Atlanta's Curfews: Keeping Peace or Muzzling Free Speech?

By Leon Stafford | Atlanta Journal-Constitution | June 1, 2020

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Some legal experts and civil rights leaders are questioning whether mayors and governors are too quick to issue curfews when minorities take to the streets to protest injustice.

With Atlanta announcing on Monday its third curfew in as many days, the experts said they are concerned citizens rights to peaceably assemble are being trampled. They also worry about low-wage minorities who may have jobs that require them to be out later than the restrictions allow.

“We’re gravely concerned about the curfew and the militarization of the police presence in Atlanta,” said Andrea Young, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia. “People should be given adequate warnings about the curfew and a chance to voluntarily comply and to explain if they can’t because they have to work. And arrests should be a last resort, not a first response.”

While curfews have been used for decades, from college unrest during the Vietnam War to civil disobedience during the Occupy Wall Street movement, some they have targeted minorities more often in recent years. Those beliefs took on new resonance this past weekend as cities across the nation rolled out restrictions after protests over the death of George Floyd turned violent.

Floyd, who was unarmed and handcuffed, died Memorial Day while in police custody in Minneapolis. Four police officers were fired; one was charged with murder and manslaughter in connection with the death.

On Friday, demonstrators in downtown Atlanta hurled rocks at police and set cruisers on fire, broke windows at CNN Center and turned Centennial Olympic Park into a graffiti-strewn disaster area. Protesters also looted stores in downtown and then moved to Buckhead, where more businesses were damaged.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced the first curfew on Saturday, starting at 9 p.m. The curfew was extended Sunday and Monday. Nearby Lawrenceville in Gwinnett County also issued a curfew Monday after protesters took to the streets there.

“What we saw in Atlanta last night and what we are seeing in cities across America is an explosion,” Bottoms said at a Saturday news conference. “And what should not be lost in this explosion is what this anger and frustration is about for so many.”

Harvey Newman, professor emeritus from the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University, said it’s important that the mayor make it clear that the curfews are not indefinite. The more explanation of their necessity that she can provide, the better its reception will be.

Gerald Griggs, first vice president with the Atlanta chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, called the curfew draconian. He said it is inflexible and robs citizens of their freedom of speech.

“The power structure wants to send a message to our community that they want to mute our voice and we’re very upset about that,” he said. “When you protest for your civil rights and social justice as a brown and black person they take more of your rights away.”

Opponents point to the Atlanta Police using a stun gun on a pair of students Sunday as an example of their concerns. Two officers involved in the incident were fired.

Thaddeus Johnson, a doctoral student in criminal justice and criminology at Georgia State University who studies curfews and their impact, said the city was in a no-win situation. Leaders use it when all other efforts to persuade those assembled to follow the rules fails.

“The mayor is in a really tough spot because she sees both sides of it,” said Johnson, a former officer with the Tennessee State Police. “She knows why they are acting out. She knows they are not bad people. She knows what they are protesting are bad circumstances.”

Protestors occupy the 17th St. bridge on May 31. Protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody continued around the country. Alyssa Pointer / [email protected]