles thrown from a balcony above.

By 10:05, Atlantic Avenue was empty except for several hundred police officers. Dozens were arrested during the course of the 35-minute sweep.

Less than an hour later, Mayor Meyera E. Oberndorf held a news conference.

″We will not tolerate lawlessness from anybody,″ she said. ″Let the word go out that Virginia Beach will not stand by and watch as unruly individuals trash our city.″

She said the decision to sweep the streets came after reports of looting and the throwing of bricks and bottles at police. She said she was unsure who specifically made the decision to clear the streets.

The initial disturbances began around 2 a.m. and stretched along a 30-block section of the street, police said.

A witness said police had attempted to disperse groups of fraternity students, most from predominantly black colleges along the East Coast, who were showing off dance steps on Atlantic Avenue. At one point in the fracas, police lobbed a smoke bomb into a crowd of people.

″It’s been like we’re being singled out because we are young and black,″ said Charles Stone, 23, of New York City.

City officials were considering imposing a curfew to prevent further violence. In addition, the city has asked state officials to suspend the sale of alcohol in the city until Tuesday.

″I can assure you that this type of behavior is not condoned and will not be tolerated now or in the future,″ said Mayor Meyera E. Oberndorf. She declined to answer questions, saying she did not have details.

The majority of the mob were college students in town for the annual Labor Day weekend Greekfest for members of fraternities and sororities, authorities said. During last year’s Greekfest, police were forced to clear smaller groups of young people from the street.

Some witnesses said police overreacted to the students’ activities.

″They’ve been trying to regulate things that don’t need regulating,″ said Paul Williams, a 21-year-old Temple University student who said he watched the confrontation begin from his motel balcony.

″Last year, everything was real nice. There was no violence ... but this year the place was jammed with police and they were hassling people,″ he said.

They said police formed a ″V″ with six to eight mounted officers backed by police in riot gear, and began moving south down Atlantic pushing students off the street and sidewalks with clubs.

Several witnesses said they saw tear gas or a smoke bomb fired to disperse the crowd.

City officials first said neither was used. Later, they said a smoke bomb was fired into the crowd to indicate wind direction should tear gas be necessary.

Diane Roche, a spokeswoman for the city, said tear gas was not used, nor were any shots fired by police. She said police were unsure what set off the incident.

By the time order was restored Sunday morning along the beachfront avenue of hotels and shops, merchants said it looked chaotic.

″I didn’t know these kinds of things existed,″ said Arnie Cohen whose Atlantic Avenue shop was spared. A jewelry story next door was looted, its display cases left shattered on the sidewalk.

Merchants and city crews cleaned up the damage Sunday under the eyes of flak-jacketed MPs armed with assault rifles. By 6 p.m., the National Guardsmen were off the street and the sidewalks were crowded with visitors. Police in riot gear were on most street corners.

″We just hope we can make it through tonight,″ said Bobbi Basnight of Logo Lil’s, a T-shirt shop. Though her shop was not damaged, Ms. Basnight did not plan to reopen this weekend.

″We tried to welcome these people. We’d been hearing rumors all week that something was going to happen,″ she said.

Denise Pinto and Maria Badinno stood in the ruins of a clothing store. Of the 7,000 garments in the store, 100 were left about the floor.

The only things left on the shelves were signs warning that shoplifters would be prosecuted.

″It’s awful. ... We don’t even have our cash register,″ Ms. Pinto said.

Police closed off Atlantic Avenue through most of Sunday. Merchants said they were losing business in what is generally the best weekend of the year for resort merchants. Traditionally, the Labor Day weekend is the grand finale of the summer beachgoing season.

″It’s a major loss,″ Ms. Basnight said. ″We would have made about $3,000. Now it’s down to zero.″

Brenda Kanz, front desk manager at the Kona Kai Motel on Atlantic Avenue, said Sunday morning that authorities were not allowing guests to leave the motel unless they were checking out to go home.

″This is a heck of a way to end the season,″ she said.

A nursing supervisor at Sentara-Norfolk General Hospital, who asked not to be identified, said shooting victim John Thomas, 28, of Forestville, Md., was in stable condition. The other wounded man, Charles Robinson, 25, of Roselle, N.Y., was listed in fair condition at Virginia Beach Hospital.

Authorities said two other people were also injured, but it was not clear if those injuries were related to the riot. One man was in critical condition with ijuries suffered when he fell from the fourth floor of a hotel, while another was critically injured in a car accident near the area where the riot occurred.

In 1986, a crowd of unruly college and high school students on spring break rampaged through Palm Springs, Calif., pelting police with rocks and bottles.

Beer-drinking youths on the crowded main boulevard of the desert resort dumped water into passing cars, and ripped bathing suit tops off of several young women during the melee, which lasted several hours.

Since then, police have called in reinforcements to monitor spring break crowds and make hundreds of arrests for relatively minor offenses such as public drunkenness, but there has been no repeat of the violence.

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