Back in November, after the Halloween night shootings that made national news, New Orleans City Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell expressed her frustration with the city's approach to troubled teenagers — particularly the public school expulsion rate, saying, "It doesn't deal with the problem. It takes the problem out of one venue and puts it in another, but it doesn't solve the problem."
The same could be said of the New Orleans curfew ordinance passed Jan. 5, which affects only the Vieux Carré and the Faubourg Marigny. A 1994 ordinance already had set curfew times for those 16 and under to 8 p.m. on weeknights and 11 p.m. on weekends. The new ordinance makes it 8 p.m. every night. At the council meeting, Hedge-Morrell and Jon Johnson, the only African-American councilmembers present (Eric Granderson was absent) expressed reservations about the curfew affecting only the city's tourism centers. They were right to do so.
If the curfew is a good thing, making it citywide is the logical solution. New Orleans Police Chief Ronal Serpas has said that under his watch citywide curfew enforcement has been up by 20 percent, but for some reason the city attorney's office hadn't been told in advance to draw up a citywide ordinance. So the council voted 6-0 to put the French Quarter/Marigny curfew in place with the understanding that it would reexamine a citywide curfew within the month. Mayor Mitch Landrieu signed the limited curfew ordinance the next day and it went into effect Jan. 9 — which was, not so coincidentally, the day of the BCS championships and a night when Mardi Gras-sized crowds of LSU and Alabama football fans packed the French Quarter.
The proposal was brought to the council in December by District C Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer but was tabled in order to solicit public input. Apparently they didn't get enough, even though blowback came from several directions before the initial move to defer the matter. W.C. Johnson of the Community United for Change organization said councilmembers "should just tell blacks they aren't welcome in the Quarter." Attorney Tracie Washington of the Louisiana Justice Institute said she planned to organize a boycott of Quarter businesses. Others questioned why such a curfew was only going to be enacted in the tourist areas.
That was just the local reaction. At a time when New Orleans was once again strutting its stuff on the national stage with the Sugar Bowl, the BCS championship and the New Orleans Saints' first playoff game, news outlets around the country ran critical headlines. "Blacks in New Orleans Cry Foul Over French Quarter Curfew," trumpeted the Los Angeles Times in a story that was picked up by other papers. Black Entertainment Television's headline read, "The New Orleans Curfew: Keeping Young Blacks Away From Tourists."
Fair and accurate? Depends on whom you ask. The whole story? Definitely not. It was, frankly, insulting for a paper such as the Times to intimate that "blacks" were a monolithic group of people who all feel the same way. Many African-Americans have said the Quarter is no place for minors after dark, period. At a minimum, it was another fissure in an increasingly strained relationship between the Landrieu administration and some African-American groups. The mayor's popularity rating remains high among all racial groups, but it's no secret there's little love lost between the administration and a few African-American organizations, including the New Orleans NAACP.
Putting race aside, the original curfew ordinance cited child safety as its primary goal and noted there had been four homicides in the last year in the Quarter and Marigny. Four is four too many, but it's also four out of 199 citywide. There were dozens of killings in the 9th Ward and at least three times as many in Mid-City as there were in the new curfew district.
Landrieu now says he supports the citywide curfew, which is good. The mayor and the chief have asked residents to cooperate with cops and have made it clear that citizens play an essential role in the city's crime-fighting strategy. If that's true, and if the curfew is truly about safety, then neighborhoods across the city deserve the same protection as the French Quarter and Marigny. If an 8 p.m. curfew is good for Frenchmen and Royal and Bourbon streets, it should be good for Washington Avenue and Canal Boulevard and Alvar Street. And if that had been the scope of the original ordinance, we would have been spared some local contretemps — and some embarrassing national headlines.