This is a tough one to gauge…
From a distance, it seemed like common sense: an ordinance meant to keep children away from an open-air night-life zone with more than 350 places to buy booze, an abundance of strip joints and a 300-year-old reputation for iniquity.
But last week, as the New Orleans City Council approved a strict curfew for youths 16 and younger in the French Quarter, it sparked an incendiary debate that laid bare some of the tensions over race and police priorities that the Louisiana city — which suffers from the nation’s highest per capita murder rate — is struggling to resolve as it navigates its post-Hurricane Katrina future.
The ordinance, which was unanimously approved Thursday, revises a long-standing 11 p.m. curfew on Friday and Saturday nights to 8 p.m. for the French Quarter and part of the nearby Faubourg Marigny neighborhood.
In the rest of the city, an 11 p.m. curfew remains on weekends, with an 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. curfew on weekdays, depending on the season.
Councilwoman Kristen Gisleson Palmer, whose district includes the French Quarter, wrote the ordinance. The goal, she said, was to protect children from violent incidents like the headline-grabbing shootings last Halloween night, in which two people were killed and a dozen injured by gunfire on or around the packed Bourbon Street party strip.
“If we can, in any way, protect children from that, I think it’s very reasonable,” Palmer said.
But in a pair of emotional public meetings, a number of residents, most of them African Americans, criticized the idea. Some alleged that the lawmakers were trying to keep low-income blacks out of the sightlines of tourists.
“There is this desire not to have these black males in the French Quarter,” said Tracie L. Washington, an attorney who heads the Louisiana Justice Institute, a nonprofit civil rights group.
Palmer, who is white, dismissed the allegations.
At the council meeting Thursday, critics said the curfew would result in racial profiling of young blacks. One man called it “the equivalent of a black code.”
Another African American speaker said that instead of “sugar-coating” the issue, the council should “just tell us straight up — you don’t want us.”
Some worried that police would harass black kids going to and from restaurant jobs, or when they were busking or tap-dancing for tips from tourists. Palmer, the councilwoman, said those kids would be left alone because the ordinance exempts, among others, people at work or headed to and from work.
Many critics argued that the new curfew hours would seem more fair if they were enforced citywide. Palmer said her staff was working on a new ordinance to do just that.
Ronal Serpas, the city’s police superintendent, said he had asked his officers to be more diligent about enforcing the existing citywide curfew since he took charge of the police department in May 2010.
Some French Quarter residents have applauded the new curfew, but other New Orleanians wonder whether police, in enforcing the rules, will be distracted from more crucial duties. In many cases, youths breaking the curfew will be told to go home, but in some instances police might take them into custody.
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