Under a more stringent curfew intended to stem interpersonal violence, Philadelphia youth found outdoors after 10 p.m. will now be apprehended by the police. If cops can’t contact their families, they will be taken to a police station or a “community evening resource center” (NBC 10). In May, Chicago City Council also approved a stricter curfew. Mayor Lori Lightfoot paradoxically cited the obligation to “ensure that our young people have safe spaces to congregate” to defend tasking armed police officers with prohibiting young people from congregating in public spaces (NBC 5). Legal curfews’ racist history and contradictory justifications don’t erase the fact that intra-community violence is a pressing concern for many people in disinvested and oppressed neighborhoods. But unexpected alternatives to counterproductive curfew laws push us to reframe how we think about safety.
During the George Floyd Rebellion, Oakland Mayor Libby Shaaf said she was “mindful that curfew… has been used by American governments as a tool of oppression and racial bias”—as she imposed a curfew to repress an anti-racist uprising. Shaaf’s duplicitous statement was factually correct. “This idea of the curfew really goes back to slavery and Black-White relations,” says Dr. Elijah Anderson (Bloomberg).
• Oppose local efforts to maintain, expand, or institute youth curfews and share research about the actual effects of curfews.
Anti-Black “sundown town” laws were the predecessors of today’s curfews. Racist repression of community rebellion with curfew enforcement dates back to 1943. The Watts Rebellion of 1965, the L.A. Uprising of 1992, and Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 were all repressed with curfew laws (Bloomberg). These laws proliferated after Hillary Clinton demanded that police be unleashed against teenaged “super-predators” with “no conscience.” “We can talk about why they ended up that way,” said the former First Lady, “but first we have to bring them to heel” (Marshall Project) through measures like curfews. Racist dog whistles from Clinton and others expanded policies “consistently” used primarily against youth of color. But curfew fails miserably at its purported goal.
Ample criminological research shows that curfew laws don’t reduce crime; they increase it. “The average effect on juvenile crime during curfew hours was slightly positive—that is a slight increase in crime—and close to zero for crime during all hours,” according to a review of 7,000 studies on their effects. Political elites justify curfews as protection for vulnerable youth. In reality, they get criminal records for curfew violations and exposure to the violence of the police and judicial system. D.C. saw “significantly more frequent” gunshots with a curfew in place. Curfews create deserted areas with no witnesses: the ideal environment for gun violence (Marshall Project).
If clearing out streets increases interpersonal violence, one non-carceral, non-punitive solution to harm would be to do the opposite. Vanessa Guerrero reported on a public safety intervention that succeeded where years of over-policing failed: a new taco vendor. Constant pedestrians in a well-lit area make for a safer environment. Having a place to meet your neighbors creates relationships of trust. Taco vendors pick up trash left behind by city trash collection. “Street vendors did more for our neighborhood than the city ever did,” said Guerrero in a viral tweet (@nessguerrero/ Twitter).
Supporting the creation of public space and the informal economy isn’t considered a “fix” to violence because it doesn’t do anything to the “bad guys.” But if that’s our only framework for dealing with harm, we’ll just end up replicating policing, prisons, and courts in different forms. When Philadelphia wanted to reduce the number of kids sent to police stations, they invented “evening resource centers” where youth are still taken by armed police and forced at gunpoint to remain until released. Instead of wondering what we ought to do against those who have committed or might commit harm, we should look beyond punishment and retribution to ask what will address and prevent the harm itself.
Non-punitive interventions are sometimes dismissed as utopian dreams, nice in theory but dangerous to rely on given the realities of life. In fact, a hard-headed, pragmatic look at the facts on the ground shows that policing and the criminal injustice system have a worse record than taco stands. The facts are clear: resources (Boston Review, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, Brookings), autonomy (AJ+, Open Democracy, Dissent, Polar Journal), community-controlled public space (Science Direct, UPI), and the withdrawal of state violence empirically reduce interpersonal harm (The Guardian, USA Today). Always thinking that we’re just one new law or reform away from the system finally getting it right and solving social problems from the barrel of a policeman’s gun? That’s the irresponsibly utopian fantasy.
• Curfews slightly increase crime.
• They originate from Jim Crow-era anti-Black laws.
• Reducing interpersonal violence requires ending disenfranchisement and impoverishment, not apprehending potential perpetrators.