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Chicago’s curfew raises concerns about civil liberties — but it’s defensible and necessary

Mayors and police chiefs require access to every legal measure — emphasis on legal — to quell unrest right now.

Johnny Leland dumps shards of glass onto a trash pile from the aftermath of protests and looting in the South Side on Monday.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Civil libertarians are slamming curfews that have been imposed by Chicago and other cities, but mayors and police chiefs require access to every legal measure — emphasis on legal — to quell unrest right now.

It is obvious that a significant number of people are exploiting lawful mass protests over the death of George Floyd to loot and destroy property throughout the city. The 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew imposed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot, clearing the streets of most law-abiding people, is intended to make it easier for the police to spot looters, arsonists and other criminals.

The FBI reports that a Galesburg man arrested for curfew violation in Chicago turned out to be responsible for both helping to burn a Minneapolis police station on one night and trashing downtown Chicago buildings on another.

We recognize that curfews are problematic. By their nature, they place limits on people who are engaged in lawful First Amendment conduct, in this case protesting the police treatment of Floyd and the record of too many similar deaths at the hands of police. They complicate the lives of people who must commute to work during the hours covered by the curfew, including health care professionals, and expose them to mistaken criminal charges.

Curfews can be enforced unevenly, and in Minneapolis, some protesters have ignored that city’s curfew.

Moreover, a curfew imposed until further notice, such as Lightfoot’s, could be seen as perpetuating the very same arbitrary system of policing that people are protesting. The ACLU, in a tweet, said the curfew “invites arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.”

But the ACLU’s suggestion that a curfew be imposed only in areas of the city “where there is imminent danger of danger or harm” strikes us as unrealistic. Looting, arson and other crimes have broken out in unpredictable patterns around the city. In New York, anarchists reportedly used scouts to find areas with no police presence. When that occurs, only a citywide curfew can be effective.

On Monday, Los Angeles announced its third night of a curfew, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a curfew for New York City, despite Police Commissioner Dermot Shea’s comment that if people think a curfew would be helpful “they don’t understand what’s going on.” Among other municipalities that have imposed curfews are Cleveland, Detroit, Denver, Philadelphia and some Chicago suburbs.

Research on the benefits of curfews for adults is limited. But as a temporary measure — this too shall pass — we believe Chicago and other cities are within proper bounds in imposing curfews for the safety of residents.

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