Gary Briggs

When I was a middle-school teacher in New Orleans, I met weekly with a group of students to discuss what it meant to be a young Black man in America. We called ourselves “The League.” In The League, I was no longer “Mr. Briggs,” and my students were no longer “Harriet Tubman students;” we were simply Black men, and frankly, that was enough. The purpose for them was to find commonality in their struggles but also in their triumphs, to create a safe space for these young men to be just that—young.

I thought of my students recently as I watched Ava DuVernay’s television  series “When They See Us.” It tells the story of the five Black and Brown boys who were targeted, wrongfully convicted, and imprisoned in the Central Park jogger case—some of them for years.

I was a one-year-old in 1989 when the case rocked New York and the nation.  Thirty years later, it still deeply resonates with me as a Black man, as a Black teacher of Black children, and as a Black citizen of New Orleans. The case is a crystal-clear illustration of how Black and Brown young men are perceived by law enforcement, the media, and the public, and the ways in which those perceptions collide to infringe our rights and threaten our lives.

Thirty years later, the case is also instructive as we consider the city’s announcement of a summer curfew for young people under 16.

As a city, we should be empowering and inspiring our kids, not criminalizing them.

New Orleans is at a crossroads with our youth. City officials are arguing that the curfew is as much about protecting children’s safety as public safety. Of course, protecting children is something everyone, first and foremost parents, wants. But as we’ve witnessed again and again, the over-policing of Black and Brown children is never a good idea—primarily because the criminal justice system is so deeply biased against us to begin with.

As a Black man, I’ve known this reality all my life: When I was beginning to venture into independence, my parents told me, “If the police are driving behind you, don’t look in the rearview mirror. That draws attention to you.” They knew then, as they know now, that if I was stopped by the police, my life would no longer be in my hands. My fate—life or death, jailed or free—would be in the hands of the state and how they perceived me.

That’s exactly the risk we’re subjecting our young people to with the enforcement of the curfew law. All too often, using policing to “protect” children can funnel Black and Brown students toward the criminal justice system, as we’ve seen in many cases where police officers are stationed in schools.

On top of that, what message are we sending our kids with this curfew? For many of them, it sends the signal that they’re somehow dangerous, that they must be kept inside for their own and other’s protection.

Research shows curfew laws don’t make our cities safer. If we want to prevent young people from getting into trouble—a worthy goal, certainly—we should be looking at what strategies actually work. We should be looking at positive youth development programs, for example.

The answer to curbing summertime crimes committed largely by restless children is not immediately interfacing these young people with the criminal justice system, a system that has for generations failed to protect the citizens, particularly the Black and Brown ones, it was supposedly built to protect.

In The League, our conversations centered on racism and how it pervades every aspect of our lives. As a teacher, I wanted to convey to my students that naïveté about how the world perceives us can result in the worst possible outcomes.

The young men in the Central Park jogger case served long sentences for a crime they did not commit. This is an unjust tax that we pay every day, and awareness of it brings the ability to process our unspoken feelings and stressors.

A student named Khalfani, a seventh-grader when he joined The League, posed a question that cut to the heart of the injustice: what did these young men do to be born stigmatized?

We pondered Khalfani’s question from the varied perspectives we brought into the room as listeners and learners. We saw each other.

When our city tells young people when they can and can’t leave their homes, and exposes them to law enforcement in the process, it is a reminder that in most public spaces and institutions, our Black and Brown kids are still not fully seen for who they are.

Before we use policing to “protect” children, the city should be having a larger discussion about what we can do to support all parents and families to keep their children safe and supervised when they’re not in school. But the onus can’t fall solely on working parents, who are so often putting in long hours to keep their children fed and housed; it must be a community effort.

This is in keeping with our city’s traditions and norms. After all, New Orleans is known for the strength of its culture. At every turn, we work to create villages of support, and our youth deserve the same level of energy. Parents should set boundaries and expectations for their teens, but they can’t do it alone, and they shouldn’t have to. If our youth are to emerge ultimately as our culture bearers, we must ensure that they have the support to thrive at every turn.

The city might consider taking the funds that will be spent enforcing the curfew and redirecting them toward community programs like NORDC centers, where teens could have access to meals and movie nights. Longer term, we should work toward robust, affordable summer programming for every child—not just for the parents who sign up first or can afford to send their kids to camp. Instead of adopting a curfew, we should use this as an opportunity for city officials, schools, community leaders and parents to come together and get creative about ways to keep students engaged and safe over the summer.

When we invest in policing our children more heavily, instead of investing in getting to know them and building on their strengths, we are doing a grave disservice not just to our kids, but to our communities and to our city. The boys I taught had so much to offer. Now we’re sending them the message that they’re unfit to be outside on a summer’s night. Moreover, we’re putting them at heightened risk by pre-emptively introducing them to the criminal justice system.

As a city, we should be empowering and inspiring our kids, not criminalizing them.

Gary Briggs, a New Orleans native, works for EdNavigator, a nonprofit that helps families navigate the educational system.

The opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.