A small group of peaceful demonstrators gathered near the police station in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, yesterday to protest the death of George Floyd, the man killed last week by a Minneapolis cop. But as time pressed on, the police began to push the sign-waving group back, warning them that they would be arrested if they didn’t disperse. It was past 6:00 p.m., the city’s curfew.
The protests in Myrtle Beach have remained sparse and nonviolent, yet the people there were prohibited from leaving their residences from 6:00 last night until 6:00 this morning. Businesses were strongly encouraged to close, with the beach borough becoming a ghost town as commercial staples closed up shop.
A threat of violence against the Myrtle Beach Police Department had reportedly triggered the civil emergency. The threat never came to fruition, but officers made good on their promise to arrest those that didn’t comply. Seventeen people were taken into custody for violating Mayor Brenda Bethune’s executive order—a violation that amounted to nothing more than exercising their legal right to assembly.
That’s one problem with curfews: They criminalize behavior that is inherent to civil liberties. But imposing one in the face of police protests adds an extra layer of trouble—to enforce it, you need to give police more power. How do you do that without restoking the reason people are protesting in the first place?
You can see where the impulse to impose these curfews is coming from. Not every place has been as quiet as Myrtle Beach: D.C., Los Angeles, and Atlanta, for instance, have seen rioters smashing windows, robbing shops, and setting storefronts ablaze. By Sunday, at least 40 cities had instituted curfews, which vary in their restrictiveness. D.C. originally opted for 11 p.m. but moved that to 7 p.m. on Monday; Atlanta settled on 9 p.m.; Philadelphia, which has been the setting of some of the most intense riots, set one for 6.
Santa Monica and Beverly Hills opted for 1 p.m.
The U.S. has a knack for overcriminalizing things; we boast the highest incarceration rate in the world. But making it a crime to leave your residence after 1:00 p.m. really ups the ante.
Such ludicrously early curfews—or any curfews, for that matter—end up reinforcing the impulse to protest the cops. Our criminal justice system encourages bad police behavior by making criminals out of just about everyone, giving officers far too many opportunities to exercise power over Americans. Those scuffles can turn deadly.
Consider Tanya Kerssen of Minneapolis, who lives a few blocks north of where George Floyd was killed. On Saturday, while she was outside on her porch, the National Guard and the Minneapolis Police Department came by, firing paint canisters at her and any neighbors who failed to immediately obey their order to go inside. She was not protesting. Nor was she in violation of the local curfew, which applies only to public spaces, not private property.
Such overescalations will probably be even more common in poor, minority neighborhoods, where police already have a heavier presence. Blacks may also experience disproportionate enforcement for violating those curfews, with early data showing that African-Americans are potentially more likely to be arrested for flouting social distancing orders. That type of thing certainly won’t help quell the anti-police sentiment ramping up across the country.
Curfews aren’t new. If anything, Americans are probably more familiar with them now than they ever have been, thanks to COVID-19 and the regulations it inspired. But as I wrote last month, those coronavirus rules amount “mostly to an attempt to ‘do something,’ even if that something flouts science and common sense.”
D.C., Philadelphia, and Atlanta alike can all attest to the fact that curfews didn’t deter the riots. If anything, they intensified. But now officers have an excuse to arrest peaceful people. Just ask those protesters in Myrtle Beach.