It's Friday night on Atlantic Avenue, the main artery in Daytona Beach, and I am following five large men dressed in high heels, red wigs and white bikinis. They strut, for the sheer enjoyment of it, past thousands of black men and women in town for the Black College Reunion, the unofficial end to Daytona's spring-break season. The sidewalk on Atlantic Avenue is filled with young black men and women from as far away as California who have come here to hang out in what amounts to a three-mile block party. Judging from the marijuana necklaces, the tattoos, the cornrow hairdos, the gold-capped teeth and the preference for athletic apparel, this is a street-wise crowd.
But it isn't prepared for cross-dressers. As the group passes, young men jump out of the way, aghast, as if the men in bikinis are infectious.
"Bitch, you look like Warren Sapp," a large man yells.
"You're going to get killed, nigger," says another.
"You're going to hell, you bitch."
"Oh, hell no. What is the world coming to, boy?"
The cross-dressers resort to the same gesture after each insult: One of them bends over to expose his large ass, naked except for a thin strand of white thong covering the delicate middle section. Another invariably shakes his bikini bottom, where the word "Playboy" is scribbled in pink letters.
I stop to ask one of the hecklers how he recognized the cross-dressers were indeed men. (At first glance, I was sure they were women.) "You can see an Adam's apple in the crotch," he replies. "Normally when you look at the front of a bikini you see a little lip. That's good. You're not supposed to see a knot down there. Besides, those guys had facial hair."
The heckler's name is Jermaine Mackey. He's a hustler from Orlando who came over for the three-day street festival to sell $10 disposable cameras. Since he didn't bother to obtain a business license, a female cop -- whom Mackey refers to as "Robocop" -- wrote him a $106 ticket. But he still has another 400 cameras to sell, which means another $4,000 cash in his pocket. So he simply moved a couple blocks down the street to avoid Robocop.
As we finish talking, the cross-dressers turn around and are headed toward Mackey. I clear out of the way as he confronts them. "I'm about to get jumped by a he-she," Mackey says.
Cross-dressing in women's swimsuits during BCR, as it's known to the 100,000 or so in Daytona this weekend, is one of the few things taboo during this 18th-annual street party. BCR, once a way for academics to network, has been on the edge of anarchy for a dozen years, known as much for shootings, rapes and arrests as it is for over-modulated hip-hop music pumping from tricked-out cars. Attendees complain of police harassment. But open containers are commonplace, groping women is a full-on sport, and a drug dog would have a psychotic fit sniffing all the chronic floating in the air.
"We do spring break, Bike Week, Race Week and BCR," says Reverend Joe, a former cocaine addict who has turned to street preaching. "And I'd have to say black college reunion is definitely the most aggressive."
I see what he's talking about as I head north on Atlantic Avenue. It's 10:15 p.m. when a group of young men by a light pole, forming a tight huddle around something, catches my attention. Leaning in on my tiptoes to investigate, I see a tall black women in a white swimsuit in the middle of the knot. At first, because she's big-boned, I assume she's one of the cross-dressers. I think maybe the group of rowdies has cornered her and want to beat her up.
But this woman has large breasts, which she's slid out of the top of her bikini. She dips the bottom of her swimsuit as well, definitely proving me wrong. This is a real woman. The group of men goes wild, rubbing their hands over her breasts and between her legs. Their hit-and-run tactics remind me of minnows attacking breadcrumbs thrown in a pond. More men run down the sidewalk to witness the display. Most of them have video cameras to catch the action.
A few seconds later the woman declares the show over and walks away down the sidewalk, staggering slightly and saying something about catching up with her friends. She doesn't make it far. Leaning against a fence, next to a store offering tourist trinkets, she exposes herself again, and again the young men shoot their hands between her legs. She breaks it up but the men are relentless. They want her to keep up the show for the cameras. As the woman is pressed against the side of a building, four Volusia County deputies approach. "Five-O, Five-O," someone warns, and the group backs away.
The woman tries to escape but the officers won't let her go. They force her hands behind her back -- at one point it appears as if they will smash her face into the wall -- and lead her away. One of her nipples is exposed, pinched by the top of her bikini. She is trapped and confused. She searches up and down the sidewalk, but her friends are long gone..
Donks and big bodies
Over the course of the weekend I see countless incidents of women being fondled as they walk along Atlantic Avenue. A typical example: A large guy with a slight beard, wearing an Emmitt Smith jersey, grabs a woman by the breast and says, "Give me some of that milk." A couple men try to pick up the white female photographer traveling with me, calling her "Snow White." The modus operandi is to ask a woman to pose for a picture, then as the man embraces her, his hands invariably slide down her backside until he can grab both sides of her butt cheeks.
The constant groping makes many female BCR partiers angry. "It's uninvited," says one woman, who asked not to be identified. "It pisses me off. They think because we're on the streets, they're invited to touch us. It's disrespectful."
I had heard that BCR could get pretty dirty. When I asked the owner of a New Smyrna hotel, where I rented a room, if Highway 1 took me to Daytona, she replied, "Do you really want to go there?"
I laughed off her question, and the owner explained. "They're just nasty people. We used to live in Atlanta where they have the same king of thing. It's called Freaknik. They clogged up the streets. They used profanity. They don't understand why nobody wants them."
Who exactly "they" refers to I never quite figured out. Did she mean college students? Black people? Hip-hoppers? Her tone led me to believe she was talking about blacks, an attitude I found in plain view in Daytona.
As I walked along Atlantic Avenue that first night, I saw a souvenir shop with a large Confederate flag in the window, ostensibly for sale. "You notice it's closed," says Nayland Richmond, who has traveled from Apopka for the last 10 years to attend BCR. Richmond sits on a lawn chair on the east side of Atlantic Avenue with his back to an empty parking lot. The lot is vacant, he says, because attendants want $20 to park there. Last week, when he traveled to Daytona to rent a hotel room, the fee was $5. He concludes that Daytona businesses temporarily close during BCR, or they grin and bear it while price-gauging black tourists. "Bike Week is wide open," he says. "This week everything is closed down. What kind of shit is that?"
One of the first things you notice when you come to BCR is the large number of cops. They line the main thoroughfares into Daytona, their squad cars parked on the sidewalks. The Florida Highway Patrol alone sent 375 patrolman, costing Daytona more than $225,000. During Bike Week, the Highway Patrol sent just 50 officers.
Richmond says the large police presence will eventually ruin BCR. Black youths I spoke with were upset that police were busting kids for petty crimes like driving too slow, wearing a thong and blocking traffic. "Every year the crowd gets weaker and weaker," Richmond says. "The new rules are just getting ridiculous."
Highway Patrol spokeswoman Kathy Miller says Daytona asks for more officers for BCR because the event packs 100,000 people into three short days, compared with other weeklong events. "We're mainly here to assist with traffic," she says. "We're enforcing the laws but we're being cool. We're not giving them a hard time about everything." (Of the dozen of arrests I witnessed, no Highway Patrol cops were involved.)
According to Sgt. Al Tolley of the Daytona Beach Police Department, 500 police officers and 50 members of the God Squad, preachers who come from all over the country to act as peacekeepers, were on Daytona streets working 12-hour shifts. By the end of the weekend, they made about 300 arrests, 60 of which were felonies. Most crimes, Tolley says, involved alcohol -- either open containers or disorderly conduct.
Police set up orange-colored traffic cones in the middle of Atlantic Avenue to manage the enormous amount of traffic. Unlike Bike Week, which is held on Main Street, or spring break, where the beach is the main focus, BCR is about cruising Atlantic Avenue. Large '70s-era Chevys, called "donks," cruise down the street, painted in lime green, bright orange and dark blues. A "vert" is a '70s-era Chevy convertible. A "big body" is any SUV or pick-up. The cars come equipped with a variety of odd features: video screens in the visor or embedded in a headrest, speakers pumping the bass so deep your eardrums vibrate, chrome "spinner" rims that rotate even when the car is parked. In one sense, BCR is nothing more than a huge, street-level car show.
"The main thing is to ride around and show how much money you may have, illegal or not illegal," says Miami resident Ebony Dickens, who, like her 21-year-old twin Erica, is a student in Tallahassee. "People come here to flaunt. 'Mine is better than yours.' They come here to see what everybody else is doing, then go home and do this and that to their cars. They'll bring their game back next year and shut everybody else down."
Dickens' favorite car was an orange-colored donk that had a picture of a cheetah painted on the hood. The owner also glued Cheetos, the snack food, to the hood and trunk. "That was the most fascinating car I've ever seen," she says. "He threw bags of Cheetos out the window. I said, 'This man is not throwing potato chips at people.'"
On Saturday night the street activity on Atlantic Avenue is not what I expected. Everything seems tamer. I am told, by police and regular BCR visitors, that the number of Reunion tourists is down compared with previous years. Nobody knows why: the war, perhaps, or what some describe as an oppressive police mentality.
As I walk along the Avenue, I make eye contact with an older man with thin white hair, rosacea on his cheeks, dressed in blue jeans and white sneakers. He looks up the street at the black kids standing on the sidewalk.
"You think it's safe?" he asks me.
"Sure," I answer, and we walk for a couple of blocks. He stops to tell me his name and that he's leaving early the next morning to check on his farm in Illinois. He talks about the war and the price of corn and soybeans. He says he decided to investigate BCR because he's a risk-taker: "Nobody becomes a riverboat captain on calm water," he says.
He gestures at the young black men around us, still begging young women to pose for pictures. "I hate to say it, but this is what happens when you give them their rights," he says.
I expect the farmer to begin a racist diatribe. Instead, he talks about mongrelization, a deliberate attempt by one race to interbreed with another. He believes a race of mulattos will lead to a more moral society.
His comment reminds me of an article by Randall Kennedy in the December issue of Atlantic Monthly. Kennedy, a Harvard law professor who created a stir with his book about the origin and use of the word "nigger," wrote that blacks will only achieve unity with whites through the acceptance of interracial marriage. One of the obstacles, he points out, is the attitude of black women, who prefer to marry black even though black men, according to Kennedy, are less fit for marriage than other racial groups because of societal factors including high rates of imprisonment and poverty.
"By foreswearing non-black suitors, many black women have senselessly put themselves at the mercy of black men, who have declined to be as accommodating as they might be in the face of greater competition," Kennedy writes.
Drawing such a conclusion based on an event like BCR would, of course, be dangerous. The hip-hoppers here are not typical of blacks as a whole. According to a Washington Post story last summer, only 35 percent of the black society considers itself part of the hip-hop culture. And of that, a smaller percentage are part of the gangsta rap scene, a thuggish clique that prefers artists like Busta Rhymes and 50 Cent, both of whom performed during BCR for the Black Entertainment Network.
"The overwhelming majority of black men who hit 30-years-old will not grab a woman's crotch," says University of Connecticut professor Jeffrey Ogbar, who teaches a hip-hop and youth-culture class. "Most black women will not drop their drawers."
Ogbar points to the drunken debauchery of Woodstock 2000, during which scores of women were alleged to have been raped, couples had sex in the mud and white kids set the stages on fire. "I assume most white people don't do those kinds of things," Ogbar says. "Yet people who see things at Freaknik assume blacks have a biological proclivity for those kinds of things. They aren't unique to any one group."
"It would be like going into a trailer park and drawing conclusions about white society based on that," says Kyra Kyles, a hip-hop journalist based in Chicago. "To tell you the truth, I wouldn't have fit in at `BCR`."
Of course, fitting in is a learned concept. One of the last impressions I remember about BCR 2003 is that of a boy, maybe 12, who was sitting with a group of older men in front of a hotel. One of the men was from the group that was on the sidewalk, hustling pictures. When he finally trapped a girl wearing tight red shorts with the words "baby girl" scribbled on them, he motioned for the 12-year-old to come down and pose for the picture. The boy seemed eager in the same way an athlete wants to impress a coach. He hopped down from the back of a pick-up and grabbed the girl around the stomach, pulling her in close. They smiled for the camera as if they were at a high-school dance. They were cute. They were comfortable. I had to wonder how long that would last.