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A Brief History of Curfews: “Ensuring Safety,” or Controlling Civil Unrest?

By Featured, News

Illustration by Reilly Branson.

In the wake of protests following the murder of George Floyd, residents of Floyd’s adopted home of Minneapolis received an emergency alert from the city on Friday, May 29, informing them of an emergency curfew with 30 minutes’ notice.  Exempting first responders, essential workers, and homeless people, the curfew allowed police to arrest as many protestors as legally possible. As protests spread across the country and the globe, many cities have followed suit in enacting emergency curfews in an attempt to regain control and reinstate stability.

But what does it mean to limit essential travel and movement with the threat of fines, criminal charges, or detainment? What have we learned from past emergency curfews instated during protests and riots surrounding race?

The word “curfew” itself comes from the Old French word couvre-feu, which means “cover fires.” This would institute a designated time of night at which all fires had to be doused or covered. It served many purposes, including lowering the risk of spreading fire, and allowing those in power to disperse congregations of townspeople — usually lower class populations — who would congregate around public fires because they didn’t have private places to gather.

By the 1700s in the U.S. and Europe, cities had instituted permanent curfews for slaves and some workers. This lasted well into the 1800s; most of the curfews were aimed at controlling low-income laborers and slaves. When child labor laws came into the picture, adults would often work late or overnight shifts in factories, or factory supervisors and owners found nightly curfews unappealing, and children were left unsupervised to get into trouble.

When we talk about curfews, there are two distinct definitions: juvenile curfews and emergency curfews. Juvenile curfews came out of child labor laws and were used as a tactic to suppress crime by enacting restrictions of movement based on age. By the middle of the 20th century, many cities had permanent youth curfews. Oftentimes, when we hear the word “curfew,” we think of restrictions on children and adolescents; California Law states that new, teenage drivers cannot be out driving by themselves between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m. Our parents may have mandated curfews during our high school years when we went out on the weekends.

But emergency curfews can entail many things: stay at home, no driving, halt the sales of alcohol, guns, or weapons, and they are typically up to states, cities, or municipalities. Nationwide curfews are under the power of the president to enact but are hard to enforce on the ground, and so it becomes a state- or city-level prerogative. Unlike the history of juvenile curfews, the history of emergency curfews is hard to pin down, and the lack of dispute in mainstream conversations proves that there is a severe lack of research on the topic.

Emergency curfews have been used since at least the Civil War. In the years following the Emancipation Proclamation, towns and cities primarily in the South imposed curfews only on black communities. This resulted in excessive police brutality and a vicious cycle which severely decreased the number of jobs that people in black communities could hold. In order to avoid getting caught out after curfew, black workers couldn’t take night shifts, which in turn increased unemployment, forcing these communities to remain in low socioeconomic standing with no chance to go up.

During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, towns and cities imposed curfews that targeted black communities in an attempt to limit protests that called for an end to racial discrimination. In our current moment, we’ve seen people cite Martin Luther King Jr. for his use of non-violent protest techniques, but following his assassination, over 100 cities in the US erupted in the MLK protests which lasted for about 10 days in 1968, and ended with the passing of the Fair Housing Act on April 11, 1968. In response to the growing anger, city officials enacted curfews that lasted well beyond the end of the protests as a way to quiet down and arrest those on the streets, trying desperately to get back to the status quo as quickly as possible. In Cincinnati, a curfew was mandated and roughly 1,500 National Guardsmen flooded city streets. In Pittsburgh and Detroit, even more National Guard members headed in. And in Washington, D.C., President Lyndon B. Johnson eventually sent in nearly 14,000 federal troops to subdue the violence.

Despite the unprecedented — and, in some witnesses’ eyes, unwarranted — use of force, most cities were back to normal within weeks. Wilmington, Delaware however, was not. Though the city’s mayor asked the National Guard to leave after the King’s murder when the violence subsided, Governor Charles L. Terry ordered indefinite National Guard patrols that were widely regarded as ineffective and racist. This occupation lasted over seven months.

Similarly and more recently, the city of Los Angeles erupted in angry protests on April 29, 1992 after an 89-second video showing police officers Laurence Powell, Theodore Briseno, and Timothy Wind brutally beating Rodney King after he resisted arrest. The officers were found not guilty on all charges. By midnight, Governor of California Pete Wilson had declared a state of emergency and ordered activation of the National Guard. As the protesting continued into April 30, rapid transit, mail service, schools and professional sports games were suspended and residents were forced to wait in long lines for food and gas. After 3 days, the protests had largely decreased and the city-wide curfew was lifted on May 4, with the federal troops and National Guard not standing down and until May 9, and some soldiers still on the ground until the end of the month.

Even more recently we saw similar use and length of curfews used city and statewide for the 2015 Baltimore Riots following the death of Freddie Gray. This happened on April 19 after Gray sustained a spinal cord injury while in the back of a police van with his hands and feet shackled, but without a seatbelt on. The autopsy showed that Gray likely received the injury while the van abruptly decelerated. Protests broke a few days before his funeral on April 27, but intensified later that day. As unrest grew, former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake imposed a citywide, 10 pm to 5am curfew for less than one week on April 28, and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan temporarily enlisted the state’s National Guard to contain the violence. All non-essential businesses were suspended for the time of the curfew and soldiers remained on the ground well past the end of the curfew on May 5.

This spring’s protests and resulting curfews are no different than others enacted historically in the face of racial injustice. Curfews are a tool used by the government to control civil unrest and are meant “to protect and ensure ‘safety,’ for all,” with “all” meaning white communities — specifically rich white communities. In actuality, curfews target BIPOC protesters, leading to disproportionate arrests, and effectively criminalize protests. The deployment of the National Guard, which symbolizes white suppression for many, becomes unsettlingly ironic; while protesters fight to end police brutality, police use unjust force to break up protests and enforce curfews.

Curfews are damaging for a number of reasons. A vast majority of white middle- and upper-class people work 9-5 — or work remotely, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic — while many immigrants and people of color work night shifts, making them easy targets after curfew and more likely to be cited or arrested. Many cities’ broadcasts about the curfews were sent out only in English, with no translations and in no other languages, making it hard for non-English speakers to receive the information.

Curfews are also being sprung upon protestors without enough time for them to leave protest areas because police have already surrounded them and won’t let them leave. This practice is called “kettling.” For example, protesters in Chicago were effectively trapped in the Loop on Saturday May 30, when the city raised all of the bridges and shut down public transit during the first weekend of protests.

In many cities, you can be arrested and fined up to $10,000 for violating curfew, putting many in physical and financial danger without access to the information and funds.

In this wave of protests, 25 cities across 16 states set curfews, and noncompliance of those out in the streets carries minimum threats of 90 days in jail in New York City, 90 days in jail or $1,000 fine in Minneapolis, 10 days in jail or $300 fine in Washington D.C., $500 fine in Chicago, 6 months in jail and $1000 fine in Los Angeles, and up to a $500 fine in Philadelphia.

What’s unique about the current protests is the way in which communities have been able to organize despite the curfews, and the way that those out on the streets are staying informed, safe, and connected through social media. If we think back to couvre-feu, and the origins of curfews, we see that authorities’ attempts to keep dissenters from gathering fails in the face of today’s technology.

But what does all of this mean on a broader scale? What can we anticipate will happen based on history? Based on the past, curfews that have been enacted to quell civil unrest have lasted a few days after the protests stop. The most harmful part of the current wave of curfews is the force of the police and National Guard that have historically stayed in cities of unrest for months after the fact, creating fear in the hopes that protests won’t start again.

Tweets from President Donald Trump regarding the protests.

So what does it say about leadership and values in the U.S. specifically that curfews were not used to ensure public safety during a global pandemic, but officials have jumped to enact curfews, against the First Amendment right to protest? Why didn’t those protesting in April’s shelter-in-place orders see force or curfews as they gathered in front of hospitals and city capitol buildings against the shelter-in-place order? What message is this curfew sending to our kids and younger generations?

The reality is that there are lots of ways to protest, but if we do nothing else, we must make space for the black communities’ process of mourning and healing.

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