Poorly Designed Curfews Are Wreaking Havoc on Cities

Hastily-implemented curfews across the country have left essential workers stranded as police are given total discretion in how to enforce the policy.
June 3, 2020, 5:07pm
Cops above subway station
Image: Aaron Gordon

On Tuesday evening, about 30 minutes before New York City's curfew hit at 8 p.m., a man tried to enter a Union Square subway entrance, only to find it was barricaded shut and lined with police officers in riot gear.

“Where can I get in?” the man asked, who declined to provide his name to Motherboard because he didn’t want to be publicly associated with the protests.

“14th and 4th,” the officer told him, and pointed to the other side of the park. But that entrance was barricaded, too.

Across the city, people trying to get home before curfew hit were obstructed by the police or city-imposed shutdowns of transportation systems, creating confusion about how they were supposed to travel during the curfew imposed in response to George Floyd protests.

This confusion echoed what happened around the country in previous days as other cities imposed curfews or shut down their transportation systems entirely, sometimes on minutes’ notice—such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, and Cincinnati—stranding millions of people.

“During protests, transit agencies must make every effort to continue transporting riders, who are not served by diverting resources to police, or by extensive suspensions of service,” TransitCenter said in a statement. “Transit agencies must strive to enable freedom of movement, even in challenging conditions.”

The confusion about how to get to where people needed to go only underscored the complicated set of rules imposed in New York, a city of more than eight million people on short notice, with little to no enforcement oversight as several reporters documented violations of the city’s own curfew rules.

The city issued a four-page FAQ on the curfew order that, far from making things clearer, only exemplifies the contradictions of the curfew policy. One thing the policy does make clear, along with the experiences several reporters and other essential workers had on Tuesday night, is individual officers are given a tremendous amount of leeway in interpreting the policy however they want.

“If you are stopped, you only need to identify yourself as an essential worker,” the FAQ states. “For the very few individuals that refuse to cooperate and do not fall within the exempted categories, they will be given every opportunity to return home. Only if an individual continuously refuses to do so will additional enforcement action be considered, including but not limited to fines.”

The problem stems in part from the litany of exceptions and caveats embedded within the curfew policy. Essential workers are allowed out past curfew as long as they are going from work to home. But they are allowed to stop at a deli for a meal. But then they have to go right home. Unless they need medical supplies, then they can get those too. Food delivery workers can also be out, as can media, but only if they’re working. If you’re stopped, there are “no specific requirements for ID.” It is, in short, up to whether the police officers believe you or not.

Plus, the guidance that “transportation infrastructure such as bus, rail, and yellow and green taxis will be operating normally” proved not to be the case. At Columbus Circle, Gothamist reporter Jake Offenhartz tweeted a photo of police in front of the subway entrance 13 minutes prior to curfew. “Uber and Lyft have been ordered shut at 8. Citi Bike and Revel are already deactivated in the neighborhood,” Offenhartz added, referring to the city’s bike and moped share systems. “When curfew hits in 10 minutes, how the hell are people supposed to get home???”

“I think this speaks to the shoddy thinking and planning that went into the curfew policy,” said Ben Fried, communications director at the non-profit TransitCenter when sent a link to Offenhartz’s tweet. “It’s a chaotic jumble that people can’t actually plan their lives around.”

The FAQ made no mention of bike access around the city, but those routes also turned out to be blocked. On the Manhattan Bridge bike path, police turned independent journalist Liam Quigley back towards Brooklyn just after 8 p.m. even though he has a valid NYPD-issued press card.

As he biked up the path, a handful of officers in riot gear blocking the path shouted “GO BACK” at Quigley. At the base of the bridge, he found a white shirt officer who told Quigley “nobody gets in.” A few minutes later, Quigley interviewed a Postmates delivery worker named Deshon who works in Brooklyn but lives in Manhattan and was also turned back. The officers told the Postmates worker “nobody goes into Manhattan.”

Quigley told Motherboard he was later allowed onto the Brooklyn Bridge bike and pedestrian path with “no issue and that interaction was very courteous.” He added that in his experience last night, there seemed to be a great deal of discretion in how the curfew is enforced.

“If we're not closing an entire bridge, then we shouldn't be shutting down only the bike paths on bridges,” said Danny Harris, executive director of the New York City-based nonprofit Transportation Alternatives. “Bikes are a critical mode of transport, and the mayor needs to acknowledge this, apologize to the people his policies have stranded, and change course immediately.”

On the transportation front, the FAQ says “transportation infrastructure” will be operating normally, but made no mention of closed stations or blocked bike paths.

The FAQ also said for-hire vehicle services such as Uber and Lyft are suspended from 8 p.m. to 12:30 a.m., but Citibike and Revel will be suspended until 5 a.m. Plus, NYPD put up roadblocks to get into Manhattan below 96th Street, including via bridges and tunnels.

Yellow and green taxis are allowed to continue operating throughout the curfew, although a video posted to social media showed NYPD deploying undercover units in vehicles made to look like yellow taxis, a practice that dates back to at least 2015. The person who took the video, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, told Motherboard the video was taken Monday night, when the curfew was 11 p.m., about an hour before the curfew went into effect. (Gothamist published a guide in 2016 about how to distinguish undercover yellow taxis from real ones, although it’s unclear if the license plate distinction still holds.)

As for who was allowed to be out during curfew, the FAQ is a litany of “short answer yes with an if, long answer no with a but” responses.

In Manhattan, NYPD officers cursed and pushed two Associated Press reporters who identified themselves as essential workers. “I don’t give a shit,” one officer replied. Another told the reporters to “Get the fuck out of here you piece of shit.”