It was Andrew Cuomo's Curfew

Understanding another policy failure in New York

On the afternoon of Monday, June 1st, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on an upstate radio show that New York City would have its first curfew since 1945.

“I know something has to be done,” Cuomo said.

Though Cuomo couched the curfew announcement, in part, over concerns with the spread of COVID-19, its real purpose was to crack down on the looting and unrest that had taken place during the mass protests against police brutality following George Floyd’s death. “It’s New York City, where I do believe there are people who use the chaos of the moment. It’s an opportunity. If you want to steal, that’s the night to do it. If you are an extremist group, and you want to preach anarchy, that’s the night to do it,” Cuomo said.

Later in the day, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Cuomo would announce the curfew together in a news release. But New York City can do little without the approval of state government. The governor has the power to override a curfew imposed by a locality. Without Cuomo, there would be no curfew.

Yet de Blasio, who publicly embraced the curfew, would become the face of this disastrous response. Rather than de-escalate the protests, the curfew merely created new opportunities for police to kettle, assault, and arrest unarmed New Yorkers who were marching after a curfew that, at first, extended to 11 p.m. and then dropped to 8 p.m. Police were even violating the city’s own executive order by mass arresting protesters without a warning to disperse.

Now that the curfew is gone, future policymakers will have years unravel its failure. Rather than ease tensions and urge marchers off the streets, the curfew merely added new fuel to the protests, lending them a greater dimension of civil disobedience. The curfew was a demonstration of all that can go wrong with policing, with heavily armed men and women incentivized to indiscriminately arrest unarmed civilians who were violating an arbitrary decree. It became a catastrophic, absurdist take on quality-of-life policing, when cops decide, sometimes on a whim, what kind of person should be arrested for smoking marijuana or drinking alcohol in public. With thousands of people jammed together, how does a police officer decide whom to arrest for violating curfew? A law as capricious as a curfew can criminalize an entire city. It will also likely end up costing taxpayers when lawsuits are brought against the NYPD and settlements are meted out.

Last week, I tweeted that the curfew is one of de Blasio’s great policy failures. I wish, in retrospect, I had been more precise: it was one of Andrew Cuomo’s great policy failures because he ordered the curfew first and could have decided to end it if he so chose. State government, as I’ve said, has near-total dominion over New York City. It’s unclear if the curfew was even de Blasio’s idea. De Blasio enforced the curfew with enthusiasm and history should judge him harshly for it. He could have publicly repudiated Cuomo. He could have challenged him. Instead, he accepted reality on Cuomo’s terms.

The backlash against the curfew and the calls for de Blasio’s resignation played perfectly into Cuomo’s hands. De Blasio was the front man for a reviled policy. Cuomo, again, receded into the background, leaving a lame-duck mayor to absorb a week of horrendous local and national press. It is a maneuver Cuomo has perfected; take credit for successes that are barely his own and avert blame for failures that are directly his doing. Cuomo’s tragic incompetence in the initial weeks of the COVID-19 outbreak was emblematic of what I will term, for a lack of a better phrase, the Cuomo style. Now that New York’s coronavirus case load is in decline, Cuomo will declare victory and seek plaudits for tamping down the pandemic. But almost 30,000 people are dead. The blood on Cuomo’s hands is real.

As 2020 slogs on, all of us revolving through this nightmare year that no Don DeLillo novel could ever dream up, it will be important to remember the grim facts. The mass death was not inevitable. The police violence was not inevitable. Andrew Cuomo is the most powerful person New York has seen since Robert Moses. Holding him accountable will be one of the great projects of our age.