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.
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.
Washington has called for an African American boycott of the French Quarter to begin on Jan. 16, Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Tourism is the city’s largest source of employment, and it would seem foolish for a city government to neglect the French Quarter’s safety.
But critics of the new curfew fear it is an instance of misplaced priorities.
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.