Oakland’s curfew in context: The long history of curfews against anti-racist movements

To understand why countless Oakland residents will gather to defy the curfew tonight, it’s important to understand how curfews have long been used to quell pain and fury in communities of color.

April 8, 1968: a soldier standing guard at Seventh and N Street, N.W., Washington, D.C., with the ruins of buildings that were destroyed during the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Photo: Warren K. Leffler, courtesy Library of Congress

Demonstrators will gather in downtown Oakland this evening at 8:05 p.m. to protest and openly defy the citywide curfew and state of emergency that was announced by Mayor Libby Schaaf on Monday. The sentiment behind the action — “F*** the Curfew!” — couldn’t be clearer.

Oaklanders’ opinions about tonight’s protest are bound to differ. But to understand the anger that many local activists are directing at the city requires us to consider the historical context in which this action is taking place.

Current events don’t happen in a vacuum. The U.S. has a long and lamentable history of using curfews — which legally require people to stay indoors during specified hours or risk being arrested — to quash civil unrest, suppress social justice movements and curtail the movement of specific groups, especially people of color.

To cite just a handful of notable examples:


During World War II, in late March of 1942, the U.S. government imposed an 8 p.m. curfew on all Japanese Americans living on the West Coast.

New York City declared a curfew in Harlem in 1943 to quell race riots that erupted after a white police officer shot and killed a Black soldier.

“This is more than a moment. It’s the seeds of what could be a movement. This protest should not be interrupted.” — Joe Brooks, longtime Bay Area social justice activist

At the height of the Watts riots in 1965, California Lt. Governor Glen Allen imposed a curfew on a 46.5-square-mile swath of South Los Angeles. Los Angeles police officers and L.A. sheriff’s deputies patrolled the curfew zone, according to historian and author Stan Yogi, who spoke to The Oaklandside via email. National Guard troops with machine guns were stationed at major intersections in South L.A.

In 1968, curfews were imposed in cities across the nation in the wake of massive demonstrations and rioting that followed the murder of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., in Memphis, Tennessee.

In 1992, a weeklong sunset-to-sunrise curfew was declared in Los Angeles when the videotaped beating of a Black man, Rodney King, sparked riots in the city.

In 2001, an 8 p.m. curfew was ordered in Cincinnati after the killing of a Black man, Timothy Thomas, by a white patrolman, Stephen Roach. The killing sparked a four-day riot in that city’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood.

Throughout the 2000s, curfews have been championed by police departments and elected officials in various cities — including in Oakland and San Francisco — as a method to curb youth violence and deter criminal activity by known or suspected gang members. In 2011, the East Bay Express reported extensively on the city of Oakland’s efforts to impose a “youth curfew” after a three-year-old child, Carlos Nava, was shot and killed that summer during a drive-by shooting. Its reporting concluded that there was little proof to suggest that curfews targeting Black and brown youth in East and West Oakland neighborhoods would be effective.

More recently, in 2014, a curfew was ordered in Ferguson, Missouri, to control demonstrations and de-escalate tensions after Michael Brown, an 18-year-old Black man, was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white police officer.

To better understand this history of curfews, and particularly how they’ve been used since the civil rights era as a response to popular protests, I decided to speak to someone with firsthand experience.

Joe Brooks, a longtime social justice activist and a respected voice in Black communities in the Bay Area, sits on the leadership council of the Brotherhood of Elders Network, an intergenerational group dedicated to the advancement of Black boys and young men. Brooks, who will turn 80 this year, has been witness to numerous pivotal moments during his six decades of activism.

He played a key role in the Black and Ethnic Studies movement at Berkeley. He “was there” when Reagan authorized the National Guard to use force against student activists in 1968 and 1969. He was a part of the Civil Rights movement in the Black Belt South in the 1960s. Brooks even worked directly with elected officials and residents in Cincinnati in the aftermath of Timothy Thomas’s killing, and helped to author a guidebook for “community-centered policing” that has since been widely used and referenced as a tool for community-police relations in cities across the country.

“I’ve been a part of many social justice movements, and I‘ve seen many curfews,” said Brooks. “Two come to mind almost immediately. There were curfews during the weeklong protests in reaction to the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles in 1992. That went very badly. The other time is when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.”

“Those moments are really clear in my mind. In both cases, the curfews incentivized violence.” — Joe Brooks

Violence erupted in over 100 cities after Dr. King, the Civil Rights leader, was killed in Memphis, Tennessee on April 14, 1968. The federal government responded to the mass unrest with curfews and military occupations in multiple cities that lasted, in some cases, for a full year.

“Those moments are really clear in my mind. In both cases, the curfews incentivized violence. It created an incentive for people to go from more of a demand and trying to articulate an agenda, to violence and looting,” said Brooks.

“That’s my basic concern,” he said. “When you have people coming together and really trying to make a statement and put forth an agenda that’s been denied for a long time, and then you impose a curfew, you’re cutting that thinking out, setting it aside, and not respecting what people are trying to say and articulate.”

Mayor Libby Schaaf touched on these concerns when announcing the curfew on Monday. “We did not make this decision lightly, and we are mindful that a curfew is a serious tool that has been used by American governments as a tool of oppression and racial bias,” the mayor said, adding that the curfew was nonetheless “necessary to protect our community, our residents, and our businesses from further violence and vandalism.”

Some reports have noted that violence and property crimes in Oakland associated with the protests, like vandalism and looting, have subsided in the two days since the curfew was ordered.

But the ACLU of Northern California agrees with Brooks. On Wednesday, the organization issued a statement condemning the curfews in Oakland and other California cities.

“The protests are really about this very obvious and flagrant abuse of police power,” said Shilpi Agarwal, legal and policy director at ACLU of Northern California. “And the notion that this is how our cities are responding to that flagrant abuse of policing power seems wrong on every level. We know what happens when we give the police more power and more discretion: harassment, over-policing, and sometimes, tragically, even the death of Black and brown community members.”

Legally, said Agarwal, the curfew orders in Oakland and elsewhere are broad and vague, leaving too much discretion in the hands of police departments. She said the ACLU has been receiving calls and tips from residents across Northern California, reporting arrests of residents during the curfew that have nothing to do with criminal behavior.

“People have been getting arrested for all sorts of things,” said Agarwal. “For going to the store, for visiting relatives. We got a call from a woman who’d gone to the store to pick up feminine hygiene products, a woman of color. This will only serve to repeat the same injustices that our communities are out there protesting right now.”

It remains to be seen how the city will respond to critics of the curfew. In the meantime, Brooks worries that the long-term costs could outweigh the short-term gains.

“I am concerned about the violence and the looting,” said Brooks. However, he added, “I don’t think they should interfere. This is more than a moment. It’s the seeds of what could be a movement. This protest should not be interrupted. It’s an opportunity for society to address something that’s been wrong in America for a long time.”

Jacob Simas is managing editor of The Oaklandside. Email: jacob@berkeleyside.com.