Rochester’s Curfew: A Modern Day Black Code and Racist Nuisance Laws by Chris Thompson

white police officers in riot gear

Rochester’s Curfew: A Modern Day Black Code and Racist Nuisance Laws

Historically, crime always spikes in the summer in U.S cities and metropolitan areas. You’d think a global health crisis would quell that spike, but sadly that is not the case. In Rochester, 12 people were shot, and one was stabbed over the July 4th weekend, and then 6 more people were injured in a shooting the following week. It’s always upsetting when there is violence in our neighborhoods. We do what we can to keep it out, but without resources (and often rescinded resources), all efforts are an uphill battle. The community needs the city’s help to quell the violence as temperatures rise. The mayor’s solution?

An 11:00pm curfew for large gatherings, except for customers of bars and pubs.

Perhaps on the face, this seems like a reasonable action to mitigate the violent crime trend. In reality, the curfew has helped no one, and it was never intended to help anyone. Individuals executed these shootings, not “large gatherings”. If crime mitigation were the goal, then the bars would be shutting down at 11:00pm as well. There is more likely to be an alcohol fueled fight downtown. I have seen way too many to count. On the first night of the curfew, activists congregated at MLK Park to protest it, and they were met with an army of Rochester Police in riot gear, rubber bullets and batons at the ready. When the crowd was told to disperse, the police blocked avenues to exit, essentially kettling the protesters. So even if they wanted to comply, they would still be “in violation”. Thirty people were arrested. Meanwhile, another shooting occurred on Clifford Ave. There was no police presence there, in the neighborhood of concern, where actual violent crime was happening.

A few nights later, protesters were again met with riot gear clad cops and beatings. At the same time, bars were packed with drunken customers and very little police “supervision”. There is no telling how many DWIs went undocumented that night. A few nights later, police beat a woman who was eight months pregnant in her own neighborhood. They left contusions on her body. I remember, because this was the same night my white neighbors threw a loud party complete with music and booze, well past the curfew cut-off time. Finally, the night that my neighbors threw raging party #2 was the night that at least 20 police care descended on a block on the west side because they heard that a party was happening. There was no party. However, that they are so quick to police a party, yet they were not present to prevent stabbings and shootings, shows how this curfew order is being used.

Like most “nuisance” laws, the curfew may as well just be a brown paper bag test for who is allowed to live freely or not. Curfews and laws against things like loitering and vagrancy have existed since before the United States existed, but it was in the United States that they took on a new dimension of policing Black bodies, especially after the Civil War and the passing of the 13th Amendment. The Black Codes were nuisance laws on HGH. They were put in place specifically to exploit the imprisonment loophole of the 13th Amendment. Though slavery was abolished, forced labor of prisoners was not. Therefore, a Black person (or child) could be jailed for not giving right-of-way to a white person, being unemployed, quitting a job to go to another, “vagrancy”, loitering, being out too late, etc. The offenses that a Black person could violate were petty and endless. Though Black Codes/Jim Crow were a southern thing, the same types of laws were meted out in the North against Black and Brown folks trying to live.

This type of policing continued beyond the 19th Century. They were used to break up and punish people during the Civil Rights Movement. If you think about it, Rosa Parks’s “crime” of sitting on a bus was a broken “nuisance” law. Activist/Pastor Fred Shuttlesworth was sentenced to six months in prison for loitering. He was talking with his friends on a public sidewalk. He also happened to be an organizer of a boycott against a racist establishment. Nuisance laws evolved into Broken Windows policing and Stop and Frisk by the end of the 20th Century and beginning of the 21st Century. Beyond being a nuisance only to those cited for these laws, they could end in death. Eric Garner was murdered for selling loose cigarettes. Alton Sterling was selling CDs out of his trunk. Sandra Bland’s “crime” was smoking and having a not-so-cheery demeanor with an officer.

You can say that these people should have followed the law, but nuisance laws are written vaguely enough that any out-of-the-norm action can be interpreted as a violation. Also, the law is not applied equally to everyone. Most of Rochester’s court docket is violations of minor nonviolent laws, and most of the defendants are Black. This is not a mistake. A friend of mine was jailed for not having a bell on his bicycle, yet there are entire recreational bicycle groups in town, and I don’t recall seeing any bells on anyone’s bikes. I was stopped for a perceived registration issue with my car. I had not violated any traffic law. The cop was just looking for a reason to stop me.

Even when laws are supposed to benefit the whole of society, the punishment falls on Black folks, usually just trying to live. When New York City administered social distancing protocols and mask orders in the midst of the COVID-19 epidemic, lots of congenial images of officers handing out masks to white people congregating in Central Park who “forgot” them went around. At the same time, people in Queens and the Bronx were being beaten, cuffed, and detained for not having masks. 80% of social distancing violations in New York are against Black and Brown folks. We’re not more prone to violating. We are just more prone to be punished for it, for no other reason than our skin tone.

The Rochester curfew, like every other curfew, will not prevent any violent crime. The way that Rochester police is enforcing it is to silence people who are speaking up for their community. If the police truly cared about the community, they would use their resources to solve the crimes that the mayor claims is the reason for the curfew. Instead, they continue to abandon areas in lieu of abusing peaceful people. This is why their violent crime resolution rate is so low, and why people in those communities do not trust them. You can’t come into a neighborhood, harass people trying to get to and from work/school for something like jaywalking, and then come the next day and think they’ll be willing to discuss anything with you. The only thing accomplished is that it gives outsiders fodder to talk about the crime of the city, ignore the immense lack of trust that the police forged in the communities for which they are responsible, and think that their points are not racist at their root.

When the curfew is enforced for the people of Park Avenue and Corn Hill the way it is excessively enforced for the people of Jay Street and Orchard, then perhaps some trust can be built. Until then, the curfew, along with other “nuisance” laws, needs to go.

About Chris Thompson

(he/his/him) Chris Thompson is an engineer, writer, comedian, and activist who made Rochester, New York his home in 2008. In addition to his role as Contributor for 540Blog he currently writes and regularly posts on his own on Instagram and Twitter at @ChronsOfNon. Chris is also a regular contributor for Rochester City Newspaper. His blog is http://www.chroniclesofnonesense.com

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