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Police say curfews helped quell violence as they begin to lift restrictions, but civil liberties advocates say that they are actually used to stop peaceful protests.
City leaders across the country imposed curfews over the last week, saying they wanted to prevent massive protests against police brutality from turning violent. But night after night, protesters continued to demonstrate after dark, and now some cities are now rolling back those restrictions.
In some cities, mayors and law enforcement leaders say protests have stayed peaceful for several nights and the curfews are no longer needed. Elsewhere, civil liberties advocates have filed lawsuits to challenge the legality of the restrictions.
In Washington, D.C., a nightly curfew had been in effect since Sunday after looters smashed out the windows of several businesses and ransacked the stores. Both the mayor and police chief said the curfew served its purpose, allowing officers to step in to arrest hundreds of people over the last few nights to stop small spurts of violence from getting out of control. Thursday will be the first night the city goes without a curfew.
“The curfew gives the police the ability to stop the violence that we saw two nights during the course of these events,” said Metropolitan Police Department Chief Peter Newsham at a news conference this week. “It’s not a perfect system but I believe it was very effective in ramping down the level of violence.”
Newsham pointed to the number of arrests made by D.C. police, which dropped from a high of 289 on Monday night to zero arrests Wednesday night despite widespread protest activity across the nation’s capital after the 8 p.m. curfew.
“We have allowed peaceful protests every night,” said Mayor Muriel Bowser. “What we are concerned about are people who are not peaceful and are destroying our city.”
In Washington, D.C. and across the country, protesters took to the streets to demand justice for George Floyd, a black man who died after a white officer in Minneapolis kneeled on his neck. Video of the arrest showed the officer continuing to pin Floyd with his knee for more than eight minutes, even after he stopped moving and lost consciousness. The officer has since been arrested and is now charged with second-degree murder.
The breadth and scope of curfews enacted this week across the country in reaction to the protests “is quite unprecedented,” said Jennifer Earl, a sociology professor at the University of Arizona and expert on social movements.
But they don’t always work as planned, she said.
“If the reason you are protesting is because you think police have too much discretion and use that to get away with hurting people and then you do something like a curfew… that really just gives the sense that the reason you are out there protesting is really important,” Earl said. “Police may think they are using a strategy to suppress protests, but actually it fans protests.”
In some states, police have balked at curfews implemented by political leaders, calling them unnecessary. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey imposed a statewide 8 p.m. curfew that stays in effect until Monday, but law enforcement in at least four counties said they would not enforce it unless rioting occurred.
But police in some cities appear to be using curfews as a way to violently crack down on protests and to silent demonstrations against police misconduct, said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Partnership for Civil Justice Fund. She questions why curfews are necessary if law enforcement are already able to arrest and charge individuals with burglary or rioting if they commit crimes.
“You already have laws prohibiting criminal acts and police have the ability to arrest based on those laws,” said Verheyden-Hilliard, whose legal nonprofit specializes in free speech and police misconduct cases. “I believe many of [the curfews] are being imposed and effectuated with an eye to subduing and repressing the demonstrations.”
PCJF is currently reviewing complaints involving the D.C. police department’s treatment and mass arrest of protesters during a Monday night standoff on Swann Street that got national attention, Verheyden-Hilliard said.
She also pointed to clashes between police and protesters in New York as particularly egregious. In New York, critics have lambasted Mayor Bill de Blasio over NYPD’s protest response, but the mayor on Thursday defended police and his curfew, saying he thought the department had shown “a lot of restraint.”
Elsewhere, legal challenges are already being mounted against some curfews.
In Cleveland, Ohio, where an 8 p.m. curfew has been in place every day since Saturday, a local attorney challenged the constitutionality of the restrictions. The lawsuit was withdrawn Thursday after the city announced it would not seek to extend the curfew past Friday.
In California, civil liberties advocates filed a lawsuit Thursday to challenge the legality of curfews enacted in Los Angeles, Los Angeles County and San Bernardino.
“They are attempting to suppress our ability to fully mobilize and focus full attention on the true issue of concern in the protests — police violence against black people,” said Melina Abdullah, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter - Los Angeles.
The same day the lawsuit was filed, several cities in the region announced they would no longer keep curfews in place. Los Angeles County Sheriff, Alex Villanueva, said “current situational awareness and the recent pattern of peaceful actions by protesters” made the curfew no longer necessary.
The sheriff’s office came under fire this week after video emerged of deputies firing pepper balls at fleeing protesters from a vehicle.
In addition to giving protesters a target, curfews may also have the unintended effect of emboldening aggressive enforcement by officers, Earl said.
“Curfew broadly extends the authority of police to have probable cause with pretty much anyone they are interacting with,” she said. “That creates a really serious civil liberties situation.”
Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.