Baltimore’s Curfew May Control Crowds, but It Won’t Fix Bigger Problems

As a citywide curfew is implemented Tuesday night, the past tells us tension between protesters and police will likely escalate.
A curfew will be implemented starting Tuesday night in an attempt to ease unrest in Baltimore. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Apr 28, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

In recent days, America has watched protests unravel parts of Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died mysteriously in police custody. Preliminary autopsy reports revealed his spine had been severed, his vocal box crushed. Now, Baltimore is bracing for a citywide curfew and the arrival of hundreds more law enforcement authorities. Will it work?

Experts say curfews are increasingly used by local authorities to calm violent protests. The most notable recent curfew came last summer, in Ferguson, Missouri. Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency and ordered a midnight curfew to quell the unrest that shook Ferguson in the days following the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager.

The effectiveness of curfews is questionable. Human rights advocates note that there is little substantive legal scholarship on the long-term impact of emergency curfews, particularly those placed on impoverished, predominantly poor communities of color—which are most likely to experience an increased police presence. The tendency to tighten the grip of law enforcement on communities that have assembled to confront that relationship poses challenges for cities that want to productively move forward after deaths like Gray’s.

“If you look at what happened in Ferguson, violence escalated when members of the community were restricted by the state of emergency,” Jamira Burley, senior campaigner on criminal justice and gun violence for Amnesty International, told TakePart. “Curfews increase tensions and continue to create an environment where community members feel like they can’t trust police and don’t feel safe.”

Curfews are an increasingly popular response in communities that have taken to the streets to grieve and protest following the death of black men at the hands of police.

For much of the last two weeks, protesters marched peacefully through Baltimore’s streets. Then, on Saturday night, following one such peaceful demonstration, a small group of protesters smashed windows and damaged cars near Camden Yards. After Gray’s funeral on Monday, the violent trend continued. Baltimore’s mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, held a news conference and announced that starting Tuesday, a curfew would be imposed from 10 p.m. until 5 a.m. for one week. “What we see tonight that’s going on in our city is very disturbing,” she told reporters. As the mayor spoke, parts of her city smoldered; a pharmacy was torched. Young people threw rocks at police.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency and announced plans to bring in hundreds of National Guard troops. “People have the right to protest and express their frustration,” Hogan told reporters, “but Baltimore families deserve peace and safety in their communities—and these acts of violence and destruction of property cannot and will not be tolerated.”

Parts of Baltimore’s new curfew strategy remain imprecise. The Baltimore Police Department and the mayor’s office did not respond to requests for comment on the enforcement. It is also unclear how the curfew will be imposed: Will officers choose to saturate certain neighborhoods—particularly impoverished, predominantly black ones? “More oppression of the oppressed is not the answer to injustice in Baltimore,” Hassane Muhammad, spokesperson for Black Lawyers for Justice, told TakePart. “A curfew won’t fix it. Until there is transparency and there aren’t two systems of justice in America, there won’t be peace.”

Baltimore already has one of the country’s strictest youth curfew laws: People under the age of 14 must be indoors by 9 p.m.

The truth is, curfews are a short-term tactic. Forcing citizens into their homes—under the threat of incarceration or fines—can temporarily clear the city’s streets. But curfews do not address a larger cocktail of systemic problems. Without dealing with the roots of violence against people like Gray, Baltimore—and other cities—can only limp forward. The bond between our poorest citizens and law enforcement will remain broken.