By the middle of the 20th century, many cities worldwide had permanent youth curfews. California law still states that new, teenage drivers cannot be out driving by themselves after 11pm. And Detroit’s curfew on the under-18s was instituted to reduce violence and vandalism. It is probably this context that Déry was thinking of when he called the current Quebec curfew “infantalizing”.
Racism and prejudice
Infantalising though curfews may be, this is hardly their most significant feature, historically. Curfews are also associated with a long history of racism and prejudice. And it is with this legacy, and not some vision of the nanny state, that contemporary curfews most need to contend.
In the 1700s, many cities in Europe and the US imposed curfews that targeted populations of enslaved people and low-income labourers. This troubled legacy of social control continued into the 19th century. In the wake of the American Civil War, for example, many communities in the southern states imposed curfews on newly freed slaves in an effort to perpetuate the conditions of slavery after its abolition. These were brutally enforced, beginning the legacy of racially fuelled police beatings that continue. They also radically restricted the economic opportunities for black workers.
These practices did not abate in the 20th century. In the 1920s, the British military authorities in Belfast instituted the Curfew Law, under which all citizens were required to remain indoors from 10:30pm to 5:00am. It is also worth noting that while New Yorkers were complaining about the inconvenient curtailing of their nightlife during the second world war, across the continent, in the west and southwest, the US army was enacting stringent curfews that specifically targeted Japanese Americans as part of a set of policies that also included internment camps.
It is this sort of legacy that taints current justifications for curfews, especially, but not only, those imposed in the wake of civil unrest and violence. Perhaps most notable have been the curfews imposed after George Floyd’s murder, or those that followed the 1992 brutal beating of Rodney King by LA police. But it is certainly not only in the US that curfews have been used to quell protest. In 1970, the British Army imposed a 36-hour curfew on the Falls neighbourhood of Belfast, which rather than calming tensions, bolstered anti-British feeling in the city.
Punishing the vulnerable
Indeed, it is against this backdrop, and not the more benign legacy of errant teenagers or war-inflected patriotism, that we need to read curfews now because the people they most disadvantage are still marginalised populations. From sex workers to rough sleepers, from migrant workers to those experiencing domestic violence, curfews’ punishment of already vulnerable people is no historical artefact.
But that’s not all. There is evidence to suggest that curfews have little effect on disease dynamics, especially when other measures, such as restricting large gatherings or business closures, are already in place. As a result, the imposition of curfews has rightly sounded alarm bells. Not only do curfews elicit what social scientists call “reactance” – a feeling of anger that drives non-adherence – but they also may motivate people to shift activities from night to day. Exactly that happened in cities like Detroit, where the initially promising statistic, that curfews on youths reduced the amount of crime at night by 7%, was met with the more sobering one: that over this same period, day crimes increased by 13%.
Disease, like crime and police brutality, does not observe distinctions between day and night. With the assurance that people will find other times of the day to conduct the activities that supposedly make the night so dangerous, curfews seem a doubtful solution. Predicated on flimsy logic, supported by limited evidence, capable of doing more harm than good, and with the capacity to perpetuate long-standing stigmatisation of certain people, curfews perhaps should be relegated to the history books where they belong.
This article was originally published on The Conversation.