First Friday, Last Chance?
How long will history keep repeating itself?
So, First Friday – we meet again.
If ever there was an indication that Augusta is standing still, it’s the events of July 6, when six people, three under 18, were shot in the crowded, rowdy aftermath of First Friday.
Gunman shoots six at downtown festival. It’s the kind of thing you read about happening in other cities.
However, it’s certainly nothing new. It’s the kind of thing the city has been dealing with off and on for most of the life of the monthly Friday night event.
After the October 4, 2002 First Friday concluded, unruly crowds broke the windows of two Broad Street establishments and the overwhelmed deputies had to use pepper spray to get the crowds to disperse.
In response, Sheriff Ronnie Strength vowed decisive action.
“We will be down here and we will have a tremendous presence of law enforcement officers,” Strength said in the Oct. 10, 2002 issue of the Metro Spirit. “I will have a response team standing by. It will be my last resort. But there will be a response team in full (riot) gear to do whatever they have to do to disperse unruly crowds.”
There was also talk of changing ordinances in a way that would target the offenders but somehow spare the legitimate First Friday revelers.
“I don’t want an ordinance so strict that it hurts the law-abiding citizens in the community and their businesses from 5 o’clock to 10 o’clock during First Friday,” Strength said. “But we’re really going to put some teeth into it after 10 o’clock.”
That was 10 years ago, and after a decade, the problem is still the same, and the answer everyone seems to be flocking to isn’t much different, either.
This time, it’s enforcing the curfew for minors.
“I fully endorse it,” said Commissioner Joe Jackson. “My first question to my wife was, ‘What the hell is a 14-year-old and a 17-year-old doing at First Friday? They’re not buying a Picasso, so they’re down there for what?”
He pointed out that at that age, they can’t go into the bars and there was nothing going on at the Common, which means they were just there to be there, and that’s almost always a recipe for trouble.
“I think that during the summertime, crime goes up because kids are out of school,” he said. “I think a lot of it goes back to respect of law enforcement and adult figures.”
According to witnesses, Broad Street was a solid mass of people at the time of the shooting, which was more than two hours after First Friday officially closed, not that there seems to be anything all that official about anything involving First Friday.
Originally started by the downtown merchants as a way to increase business and attention to the downtown area, First Friday has fallen under several bureaucratic umbrellas, but in reality it just sort of is. Businesses either open for it or they don’t.
Increasingly, however, the unruly activity that occurs after the stores close and the events are over is causing some business owners to question whether or not the event is worth it. When it started, Artist’s Row was a struggling enclave of art galleries trying to make a go in what was pretty much an urban wasteland. Now, that wasteland is an oasis of bars, many of which say they don’t get any boost in business from First Friday, which begs the question – if the bars outnumber the other businesses, does First Friday continue to serve a purpose?
According to Shaun Ledford, owner of the downtown Mellow Mushroom, he closes a half an hour earlier on First Fridays because of the loitering crowds, which not only don’t bring him any business, but actually cost him extra, since First Fridays are the only nights he has to hire an sheriff’s deputy. Another reason he closes early – concern about his employee’s safety.
If legitimate businesses are closing early for safety reasons, who is First Friday helping, and is it really worth the expense?
Two days after the shooting, one downtown employee who actually heard the gunshots moved to an apartment on Washington Road.
“I’ve lived down here for three years,” she said, standing near the bloodstained sidewalk, “but I moved. It was scary. I’ve never heard gunshots before.”
So next week, commissioners will be meeting with Administrator Fred Russell, Greater Augusta Arts Council Executive Director Brenda Durant and downtown merchants to discuss where First Friday goes from here.
If history is any indication, where it goes will be where it’s always been.
One year after the 2002 incident, Sheriff Strength was back before the commission, explaining why the Sheriff’s Office closed the streets.
Two more windows had been broken out.
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