Leaders hope a resurgent Something in the Water can help the thorny race relations that have plagued Oceanfront events
In the early morning hours of September 3, 1989, police officers in riot gear marched down Atlantic Avenue in Virginia Beach.
Roughly 100,000 people, largely Black college students who’d arrived for a weekend party known as Greekfest, were ordered to disperse or be arrested. TV cameras captured white cops shoving Black folks into the backs of paddy wagons.
“As the taunting, rock throwing and looting intensified, so did the police reaction in an attempt to restore order,” a commission later wrote. “These reactions were, however, viewed as discriminatory by visitors and many who viewed media coverage of the incidents. As seen on television, portions of the events, actions and reactions reminded some of the civil rights confrontations of the 1960’s.”
Greekfest died that weekend, but Oceanfront party weekends geared toward for young, Black crowds would return and evolve.
Racial tensions plagued these events, the crowds receiving less-than-warm welcomes from some local residents and oceanfront businesses.
Pharrell Williams’ Something in the Water festival was conceived in 2018 as a way to use these weekends to rebuild trust between Black visitors and Virginia Beach. Leaders hope it still can, as it returns after a three year absence. But Black leaders say while attitudes have changed since the Greekfest riot, there’s still work to do.
Greekfest and the riot of '89
In the 1980s, historically Black fraternities and sororities from local colleges would gather over Labor Day weekend for an annual picnic at Croatan Beach.
A promoter began marketing the event to other Greek organizations outside Hampton Roads at some point, turning the small event into a weekend-long college party.
In 1988, tens of thousands of young people – many of them Black – descended on the Oceanfront, and an overcrowded event at the Pavilion resulted in property damage and police action.
City officials then made it their mission to discourage the crowds the next year.
A later report by a commission to study the events of Greekfest 1989 concluded the city refused to prepare for the event, denied the use of public facilities and failed to plan or organize any alternative events.
“City officials left the clear impression they were doing everything possible to discourage promoters and group events,” the report reads.
Black community leaders warned Beach leaders students were coming regardless.
Tens of thousands of college-aged people once again arrived at the Oceanfront for Greekfest 1989 - with nothing to do and nowhere to go besides the public streets, sidewalks and beaches of the Oceanfront.
The 1990 Labor Day Commission report says interactions between visitors and local businesses and police were positive Friday and Saturday, though media reports feature a slightly different experience for some visitors.
A Norfolk State student named Derrick Williams later told a reporter from the Washington Post he and others were harassed by police and shopkeepers while they tried to buy food or drink.
“Like many of the other college students at the beach, Williams felt the city did not want him there,” the Post reported.
City officials estimated the crowd size at 100,000 as of midnight on Saturday, Sept. 2, 1989. Witnesses all said it was the largest crowd they’d ever seen, and far larger than previous 20-30,000 person gatherings.
The city’s report says locals, likely high school students, used the cover of the huge crowd early Sunday morning as an opportunity to loot Oceanfront businesses. The report says few of the visitors participated in the looting.
When the looting started, Virginia Beach police were undermanned and ill-prepared to deal with making arrests in a crowd that size and “The situation deteriorated rapidly in the early hours of Sunday morning.”
The Washington Post reported at the time that crowds began chanting “Fight the Power.” It was a reference to a 1989 Public Enemy song of the same name about protesting abuse of power. The song was recorded for Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” a film that had been released earlier that summer about police brutality and a riot sparked by racism.
The commission report noted there were mounting racial tensions nationally - citing things like media coverage of South African apartheid and the release of “Do the Right Thing” - and locally. The report cites “cross-burnings in Portsmouth, distribution of hate literature in Virginia Beach…and the murder of a teacher at a Virginia Beach Christian school that had racial overtones.”
The report says race became a way to distinguish friend from foe - the almost entirely Black crowd of college students and the largely white police force.
As looting continued and the large crowd grew louder, Virginia Beach Police retreated, called in the National Guard and donned riot gear.
“As the taunting, rock throwing and looting intensified, so did the police reaction in an attempt to restore order. These reactions were, however, viewed as discriminatory by visitors and many who viewed media coverage of the incidents,” the Labor Day Commission wrote.
The police march down Atlantic Avenue was broadcast by local TV news. The Labor Day Commission said “on television, portions of the events, actions and reactions reminded some of the civil rights confrontations of the 1960s.”
Black leaders would later criticize the city, saying heavy-handed policing touched off a race riot.
The riot became national news, described by the Washington Post in the weeks that followed as “an allegory for racial misunderstanding and hostility,” the latest in a series of racial conflicts on the streets of American cities.
Somewhere around 160 people were arrested and 70 people were injured, including 30 police officers, according to the Washington Post. Oceanfront businesses sustained around $1.4 million in damage along a 10-block stretch of Atlantic Avenue.
The Labor Day Commission ultimately concluded the city’s wishful thinking that the students would simply not come if they were made unwelcome, failed, and contributed to the violence.
The commission’s primary recommendation to prevent another incident like Greekfest 1989 was that the city should do what it refused to do: program events to focus the energies of the crowd.
After 1989, Greekfest was effectively dead. Black fraternities and sororities stopped coming to the Oceanfront, unwilling to be associated with Greekfest after what happened.
And Virginia Beach bore the stain of a very public incident of racial conflict.
Eric Majette is the president of the Virginia Beach chapter of the NAACP. He’s also a member of Kappa Alpha Psi and attended those early Greekfests, before it moved to the Oceanfront from Croatan Beach.
“(Black people) felt like that (they) were not invited to come to the Oceanfront and have some of the same privileges without being harassed,” Majette says.
“(Greekfest ‘89) broke a level of trust between the Black community and Virginia Beach.”
The rise of College Beach Weekend
With Greek organizations uninterested in Greekfest, the crowd was much smaller for the 1990 city-backed event “Laborfest.”
Daily-Press columnist Ray Garland wrote that the city implemented “alternative events designed to smother the spontaneous fun” of the weekend, complete with police checkpoints and “jail buses tucked behind the Cavalier Hotel just in case.”
Greekfest as it had been was officially dead.
But the spirit of Greekfest was revived years later, now with college-aged students who would've been children in 1989. The new weekend in April became College Beach Weekend, a spring break weekend trip popular among historically Black colleges and universities.
College Beach Weekend became viewed as a kind of spiritual successor to Greekfest, though Greek organizations avoided official participation or endorsement.
The event really started to take off with the rise of social media, where it was heavily marketed to college students on sites like Facebook.
Crowds grew to the tens of thousands in the mid-2010’s. And with the crowds came a reputation that the weekend was filled with shootings, stabbings and chaos.
The Virginian-Pilot showed in 2019 that College Beach Weekend doesn’t actually attract any more crime than other events that draw big crowds, like Fourth of July.
Still, some Oceanfront residents and businesses called for the city to shut down the 30,000-person event. More than 11,000 people signed a Change.org petition in 2017 to stop College Beach Weekend. Several comments on the petition described attendees as “ignorant.”
State Sen. Aaron Rouse served on the city council between 2018 and 2023. He said the city fumbled its handling of CBW.
“I think there was this presumption that those young college students, primarily African-Americans, college students that were coming here, were going to somehow restart Greekfest,” Rouse said.
“The approach of that weekend was ‘let’s get more police, let’s get more security, let’s close our businesses, let’s make it so unwelcoming that they wouldn't want to come, are not going to come back. And that was a huge mistake.”
A group was formed by an Oceanfront business group and issued another report in 2018.
Called the Vision Task Force, its report noted that “troublemakers” and perpetrators of crimes during College Beach Weekend were largely locals, often high schoolers.
It also noted that race played a factor in negative perceptions.
“Most of the visitors during this weekend are young African Americans creating, for some Oceanfront business owners and residents, an escalating resentment that is focused on the race of the participants,” the report said.
That 2018 report called for the same solution that the Labor Day Commission prescribed 28 years earlier: the city and businesses taking the initiative to program events.
But the task force found businesses refused to consider solutions besides barring the visitors from the Oceanfront.
“Members of the Restaurant and Hotel associations have expressed 'they have no wish to pay for any activities or have the city pay for any activities because that would be perceived as a reward for bad behavior,’” the report says.
Majette, the NAACP head, was a member of the Vision Task force. He says many of the Oceanfront businesses closed for that weekend or locked up earlier in the evening than they normally would.
“The perception was that these Black kids were going to come into the Oceanfront and were going to destroy the Oceanfront,” Majette says.
Majette said many of those businesses were closing because of the demographics of the crowd - and, in part, because of echoes of Greekfest and fears of what may happen.
“Some of the restaurants decided, hey, you know, we don't want to deal with this drama, we don't want to deal with this. We want to protect our restaurants, you know? But at the same time, that's when the Black community felt like they would be discriminated against,” Majette said.
“We believe (race) was one of the determining factors. If not, why didn’t you do the same thing when there were other festivals that were 90% (white), and you didn’t shut down then.”
The Vision Task Force report came out in March 2018.
College Beach Weekend was just a few weeks away. No events were planned and little changed in the city’s approach. The weekend was peaceful until, despite a heavy police presence, three people were shot on Sunday night.
“You have all these kids coming into Virginia Beach … coming out to the Oceanfront with absolutely nothing to do,” Majette says. “That’s a formula for something to happen.”
Majette says after the Vision Task Force sought funding to program events during College Beach Weekend, the city came back later in the year saying they didn’t have the money.
Rouse, the councilman-turned-senator, said the resistance was born from some ingrained attitudes from longstanding power brokers.
“We still have a lot of those folks who've been in positions of power or in a position to effect change. When they let, whether it's fear or bias, get the best of them, you won't have those recommendations come forth,” Rouse said. “They consider that the beach is only for a certain group of people or a certain race of people. And that's not you know, that's not healthy.”
Birth of Something in the Water
In October 2018, Virginia Beach native Pharrell Williams publicly poked his head into the conversation.
Williams pitched city leaders and oceanfront businesses on a big slate of programming, a wide-ranging festival with several different events for attendees to participate in, from the Convention Center to concerts on the open sand.
Thus, Something in the Water was born. Between the public pitch in October and the inaugural festival in April 2019, Rouse said they really had to sell locals on Something in the Water.
“No one wanted to touch it because of this history of Greekfest. And so no one wanted to speak to or answer the hard questions from the community about safety, about transportation, and about inviting, you know, visitors from outside into our community,” Rouse said. “There wasn't buy in from local businesses as well, who didn't want to see their businesses one way or another affected. And so there was this huge fear of what this means to invite these people to our community.”
Rouse, who grew up in Norfolk and Virginia Beach in the 80’s and 90’s, said Greekfest is part of a history many in the city don’t want to talk about.
“We didn't know. No one spoke of it. You know, no one mentioned it,” Rouse said. "Only when I was the only council member at the time to go out there and talk to the community and get the buy-in for Something in the Water did I start hearing of the stories of Greekfest.”
D. Nachnani is the owner of surf shop Coastal Edge and the president of the Atlantic Avenue Association, a group of Oceanfront businesses.
When reached for this story and asked why restaurants and businesses closed their doors during College Beach Weekend, Nachnani declined to speak to what happened in the mid-2010's, saying that "we were a different city."
"I know you want to concentrate on the past, but all of us as a community need to concentrate on the present, what city we are now and what we're becoming, and that is a secular city that celebrates inclusiveness," Nachnani said.
Mayor Bobby Dyer says authorizing SITW was one of the first big things that landed on his desk after he was elected as mayor.
“A lot of people told me not to do it. They thought it was going to be just an exacerbation of College Beach weekend,’” Dyer said.
The event went ahead in April 2019 and attracted national headlines. During the weekend, Williams’ own set featured surprise appearances from some of his biggest collaborators, including Snoop Dogg and Jay-Z, which scored write-ups in major entertainment media.
The inaugural festival was lauded as a huge success by local leaders and the press, heralded as a monument to both economic prosperity and racial reconciliation.
“(The festival said) no matter what you look like, no matter where you come from, no matter what you're into, that you know, you're human and you you deserve to be a part of something special,” Rouse said.
There was no violence and the number of arrests was low for such a heavily-attended event weekend at the Oceanfront.SITW brought $24 million to the region, the majority to Virginia Beach itself.
But issues lingered. Some Oceanfront businesses still chose to close their doors to the sell-out crowd - a fact that was not lost on attendees.
"Let's not forget, because we do not have short term memory, how most of the restaurants and businesses on the strip were shut down doing (the) Something in the Water music festival," Charmaine Cannon, who runs a Facebook group of more than 16,000 festival fans, wrote in 2021. "The doors were closed. We knew we weren't welcomed."
Plans for the festival to continue at the Oceanfront in 2020 and 2021 were thwarted by the Covid-19 Pandemic and restrictions on large gatherings.
Then, came the killing of Donovon Lynch.
The Lynch shooting and the departure of SITW
On a busy March evening in 2021, after a fight broke out and a 28-year-old bystander was shot and killed, police were swarming the Oceanfront.
Donovon Lynch, a 25-year-old Black man and a cousin of Pharrell’s who’d worked on Something in the Water in 2019, was walking with a friend not far from the site of the shooting when he was shot by a Virginia Beach police officer.
The official story of what happened shifted a couple of times in the aftermath of the shooting.
First, police said Lynch had been armed. Then, they walked that back. Later, they said Lynch had been “brandishing” a gun and in a later court filing contended that Lynch pointed the gun at the officer.
The officer did not turn on his body camera before encountering Lynch. He ultimately faced no charges for the shooting.
Lynch’s family filed a wrongful death suit against the city.
His cousin’s killing and the way the city handled the aftermath struck a nerve with Williams. He told city officials in the fall that he wouldn’t be bringing Something in the Water back to Virginia Beach.
After City Manager Patrick Duhaney sent him a letter begging him to reconsider, Williams shot back.
“When we did the festival, it was to ease racial tension, to unify the region, bring about economic development opportunities and broaden the horizons of the local business community. We achieved those things!” Williams wrote.
“I wish the same energy I’ve felt from Virginia Beach leadership upon losing the festival would have been similarly channeled following the loss of my relative’s life.”
In that letter, Williams said the city was run with “toxic energy.” That phrase caused a stir, leaving many wondering what exactly Williams meant by that.
Fans immediately pegged that as a euphemism for racism in Virginia Beach, though Williams has not elaborated. Efforts to reach him for comment for this story were not returned.
Lynch’s killing and Williams’ response made clear that 2019’s successful festival had not resolved all of the city’s issues.
Majette, the NAACP president, said the first Something in the Water helped change perceptions of Virginia Beach - at least for that weekend. But there were those who’d been skeptical that it meant real change coming from Something in the Water.
“Almost like having this big Something in the Water event, this big party, but at the end of the day, after the party leaves, are you going back to your old ways?” he said.
After Williams pulled the plug, Majette says “some people kept saying, ‘see, I told you so.’”
City leaders worked exhaustively to try to win the event back.
Williams hosted the 2022 iteration of the festival in Washington, D.C. the weekend of the Juneteenth holiday. Around 25,000 showed up for another successful festival, though attendees did complain of health, safety and crowd control issues.
It’s not clear exactly what changed for Pharrell Williams between the D.C. festival this year when he announced he was bringing it back to Virginia Beach in the fall of 2022.
Rouse was one who was talking regularly with Williams when they were discussing bringing the festival back.
He points to things like a judge’s 2021 ruling that struck down the city’s voting system as discriminatory as evidence that things are changing in Virginia Beach.
“Virginia Beach used to be a sundown town where African-Americans had to be fingerprinted in order to work at the Oceanfront,” Rouse said.
“I think the fact that we have a new voting system, the fact that you have five new council members on board from various backgrounds, various generations, I think what you have is an opportunity for the city to to progress in a way that it listens to everybody in a community and values all the voices in our in our city.”
One material difference from 2019: the city will be kicking in up to $2 million to fund aspects of the festival this year. The city council approved the incentives in December. The 2019 festival was run with no direct city money.
Mayor Dyer says that’s a small price to pay for what they expect to get out of the festival - and not just the financial return.
“This is also passive advertising to the rest of the nation and the world that we're not a toxic environment, we are a welcoming environment,” he said.
A week after the incentives were approved, Virginia Beach also announced it had settled the wrongful death lawsuit over Lynch’s shooting.
The city conceded in a statement that Lynch’s killing “never should have occurred” and agreed to pay his family $3 million.
Now, officials say they believe the return of the festival is a step in the right direction, a chance to heal old wounds and a sign that Virginia Beach is shedding that “toxic energy” stamp.
“Race relations are always going to be contentious,” Dyer says. “Do we have some problems we have to address? You betcha.”
Majette says there are still Black folks who have resolved never to step foot on Atlantic Avenue or spend a dime at the Oceanfront.
But attitudes of some are softening, in part because of Something in the Water.
“Friends of mine, they just started coming back to the oceanfront after 20 years,” he says. “I think that we are making progress.”
Audio of Greekfest '89 is provided courtesy of WVEC. Audio from the Something in the Water festival in 2019 comes from Sariah Tunstall