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Law and Order: Curfew America

War zone security has arrived in the US as cities are shut down at night by police struggling to control a deadly wave of gun crime. David Usborne reports from Hartford, Connecticut

David Usborne

HARTFORD, Connecticut - The police state has not arrived quite yet but it may feel like it to the residents of some American cities, where a handful of embattled mayors and police chiefs are imposing strict and sometimes sweeping curfews as a last resort to quell new waves of gun violence this summer.0820 02 1

"We must do this because we cannot and will not tolerate innocent people, especially children, to be victims," insists Eddie Perez, the Mayor of Hartford, the capital of Connecticut, where a night-time curfew was introduced last week and will remain in effect for a month for those under 18 years old.

Nor are there any apologies from the authorities in Helena-West Helena on the banks of the Mississippi in Arkansas, small pockets of which are under a24-hour curfew that all ages must respect. Police are enforcing it, moreover, with night-vision goggles and M16 military rifles.

In Hartford, the centre of America's insurance industry, the approach is not quite as militaristic. Children found on the streets between 9pm and 5am are approached and escorted by officers to their homes. Most nights since the curfew came into effect last Thursday have seen only a dozen or so picked up.

But there was nothing softly-softly about the violence that prompted Hartford to take such action. Two weekends ago, 11 people were shot in three different attacks, the worst at the annual West Indian Parade in the city's North End, which left one man dead and two children hurt. A toddler in a pushchair was grazed by bullet on her leg. A seven-year-old boy remains in hospital with serious head wounds.

"I am still traumatised," says Darlene Johnson, 44, who had a food stall at the parade with her husband and father. "I see this man pulling this long gun from under his shirt and he started shooting. I just couldn't believe it. Some people thought it was firecrackers but I knew different. I saw the little girl rubbing her leg and the boy with blood coming out of his head."

Much of the city cannot believe it either, yet 150 shootings have been recorded this year In summer, bored teenagers have little to do but wander the streets. Gangs mark out turf. Insults are traded and revenge is taken. The man killed at the parade, Ezekial Roberts, had been running with gangs.

While curfews sound like they belong in war zones or natural disaster areas, they have long been a popular tool of US police departments. And it is in the dog days of summer, when humidity and violence seem to join hands, that they most often come into vogue. For the duration of the school holidays this year, for instance, Baltimore has an 11pm curfew (midnight on Fridays and Saturdays) for children under 17. Those who violate it are taken to a school until a parent or guardian picks them up.

It is a trend the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), does not welcome. The group "opposes juvenile curfews because they're essentially a violation of fundamental rights of innocent people," said David McGuire of the Connecticut ACLU. "Curfews essentially are placing an entire demographic, in this case, youth, under house arrest for the inappropriate actions of a few."

Residents of Connecticut's north end, however, tired of the shootings, seem mostly to support the curfew, though few believe it alone will solve the larger problems of young people with little to do, attracted by gangs and lacking discipline. "We need to keep the young people off the streets," says Ms Johnson on the front steps of her home. "And the parents need help. The law is the law." Taquana Quan, 18, standing outside Burger and Pizza Land on Barbour Avenue, where two other men were shot on the same weekend, also supports the Mayor's decision. So does his cousin, Shantay Taytay, who is 21. They have had enough. "This dude pulled a gun on me last week to take my bike. We are moving to Atlanta, the whole family."

"We'll see if it works," says Barbara Shannon, who lives across from the restaurant and said she starting praying when she heard the shots. But it will not be enough. The problem lies in the upbringing of the teenagers, she says, mostly by single mothers. Indeed, of all the households with children in Hartford, almost 70 per cent are headed by single parents. And nearly always they are the mothers. "Babies are having babies and kids are having kids," she asserts confidently. "And the mothers are always looking to have fun. They don't make time to look after their young ones."

Valencia Coleman, 68, who has a dance studio in the north end and witnessed the shooting at the parade, is more blunt. "The children can't stay in their homes because of what their mothers are doing behind the bedroom door. They are having sex. The boys especially have a big problem with that. Every kid I know who is in trouble, it's always the same story. They can't handle their mothers' boyfriends."

More dubious still is Alisha Jackson, whose oldest child is 12. She thinks the curfew is a "band-aid" that will only deepen tensions between young people and the police. "I hope it works. But I think it's going to cause a lot of trouble. A lot of kids are going to end up being locked up, I bet you."

And what of the young targets of the curfew, such as Rackwon Hicks, who is hanging out with a cousin and two friends on the front steps of another dour brick apartment building on Barbour Street? (Never mind the metal sign by the door prohibiting the "Peddleing of drugs" (sic) as well as sitting on the entryway steps".)

He is 10 years old and says staying at home after 9pm is not an option. His mother is there. "I just can't be there, that's all. They can't coop us up like that, it's not right"

One of the friends, Rashad Hassan, a burly 16-year-old, is cocky. "I really don't care about it. I will still be outside anyways."

A few doors down a teenage girl has turned a speaker of her stereo out onto the street to fill it with tinny dance music. A dope dealer lingers by a corner store and offers the wisdom that the curfew is "garbage".

© 2008 The Independent

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