Harrison County

Black spring breakers say they felt unwelcome on Mississippi Coast

Many visitors at Black Spring Break took to social media to show what a good time they were having.

But not all the posts were positive, and some said they did not feel welcome on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Police were more visible than ever after last year's record crowds sparked a new traffic plan that closed one lane of U.S. 90 in both directions for 9 miles. Law enforcement officers and their vehicles were parked in and patrolled the closed lanes.

"There's always been a trend in increasing the police presence, but it was definitely more noticeable this year — I didn't know Biloxi had that many police cars," said TNathan Fairley, who is a member of the Gulfport NAACP and Mississippi Rising Coalition.

A viral Facebook post made Thursday showed a parking lot full of Biloxi police cars between the highway and the waterfront. It has more than 5,500 shares.

"... They haven't even got here yet and they're staked out like this waiting SMH I wouldn't even come here," the post said.

The traffic plan also prevented drivers from turning left both into and out of the Coast Coliseum, where most of the weekend's events were headquartered. For example, someone driving on U.S. 90 from Gulfport would have to drive eastbound past the Coliseum to downtown Biloxi then double back in the westbound lane.

Police presence was also visible at Edgewater Mall near the Coliseum, where Biloxi police have for several years set up a command center in the parking lot next to the highway. Anyone seen hanging out in any of the property's parking lots was asked to leave by mall security.

Terreze Seiber, a first-time visitor from St. Louis, said he drove down with a group of friends in hopes of having a fun spring break weekend.

"Everything just seemed on edge," he said. "We had bought some food at Raising Cane's on Saturday and we were standing in the mall parking lot eating and a mall security guard came up and told us we had to leave — and we had just bought some food, so we left. We came back to the mall on Sunday to go shopping and the same security guard pulled up and told us we had to leave — and we hadn't even gotten out of the car."

Another viral Facebook post with more than 2,000 shares showed at least six businesses inside the mall were closed, when they are normally open during those hours. And another post listed the 14 stores closed.

A visitor who stopped at a gas station on U.S. 90 said on Facebook he filled his gas tank up and made a purchase in the convenience store but could not use the restroom because it was closed to spring breakers.

One Facebook user posted a picture of a sign at Shaggy's restaurant said it was "welcoming spring breakers" but automatically applying an 18 percent tip on patron's bills.

"Shaggy's has NEVER had an automatic-gratuity, so why choose the BLACKEST WEEKEND on the Coast," the post said.

U.S. restaurants can legally require a set gratuity amount, but it is counted by the IRS as wages and not tips.

The city estimates about 30,000 people attended Black Spring Break. The hotel occupancy rate went from 90 percent full to more than 3,000 rooms available because of the threat of severe weather and "a number of declined credit cards," according to the city.

There were no major crime incidents over the weekend, but business at Edgewater Mall was temporarily halted Friday night when gunshots were reported.

"Several people heard the gunshots, including some officers, but we couldn't find any physical evidence of a shooting," Biloxi police Major Chris De Back said. "We did make an arrest of someone who was near the scene who had a weapon on him."

That person was charged with a misdemeanor, and De Back said there were a total of five felony arrests that were spring break-related.

After the report of gunshots, police closed the nearby McDonald's, and the fast food restaurant closed early at 8 p.m. Saturday night.

Hospitality State

In a state that is marketed as The Hospitality State and in an area marketed as a tourist destination, Fairley feels that the Mississippi Coast did not live up to the hype.

Fairley said he's glad the city of Biloxi and law enforcement agencies were well-prepared for the event, but the increased presence sends a message.

"How are these kids supposed to feel when they see all of these police?”

"They are treating people of color like they are a threat — the command center, the helicopters, it's all too much," he said. "People say it's not racial, but this is Mississippi and the motivation is different. They were acting like this was the apocalypse and people were going to tear up their city."

Tremain Merrell contributed to this report.