- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 19, 2002

AUGUSTA, Ga.
The sidewalks were so crowded that people had to hold hands to stay together. Cars jammed the streets, with drivers stopping to dispense liquor from coolers in the trunk. Fistfights broke out. Dozens were arrested.
A monthly arts walk designed to draw people to downtown Augusta might have worked a little too well.
The big party and the crowd of mostly young black people alarmed business owners and raised racial tension in the city.
Now, Augusta leaders are trying to put a lid on the partying and figure out some other way to reinvigorate downtown.
The First Friday arts festival began five years ago as a way to show that downtown Augusta had more than boarded-up storefronts and lonely shops lining Broad Street. Several galleries would stay open late on the first Friday of the month, serving wine and snacks.
But the street party really started picking up last summer when word got out that Augusta had no law banning open containers of alcohol. A loophole that made it convenient for wine-tasting art patrons to skip from gallery to gallery suddenly helped draw as many as 10,000 people.
The event was thronged by young blacks cruising up and down Broad Street. At October's First Friday, fights broke out and 19 persons were arrested.
The rowdiness has strained race relations in this city of 200,000 that is half black and half white. It reminded some of Freaknik, the rowdy annual spring break gathering of black college students in Atlanta, 140 miles to the west.
"Absolute madness," Augusta bar owner Coco Rubio said. "It was a whole other crowd coming out younger, predominantly black, lots of open drunkenness. People were like, 'This is turning into Freaknik. We've got to stop this.'"
For November's First Friday, police added dozens of officers.
Police stood on every corner, and gallery owners canceled the outdoor music and sidewalk vendors. The crowd was down to several dozen.
"We can't hardly do anything here," said Shonovia Tillman, 22. "We can't even have a drink without having the police after us. They're trying to shut it all down."
Karis Collins, 25, said he felt intimidated by the police.
"We were just walking down the sidewalk, and these cops stopped us and told us to turn around. We were going down the alley, and I guess you're not allowed to be in the alley if you're black or something," he said.
City Administrator George Kolb, who is black, countered: "Anyone that thinks this is a racial issue, that's nonsense. Downtown is doing everything it can to be more accessible for everybody."
The problem, he said, is "people are coming downtown, doing a lot of drinking, blocking the traffic, and that will not be tolerated. They're just walking around, drinking out of the trunks of their cars, trying to make this a Freaknik, and that's not what this is."


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