OCEAN CITY — Mayor Rick Meehan has gotten a lot of nasty emails since last Saturday night’s Boardwalk melee that led to a dozen arrests.
He says while some are very hard to read, he’s tried to respond to each and every one of them, assuring people of resort-wide public safety despite what he calls an “unfortunate but isolated incident.”
“Many emails said that they are scared and they don’t feel comfortable on the Boardwalk anymore from a safety perspective, but after a little bit of back and forth via email and I explain to them the facts, most people are realizing that this isn’t the norm, it’s the exception,” said Meehan.
While the police investigation determined early in the process that the large contingent of young African American people on the Boardwalk were gathered as part of an independently organized College Beach Weekend and not the Black Lives Matter movement, Meehan says easing public concerns that intensified due to fear-based, knee jerk reactions has proven more difficult.
“There has been a lot of misinformation and a lot of people jumping to conclusions,” said Meehan. “It was not a riot, and it was not Black Lives Matter demonstration. We know that to be true. Everyone needs to learn the facts and be very clear with what has occurred.”
Yet, what occurred late last Saturday night and into Sunday morning was in fact unsettling and scary to many who were there, as witnesses say large groups of unruly young people were looking to cause trouble and intentionally assumed an intimidating presence.
Meehan also confirmed that the tram service on the Boardwalk was shut down just before 8 p.m. last Saturday due to tram drivers feeling intimidated by threatening comments.
“That’s the first time I recall the tram being shut down,” said Meehan.
This week, Boardwalk merchants were eager to get things back to normal and to do their part to ease concerns about a larger issue concerning public safety.
Lee Gerachis, owner of Malibu’s Surf Shop on 8th Street, says the summer has largely been incident-free before last Saturday night, but conceded that the risk of things crossing the line from sketchy to scary can happen at the drop of the hat when the volume of people is so high on the Boardwalk.
“There is a negativity that comes along with mobs,” said Gerachis. “Any large group of people who congregate together with the same agenda, regardless of their skin color or age, have the ability to cause problems and scare some people.”
Furthermore, Gerachis pointed to the annual gathering of high school seniors or the popular H2O car event as other examples where small pods of large groups can trigger the “a few bad apples ruins the bunch” perception.
“It was exactly like Senior Week,” said Gerachis. “Most of the college kids I met were very nice, but just like with the high school graduates, you get 60% of the people who are there to have a good time, and you have 20% of the people who could go either way and 20% who are there purely to cause trouble. Last weekend was no different, but you have to be honest with yourself and realize that there was a different demographic up there and people may have had the reaction that they did because of that.”
Gerachis says he doesn’t agree with the knee-jerk reactions and fear-based rhetoric that many locals have expressed on social media this week, but he is a firm believer in a strong police presence on the resort’s famous wooden walkway.
“I watched those officers handle the situation the other night and they were unbelievable,” said Gerachis. “They were poised and controlled until they were forced to act, and when they did, they performed exactly as they should have. I believe in police presence on the Boardwalk and in some instances, I think it wouldn’t hurt to have an even larger presence.”
Yet, some business owners believe too much police presence on the Boardwalk could send the wrong message to tourists and locals.
“There’s a fine line between having a strong police presence in a seaside resort town and making people feel like they are visiting a police state,” said Greg Shockley, owner of Shenanigans Irish Pub and Grill. “I think the police do a fantastic job in letting us know what types of events are coming to town, and I think the presence is comfortable for people.”
Shockley and Gerachis agree that the city can’t lawfully stop any group from coming to town, and both noted, as did Meehan, that the College Beach Weekend is an unsanctioned town event that’s largely organized on social media outlets.
“All the town can do is manage what shows up,” said Shockley. “It’s not like they are sending out invitations to all these groups that some people don’t like. The city has always been very good at handling what comes to town, even in the event of unfortunate incidents like what happened last Saturday.”
Bob Givarz, owner of the Alaska Stand on the Boardwalk, believes the melee that led to the arrests was a drawback to the resort’s allure.
“I have to chalk this up to a problem of success,” said Givarz. “I’d much rather deal with a few isolated incidents rather than worry about how we are going to get the masses over the Bay Bridge. Yes, it’s a bit of a black eye but it’s nothing the town can’t handle or overcome.”
Meehan said the public sometimes needs to be reminded that Ocean City, however steeped in nostalgia in people’s minds, is not immune to the vast changes and tensions that exist in our world.
“This was an exception to the rule, but it isn’t to be ignored and we haven’t ignored it. We’ve addressed it,” said Meehan. “The city doesn’t do knee jerk reactions and most people want to be reassured that the city is prepared to handle things like this, and we are reminding them that we are.”