Let’s talk about the curfew

by Eric Ginsburg

I’m confident that Greensboro City Council members supported the curfew because they’re genuinely worried about public safety, but we’re talking about teen violence because it happened downtown. I’m not the first to point out that fights between sets of teenagers from different sides of the city happen with relative frequency, but as one parent said, nobody paid attention until it was in somebody else’s backyard.

There was no emergency meeting after teen fights and several arrests on East Market Street shortly after the curfew was enacted, though some said the fights illustrated their reasoning for making the curfew citywide.

It doesn’t matter if most city council members tiptoe around the fact that we’re talking about young, black males — Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small is quick to point out that is who’s being arrested. Regardless of the intention, the curfew further criminalizes young black men.

Ten years ago people didn’t really care about downtown — I’ve heard a few crazy stories about what used to happen in the city’s core after dark — but with a renewed focus on development downtown, now the city has a nest egg to protect.

At a recent meeting about the curfew, Chief Ken Miller remarked that there aren’t any places for anyone under 18 downtown after 11 p.m. That’s not entirely true, but it might as well be. Isn’t that a problem?

Is downtown really for everyone? It’s great to see the council focused on a vision for downtown, but if we’re waiting for the economic benefits of high-end condos and a performing arts center to trickle down to poor people and teens, we should give up now.

Council members say the key to downtown growth is residential development, but for it to be successful, don’t families have to move in? A blanket ban on a certain age demographic doesn’t just inhibit residential development, it ensures that statements about downtown being for everyone will remain mere platitudes.

Councilman Zack Matheny challenged curfew opponents to come up with a solution the city should implement instead, but the real question is: What should these kids have been doing?

Sure, we don’t want them to be fighting, but what programs existed for teenagers before this whole debate? When the curfew came up the first time and Matheny and others were on council, what did they do then to create opportunities for kids?

City Manager Denise Turner Roth noted in a curfew meeting that federal funding for teen summer job programs evaporated years ago. What have we been doing since then, besides ignoring the situation until it came downtown?

Teenagers already feel alienated — I certainly did. There aren’t jobs, and the ones that exist pay poverty wages. We’ve got a whole initiative aimed at black boys in school, but the program announced last week that it didn’t meet its literacy goals this year.

The biggest monument we’ve built to young people recently is the new jail, and a criminal conviction for a curfew violation only pushes our young, black males in that direction. For the most part, they are invisible to society unless they’re being viewed as a threat.

I don’t have all the answers about what teenagers need or why they are fighting, but asking these questions periodically certainly won’t lead us to any answers. Sometimes fights are about girls. We’ve heard some may stem from the murder of a teenager at the youth carnival.

Let’s stop pretending that teenagers are monsters, though. Instead of treating them like problems to push around, we should spend more time listening to them. I can’t imagine what it feels like to be young and black and hear about Trayvon Martin, or live in a city with few opportunities or to have to deal with most white people who are eager to act like racism doesn’t exist.

Let’s stop pretending that teenagers are stupid. Kids will find somewhere else to party, and if they want to fight, a curfew isn’t going to stop them. A high school student told me that people he knows will often dress up in nice clothes if they’re planning to fight, making it less likely that they’ll be profiled as instigators.

“Why go downtown to fight?” I asked him.

“It’s so public.”

Because the cops used to let it happen, he said, adding that he was in a fight downtown and it wasn’t until afterwards that nearby police came over and sent teenagers packing.

Even if his account isn’t accurate, how does enforcing a curfew enhance the city? If the message teenagers feel like they’re getting is “We don’t want you here,” aren’t we just making things worse?

The question shouldn’t be about what started a specific fight, but about the context that creates the situation. Are the fights the real problem, or is it something much deeper?

The teen curfew is set to expire in a few weeks, and at least some on council are sure to push for its extension. They’ve stressed that the curfew is only part of the solution, and I’ll be eagerly waiting to see if they’ll put city money behind a more thoughtful strategy.