The lower half of three people standing around outside.
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The Jim Crow Roots of Loitering Laws

Plazas, sidewalks, and storefronts across the United States display “no loitering signs” prohibiting the particularly-American crime of “lingering, hanging about, delaying, sauntering and moving slowly about” (NYTimes). Though loitering prohibitions are ubiquitous, the concept itself is still odd. How can a space be available for public use if it prohibits “lingering”? Who has the incentive to demand such restrictions? And is it really true that everyone’s really prohibited from “hanging about” in a multitude of municipalities? A closer look at the past and present of this peculiar practice reveals a concerning connection between the crime of loitering and racism. 

Prohibitions against loitering date back to Jim Crow-era “Black codes,” laws designed to control Black communities after the ratification of the 13th Amendment. Kentucky let loiterers be arrested and “bound out to the highest bidder for a year’s service,” while Georgia prohibited “strolling about in idleness.” These Jim Crow laws didn’t explicitly mention race, but, like anti-loitering laws today, in practice gave police broad license to harass and persecute Black people for the crime of existing in public (The Week). 

TAKE ACTION

• Support the Positive Women’s Network, the TransLatin@ Coalition, Decrim NY, and the Legal Aid Society.

• Reflect: what public space exists in your community? What sort of people are “supposed” to be there? How many anti-loitering signs are posted? How can you advocate for less policing and more unrestricted access to public and common areas? 

A California law against “loitering with intent to commit prostitution” allowed police to arrest anyone they thought looked like a sex worker. In practice, cops started to “target transgender women and women of color simply because of innocuous factors like how they dress or where they stand on the street.” A bill to repeal this legislation is in front of the Governor now (MSN). A 2019 lawsuit forced the NYPD to change the enforcement of a similar law. “The NYPD for decades has profiled and arrested women of color — especially those who identify as transgender — simply for how they dressed, who they spoke to, and where they socialized,” said Tina Luongo of the Legal Aid Society, who sued the police (NY Daily News).

Three white men murdered Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia in 2020. They were suspicious that Arbery was jogging through their neighborhood: that is, “strolling about in idleness,” or loitering (The Week). Philadelphia police arrested 15,552 young people for curfew or loitering violations over just three years. 85% of those arrested were Black youth, though just 42% of Philadelphians are Black (Yahoo! News). From coast to coast, look into the enforcement of bans on loitering and racism appears. 

Philadelphia’s curfew and loitering laws aren’t written to only apply to Black teenagers, but passing time in public spaces is treated very differently depending on who you are. Well-dressed professionals can pass hours in upscale shopping districts without repercussions, even if they haven’t spent a dime yet. White, middle-class, tax-paying homeowners lounge on the sidewalks in front of their properties without a care in the world. If you’re able to relax outside on a spacious piece of private property, you don’t have to worry about loitering legislation at all. 

And loitering ordinances are more than archaic holdovers from a more-racist time. Today, as then, these indefensible laws are deployed for the profit of some at the expense of others. The original Jim Crow anti-loitering restrictions were written to coerce labor from Black people. Those standing around unproductively, neither shopping nor working, were criminalized, incarcerated, and forced into a convict leasing system that rented them out to private businesses (The Week). Present-day loitering laws have their beneficiaries, too: shopkeepers who want their businesses surrounded by only affluent potential consumers, homeowners who don’t want their property values lowered by their unhoused neighbors, and bigots who would be offended by the presence of the oppressed, whether people of color, the unhoused, youth, women, or gender non-conforming people. 

The criminalization of loitering restricts our right to public space and public life. In practice, it authorizes the exclusion of marginalized people from public space entirely. We should resist all loitering, vagrancy, and curfew laws that restrict the use of our common environment. A shared public environment is a stage for creating our lives in common: living and building community with one another when we aren’t working, shopping, or isolated in our own private residences. 

The Legal Aid Society, Positive Women’s Network, Decrim NY, and TransLatin@ Coalition have all fought loitering laws. We should support them, as well as any other organization fighting against these laws in your area. And the connection between loitering and racism should also serve as a reminder that in a country with racism baked into law enforcement, criminal justice, and social norms, supposedly impartial and universal laws are nonetheless weaponized to harm those already oppressed.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

• Loitering laws criminalize people who take up public space during activities that aren’t considered “productive”.

• Loitering laws date back to Jim Crow laws designed to trap Black people in the convict leasing system. 

• Today, loitering laws are used selectively to oppress people of color, particularly youth and trans women.

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