Thousands of people across the US continue to protest racist police killings after ten days of unrest in the streets of American cities. The actions have spread to at least 13 other countries holding demonstrations of their own in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in the US, including the UK. Meanwhile, police have universally responded to these peaceful demonstrations by escalating tensions, including through the violent enforcement of curfews with batons and tear gas. Some departments have even threatened to use sonic weaponry, which were previously ruled as "excessive force."
In Los Angeles, police enforcing a 9pm curfew shot a man in a wheelchair with rubber bullets while dispersing a crowd of protestors, who are legally allowed to gather in public. On the other side of the country, in Buffalo, two police officers were suspended after shoving a 75-year-old protester and pushing him to the ground. The man, lying motionless on the ground, began bleeding from his ear, as a result.
These curfews popping up in cities across the US are not a new policing tactic, and have historically been used to suppress anti-racist movements and Black communities. In this moment, curfews have been used to mass arrest people, to brutalise and terrorise activists, and even to harass and detain bystanders and essential workers, who are supposedly exempt from curfews.
“The protests are really about this very obvious and flagrant abuse of police power,” Shilpi Agarwal, the legal and policy director at ACLU of Northern California, told Berkeleyside. “And the notion that this is how our cities are responding to that flagrant abuse of policing power seems wrong on every level. We know what happens when we give the police more power and more discretion: harassment, over-policing, and sometimes, tragically, even the death of Black and brown community members.”
Historically, curfews have been enforced to control the physical movements of Black people. The practise was used in the late 19th and 20th Century when Jim Crow laws were enacted to disenfranchise Black communities. Curfews were also used against indigenous and Black people throughout the 1700s to repress unrest against white settler colonialism. While public officials frame curfews as a tool for public safety, they have always been used to suppress people opposing white supremacy, as a measure of surveillance and criminalisation, The Washington Post reports.
Richmond, Virginia, imposed a curfew on enslaved people in 1831 in response to Nat Turner’s rebellion. At that time, a “state-appointed public guard and city night watch were responsible for the apprehension of [enslaved people] out after curfew or suspected of illegal meetings.” During the Red Summer of 1919 more than a dozen cities passed curfew measures against Black people who opposed white supremacist groups. In the Civil Rights era, Black people who took the streets in Birmingham, Detroit, Philadelphia and Newark were met with violent curfew measures, again enforced by police.
Presently, the police are doing everything in their power to prove just how unsafe they make our communities, and especially those most marginalised. In cities across the country where curfews are being enforced, police officers are acting with impunity. On Thursday night, a march in the Bronx was ambushed by the New York Police Department even before the city’s mandated curfew. NYPD assaulted people before also mass arresting protestors.
In Los Angeles County on Monday, residents received multiple alerts of various different curfew times, which only caused further confusion. The Los Angeles Police Department has forced people out of their cars to make arrests and shot rubber bullets at groups of people on foot from their vehicles. On Saturday night in Chicago, protestors received a curfew alert just 30 minutes before it was set to be enforced, stranding thousands of people around the Loop, as the city lifted the bridges and cancelled Chicago Transit services.
These measures are supposed to confuse people, and they also serve as a warning to everyone that police officers control our public spaces and have the power to enact the most brutal restrictions. At a time when hundreds of thousands of people are fighting for Black lives and against police violence, police departments across the country are doing the most to prove that anti-racist organisers are right.