Atlanta Braces Itself For Annual `Freaknik' Spring Break

THE CITY survived the Civil War, civil-rights movement and the 1996 Olympics. But the Atlanta Black College Spring Break Party brings the nation's "Black Mecca" down to its knees every year, and as students come by the thousands, some residents are saying enough is enough.

ATLANTA - This afternoon, this proper Southern city that once proclaimed itself "too busy to hate" will begin holding a three-day student celebration that many residents and officials find difficult to like.

The event is formally known as the Atlanta Black College Spring Break Party, but few call it that. Most Atlantans call it by the saucy nickname thousands of African-American students from across the country have bestowed upon the raucous, free-form street bash held in Atlanta every third weekend in April: "Freaknik." Many locals have another name for it: Big trouble.

Begun 15 years ago as a casual picnic in a local park, Freaknik has grown into the city's most anticipated, dreaded and divisive event.

In recent years, as many as 200,000 fun-loving students in thousands of cars blaring horns and hip-hop music have cruised the streets of downtown Atlanta, and have partied and danced wherever the spirit moved them - car hoods, malls, parks, front porches.

In the process, Freaknik has brought the city that survived the Civil War, the civil-rights movement and the Olympics to its knees every spring. Streets and highways are paralyzed by bumper-to-bumper

traffic. Atlanta police work around the clock to prevent looting and lewd public behavior.

"People outside of Atlanta have no idea of Freaknik's scope, how much it affects this city, the problems it causes. It is an absolutely huge, huge phenomenon," said Susan Abramson, a resident of Atlanta's Midtown section.

"Every year the city goes through a devil of a time dealing with this party. Every year it's a headache for this city, with a different controversy or problem."

This year seems to be no different. A disturbing rumor has spread among black college students nationwide: This year's Freaknik may be the target of a bombing.

Whether the threat is real or not, Atlanta police and the FBI are increasing security. Three explosive devices, including a bomb at Centennial Park during last year's Olympics, have rocked Atlanta in the past eight months.

While the bomb rumor was a last-minute surprise, Atlanta officials are prepared. Mayor Bill Campbell, who has been criticized for his past handling of the student bash, prodded city agencies and private promoters early on to organize activities for the thousands of students who will make the pilgrimage to Atlanta, which proudly touts itself as the nation's "Black Mecca."

The results are a series of city-sanctioned events, including the mammoth Spring Jam '97, which will stretch over the weekend and feature performances by several prominent rap artists, a film festival, a basketball tournament and a black fraternity step show.

Officials hope the larger events, coupled with smaller merchant-sponsored street fairs and a job fair featuring 50 Fortune 500 companies, will occupy the students through Sunday.

"Every year we have learned lessons about the event," Campbell said. "There were years where we didn't do too well."

Atlanta's struggles with Freaknik began in 1993, when crowds doubled to more than 80,000 after more students were exposed to Freaknik through Spike Lee's 1988 film "School Daze" and the NBC-TV show "A Different World."

In subsequent years, the crowds grew larger, as did the problems. With thousands more cars, many of Atlanta's major streets became gridlocked, a development that frayed the nerves of residents who were prevented from reaching malls, weddings, proms and even funerals.

The event also began attracting more negative publicity and police attention as reports of looting, public lewdness and rapes increased.

Those problems prompted downtown residents to file lawsuits and business leaders to pressure Campbell to end Freaknik or severely crack down on it. The suggestions immediately brought charges of racism from students and the city's sizable and influential black community.

"I think the people who have the most trouble with it are the white folks who live near the parks," said Alia Sampson, a Spelman College freshman who has attended three Freakniks. "I just don't think they've ever seen that many black people before in their lives."

But Abramson and other white Atlanta residents said their problems with Freaknik were not race-related, but instead stemmed from public safety and quality of life issues. Abramson said Atlanta residents were no different from those of Ft. Lauderdale and Daytona Beach, who cracked down on the everything-goes spring break celebrations in their cities during the 1980s.