April 5, 2012

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When this issue of The Pulse arrives on news stands, it will have been a full week since Mayor Ron Littlefield announced that the Bessie Smith Strut would be moved to the Riverbend Festival grounds. When word got out, outrage, debate and speculation erupted. Talk of backroom conspiracies between the mayor and Friends of the Festival, racial prejudices and neighborhood neglect, crime and violence were filling mouths, ears and Facebook posts. Everything was now bottled inside the single serving of the mayor’s plan.

The announcement, if you could call it that, was itself an enormous gaffe. The headline dripped from a faucet with no supporting copy points of the decision process coming from the mayor’s office. It hung an albatross around the neck of Riverbend and gave the distinct impression that moving the Strut was a coordinated effort. As things have unfolded, that was clearly not the case.

Making such a drastic, fundamental and unilateral change to a 31-year-old festival was treated as if it were a dry administrative procedure connected with a mundane but necessary government function. We can assume there was more to it than that behind the scenes. But if there was ever a time the mayor’s office needed to show us a decision-making process, this was that time.

It was just a few hours after the first headlines about the Strut were out that a Facebook event page was created  inviting people to “Occupy” MLK on June 11 and support businesses, creating an alternative to the blasphemous “Bessie Smith Blues Night” happening on the river (or whatever name is ultimately chosen). The event page now known as “Occupy Your Favorite MLK Establishment for Bessie Smith Strut Night” was started by David Smotherman. As of this writing, the event has registered 1,089 people planning to attend. Smotherman’s primary business, as owner of Winder Binder Folk Art Gallery and Bookstore on the North Shore, was quickly overshadowed with interview requests as he became the official spokesperson of the grass-roots event.

The latest effort to coordinate some compromise was Riverbend officials offering the Strut’s performing bands to the MLK Association. These bands are booked and paid for by the festival. The idea was to have the headliner at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center and the other two bands in different locations. Riverbend’s Chip Baker, Dixie Fuller and Jeff Styles were behind this offer. It held promising potential and there were high hopes, but MLK leaders rejected the idea. They wanted full restoration of The Strut to MLK.

Disappointing, yes. Surprising? Hardly. However noble and grand the gesture of goodwill and cooperation was, it ran the risk of coming across like a mistress offering to let the ex-wife borrow the good china for her dinner party.

I spoke with “Occupy MLK” creator David Smotherman on the phone shortly after that effort had failed and we rehashed the past days events. Smotherman has stated that his motivation for the effort was not political and that he, in fact, was not entirely certain moving The Strut would ultimately be a good thing.

“I think the reason this Occupy MLK idea has taken off is because people love the Strut tradition,” he said. “I love it and that was my only motivation. I just didn’t want to see the MLK neighborhood empty on the night of The Strut.”

Assuming the current momentum brings people to the MLK neighborhood on June 11, it’s likely the streets, or at least the sidewalks, of MLK will not be empty on that day—perhaps even giving birth to a new event.


April 5, 2012

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