Mayor Ron Littlefield has shifted his position against the Bessie Smith Strut just enough to make it seem there's still hope for the Strut's survival, but clearly not enough to assure the city's treasured 30-year-old street bash sufficient oxygen to keep going -- especially after the rap of potential violence he's laid on it.
The mayor has rightly, albeit reluctantly, retreated under public backlash from his sudden, unilateral decision two weeks ago to move the uniquely interracial Strut to the annual Riverbend festival's more intensely policed riverfront venue. Yet his new terms for allowing the Strut to continue on Martin Luther King Boulevard are so rigid, difficult and distant from the Strut's traditional operating format that they may well be insurmountable.
Littlefield now demands that a qualified organization take responsibility -- including liability insurance -- for the Strut; that the site be completely fenced or subject to another form of controlled access; and, that vendors be subject to permits based on location and licenses for sales of food and alcohol.
The first two conditions are overwhelmingly onerous. They appear to shred the umbrella of police security and governmental responsibility that local governments have provided for the Strut (and for the entire Riverbend Festival) without question for 29 years. And they appear to demand a nearly impossible level of apparently upgraded security measures for an area six-to-eight blocks long and two-blocks wide that city and county government officials themselves have never previously suggested was entirely possible, or actually needed.
Yet given the mayor's own articulated and amply broadcasted fears about potential violence from a tiny minority of black youths in street gangs, a cloud of liability not previously formed has been named and given shape -- never mind that urban violence could potentially erupt at any time and place in this city, or any other city.
Given the short time for a major event that is contracted and scheduled to occur on Monday, June 11, the mayor's perception of risk, and his demands for alternative responsibility and plans, may have come too late to do much about now. These conditions, if justified, should have been raised and discussed in the customary post-Riverbend critique of the city's biggest annual festival last year -- not when the Riverbend schedule is already fixed and advertised.
In fact, the Friends of the Festival -- the local entity established in 1983 to stage Riverbend's other events on the city's riverfront and the Strut on Martin Luther King Boulevard -- typically reviews how the June festival went, and what changes to consider for the next year. Yet the mayor's decision just two weeks ago to move the Strut was as much a surprise to the Friends of the Festival's executive committee as it was to the general public.
That reflects an error in judgment by the mayor to move or terminate the Strut that is not just unfair and harsh to the citizens who have long embraced this unticketed, open, interracial street bash; it's poor business conduct, as well. The mayor's declaration that he felt compelled to move or close the Strut because of potential violence, essentially from black street gangs, has to have given the city a needless black eye that will be used against Chattanooga by economic competitors.
The City Council's timid response to defer a resolution in support of the Strut is equally regrettable. In its Tuesday meeting, council chairperson Pam Ladd day that she was concerned about who, or what group, would take sole ownership of the Strut and responsibility for it now.
In fact, the city and county took ownership of its vital role in support of the Friends of the Festival 30 years ago to help celebrate the community's African-American heritage as part of our then-new Riverbend Festival. City and county officials should be committed to strengthening and embracing that partnership. They certainly should not run away from it. The community needs that partnership now as much as it did when the Strut was inaugurated.