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For Essential Workers, New York City’s Curfew Meant Fear, Harassment, and Arrest

Essential workers say curfews put them at risk of police violence, even though they were exempt.

(Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo by Getty Images).

When New York’s stay-at-home order went into effect in March, Darien Sutton-Ramsey, an emergency medicine physician, began keeping his scrubs on for the drive home, and he moved his hospital identification badge from his chest to his left shoulder. He put his credentials on the dashboard. These precautions had nothing to do with the novel coronavirus—he was trying to protect himself from the police. 

“My anxiety during the pandemic did not truly get realized until shelter-in-place took effect,” Sutton-Ramsey, who is Black, told The Appeal. “This means that less people are going to be on the road and more police presence is going to be mandating that rule, which increases the risk of my contact with an officer.”

Sutton-Ramsey has been treating patients with COVID-19 in one of the hardest-hit areas in the country. (Sutton-Ramsey asked The Appeal not to name the hospital.) He and his colleagues had limited personal protective equipment, he said. 

“It felt like you were fighting a fire with blindfolds on,” he said. “It was kind of all hands on deck. Everyone get in the ER and do what you can.”

He said he often educates people on the importance of wearing masks to reduce transmission. But once New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio imposed a curfew in response to protests against police violence, Sutton-Ramsey decided it would be safer not to wear a mask while walking to and from his car. 

“I have to weigh the weight of my life and getting COVID versus the weight of actually having a bad interaction and being seen as a threat while wearing a mask,” said Sutton-Ramsey. “I personally feel wearing a mask at night is too dangerous, and I’d rather get COVID.”

Before the curfew was imposed, New York City police officers had already brutalized protesters for days. The curfew, critics say, just gave the department another tool of repression. De Blasio issued executive orders banning people from being in public from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m., from June 2 to June 8. Rideshare services like Uber and Lyft were not permitted to operate from 8 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. New York City was last under a curfew in 1943, when Mayor Fiorello La Guardia imposed a curfew on Harlem in response to protests that erupted after a white police officer shot a Black soldier.

After threats of litigation and public outcry, de Blasio lifted the curfew about a day early, on June 7. Curfews were also imposed and lifted in many other areas including Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. 

In New York City, the curfew exempted essential workers, including healthcare workers and food delivery people. According to a memo from the mayor’s office, essential workers were not required to show identification if they were stopped by the police. “There are no specific requirements for ID,” reads the memo, entitled, “Frequently Asked Questions on Curfew Order.” “If you are stopped, you only need to identify yourself as an essential worker.”

But in practice, workers, especially people of color, faced an ever-present threat of harassment, abuse, and arrest. The curfew in New York City made it “open season on protesters as well as people of color, essential workers who were trying to get to and from work,” said Chinyere Ezie, a senior staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights. 

“The curfew was really used as a way to justify police brutality against the public,” she said.

Journalist Kirsti Karttunen posted a video to Twitter on June 4 showing police arresting a delivery person who was carrying a food delivery bag at 8:25 p.m. in Manhattan. According to Karttunen’s Twitter post, the worker was released later that night. De Blasio tweeted that he spoke with the police commissioner “after seeing the troubling video of a delivery worker arrested by police while doing his job. This is NOT acceptable and must stop.”

On June 4, resident physician and Left Voice editor Mike Pappas attended a protest in the Bronx as a medic. As protesters marched through the neighborhood, he said, people in their homes showed support. 

“People who were maybe self-isolating or were just at home would actually—were putting their heads out of their windows and hitting on pots and pans to the music, chanting with the crowd, and participating in the protest that way,” he said. “We thought that it was really beautiful to see.”  

But at about 7:30 p.m., he noticed an increasing police presence. The police then lined up around the protesters, blocking the roads, he said. “Organizers start to yell, ‘They’re kettling us! They’re kettling us!’” Organizers asked white protesters to step to the front, Pappas explained, “where the police are first going to come, so if they get violent, they’re less likely to get violent with the white comrades who are there.”

“There’s not really much of a way to get out because there’s cops on the side, there’s cars on the side,” he said. “We’re getting packed in tighter and tighter.”

Pappas told an officer he was acting as a medic. The officer asked him to come with him and then arrested him, he told The Appeal.

In a video posted by Left Voice on Twitter, Pappas, in scrubs, has his hands behind his back, and is standing among a group of officers, as what appears to be a recorded message announces, “Other than essential workers, no person or occupied vehicle are permitted in public or on city streets. Thank you for your cooperation.” While handcuffed, Pappas said he witnessed police pepper-spray and beat protesters with batons. 

At the demonstration, the police also targeted and detained nine legal observers, who were exempt from the curfew, according to a letter from the New York City chapter of the National Lawyers Guild to the NYPD commissioner. According to the group’s letter, an NYPD legal bureau officer repeatedly shouted, “Legal Observers CAN be arrested, you’re good to go.” 

The mayor’s office and the NYPD did not respond to The Appeal’s requests for comment. 

In a statement to Gothamist, a police spokesperson said, “The NYPD’s mission is to ensure public safety and uphold the law and any claims of targeting are baseless. Police officers were enforcing a curfew, non-essential workers were not permitted to be out after 8pm.”

Pappas said he was taken to the 40th Precinct and held in a jail cell with approximately 15 other people. He was released at around 2:30 a.m. on June 5.  

“What we view this curfew as is state-sanctioned violence,” he said. “Government leaders gave the OK to a racist, murderous gang that is the NYPD.”

While the curfew was in place, Skye Adrian also feared being stopped by the police. 

“Being a Black person, you would want to have little to no engagement with police officers especially after curfew,” said Adrian, who works for FIERCE, an activist organization led by LGBTQ youth of color that assists young people who are experiencing homelessness. “I cannot unsee what I have seen, and it was simply hard for me not to see myself in those same folks that were being abused during the protests.”

One evening, shortly before 8 p.m., he was approached by three police officers at the Fulton Street subway station, he told The Appeal. They asked him if he was an essential worker and where he was coming from. One officer said his mask looked like a mask worn by a protester earlier in the day. 

“I just simply said, ‘I’m just trying to get home,’” said Adrian. “It really could have gone [in] any direction, and I just tried to keep as composed as possible.”

After leaving the officers, Adrian ran into a member of FIERCE in the subway station who had been kicked out of where she was staying, he said. He began making calls to find her a bed. 

“You have to deal with that person’s anxiety in addition to your own,” he said of working to find her shelter. “You are both in trouble because you didn’t make it to curfew, so that was like the biggest thing that was on my mind the entire time.”

The city provided little guidance for workers like Adrian, who help people experiencing homelessness, said Jamie Powlovich, executive director of the Coalition for Homeless Youth. She learned about the curfew after it was announced, she said, and was not consulted by the mayor’s office beforehand.

Powlovich emailed the Department of Youth & Community Development, a city agency that funds youth programs, asking about the safety of outreach staff and their clients during the curfew, according to emails reviewed by The Appeal. 

“What is DYCD doing to advocate for essential program staff to have access to SAFE transportation to and from work?” she wrote on June 3. “Has DYCD clarified with the NYPD how they are determining who is ‘homeless?’ so that the providers can make sure that the youth have the information they need to … stay safe.”

Her questions remain unanswered, she said.

“Even though the curfew has been lifted, we are still requesting a response from DYCD so that a policy or structure is put in place in the event that a curfew is ever reestablished, so that providers know how to react and support the young people immediately,” she told The Appeal. 

According to DYCD spokesperson Dayana Perez, the department did not receive any reports of harassment or abuse of direct service providers or clients for being out after curfew. DYCD advised providers to carry identification and a letter from their respective agencies on letterhead, even though there was no identification requirement for essential workers, Perez wrote in an email to The Appeal.

“The unprecedented curfew announcement happened quickly, and essential workers as well as all New Yorkers were required to adjust quickly as well,” wrote Perez.

New Yorkers should not be too quick to forget the harms of the curfew now that it’s been lifted, said Anthonine Pierre, deputy director of the Brooklyn Movement Center, a Black-led activist group in Central Brooklyn. For one thing, it tells the city a lot about its mayor. “The curfew was about protecting a police state from the will of the people,” Pierre said. 

“What we really need to remember is it is always possible for a curfew” to go into effect.