Correction: The start time for the proposed weekend curfew was incorrect in an earlier version of this article. 

By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer |

Some New Orleans City Council members and Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas faced accusations of racism and unequal law enforcement this afternoon over plans to expand a curfew in the French Quarter and on Frenchmen Street.

Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer faced a rambunctious audience at this afternoon’s meeting of the council’s Criminal Justice Committee. Her plan would bring the curfew hours for minors forward on weekends from 11 p.m. to 9 p.m. 8 p.m. The full council is set to consider the ordinance Thursday at noon.

A police officer booted three community members from the council chambers, including community activist Sandra Wheeler-Hester, who called Committee Chairwoman Jackie Clarkson an “overseer” on the “plantation” after Clarkson asked her to be quiet.

Gisleson Palmer justified the plan by saying that the French Quarter and Frenchmen Street “are extreme areas of permissiveness, which I think we need to keep our minors safe from.”

Central City resident Brother Al Mims spoke against the ordinance. Photo by Matt Davis

She also said she would be happy to expand the curfew across the city in due course, and that she would consult with the rest of the council to garner their support for such a move. Gisleson Palmer said she was focused on the French Quarter because it falls within her district and contains a high concentration of alcoholic beverage outlets.

Serpas spoke in favor of the ordinance, saying that it could be a useful tool for law enforcement. He said the police department enforces all laws equally all over the city and said there has been a 20 percent rise in curfew enforcement citywide over the last year.

Other groups spoke up in favor of the curfew expansion including the French Quarter Business Association, the French Quarter Management Association and French Quarter Citizens, Inc.

But community activists and church members, the majority of whom were black, said the plan could unfairly target young black people in an apparent effort to drive them out of the French Quarter following nationwide coverage of the high homicide rate in New Orleans.

“What we’re saying is, don’t just single out one portion of this community and say we need to protect our kids, because when you drive them out of the French Quarter the problem is going to happen somewhere else,” said Norris Henderson with Voice of the Ex-Offender. “Y’all care about the river to Rampart Street from Canal to Elysian Fields. That’s what we feel. But if you want to make this ordinance, make it citywide.”

Central City resident Brother Al Mims addressed the council holding a sign, which showed two children’s faces and a skull, and two slogans: “No child should be next…stop the killing.”

“What about my neighborhood?” Mims asked. “Don’t just make it all about the French Quarter. This just means the problems are all going to come to my neighborhood.”

Toya Lewis with advocacy organization Stand With Dignity said the curfew ordinance won’t solve underlying poverty issues for young black men.

“It’s obvious that the biggest concern is for tourism, but what do you expect a young black man to do when they hear that there are people coming to spend all this money in the French Quarter?” Lewis said. “Do you expect them not to go and rob somebody? The problem in this city is poverty. You can throw them in jail, you can move them out, but I grew up in this city and poverty limits us. It’s time for us to give them a new opportunity.”

The Rev. Raymond Brown said he was “tired of the racism in this city.”

Clarkson said she, too, would like to see the curfew law extended around the city.

“The ultimate conclusion will be we will blanket this city with these laws for all children,” Clarkson said, adding that the council needs to “start small and then go large.”

Clarkson also expressed disappointment at local radio station WBOK, which erroneously reported this morning that Serpas was due in council chambers to discuss his plan for reducing the homicide rate. He was always scheduled to talk about the curfew ordinance, Clarkson said. Clarkson also expressed surprise about the negative reactions to expanding the curfew, and said she had hoped that the community would react positively to the move.

“Why aren’t we excited?” Clarkson asked. ACLU of Louisiana director Marjorie Esman did not make the hearing but is opposed to the expansion of the curfew.

“They have not demonstrated that the harm they say they want to prevent will be prevented by this curfew expansion,” she said. “It looks like they are using the recent crime incidents as a pretext for just wanting to keep kids out of the French Quarter. Why the French Quarter? Because they want to keep little black boys away from the tourists. If they were really concerned about the safety of these children, they would be looking at other neighborhoods where children may really be in danger. But they still have to demonstrate that any restriction on activity is related to the actual harm that they say they want to prevent.”