FEW WILL soon forget the grim debacle that occurred last year in Virginia Beach during the annual Labor Day celebration of students from black colleges and fraternities. Disturbances erupted and quickly spread, resulting in the near destruction of several businesses. More than 70 people -- civilians and law enforcement officials -- were injured, and some 160 arrests were made. Racial tensions were inflamed, and later repercussions included the ouster of four members of the Virginia Beach City Council.
Blame for the incident was justifiably widespread. City officials had foolishly shunned any role in planning and preparing for the three-day weekend event, even though a throng of more than 100,000 had been expected to participate. A commission assigned to study the melee found that law enforcement officials had first shown too little restraint and then just barely enough. On the other side of the dispute, there was no excuse at all for the vandalism and looting suffered by some 100 businesses along and near the oceanfront.
Fortunately, this past weekend's sequel to the event, dubbed "Laborfest" by city officials, showed that the lessons of the past have been learned. This welcome change was evident earlier this summer, when, after a series of racial incidents involving whites and blacks along the beach front, the local NAACP came forward to speak out against youth gang violence. Local ministers and community leaders accompanied police on oceanfront patrols, and calm was restored. Black leaders and city officials spent months planning events for the celebration and blocked off large sections of the area to vehicular traffic. Practically everyone, it seemed, was on good behavior.
The number of arrests was far lower than that experienced on a normal summer weekend. Some 42 ministers again were standing alongside police officers, and whites and blacks peacefully shared the oceanfront. Local troublemakers who, as it turned out, accounted for much of the vandalism and violence last year, stayed away from the affair and, although there was unease, no conflicts erupted.
There are still some hard feelings on all sides from last year's explosive events. Attendance by black students, for example, was far lower this year. But the city's black leaders, its elected officials, the police and the participants managed to accomplish what many thought was impossible after last year: a calm summer-ending celebration that many will later remember with mingled pride and relief.