Over the past few months, the residents of Rochester and elsewhere throughout the country have been urged to stay home in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. During that time, it’s likely that the 1 billion hours that users formerly spent streaming content on Netflix climbed to new heights. But now that businesses are reopening and New York State’s confirmed coronavirus deaths seem to be waning, smaller public gatherings have been allowed — that is, until now.
Following a string of violent incidents, including one occurrence last week during which six people were shot as law enforcement tried to break up a gathering of several hundred attendees, Mayor Lovely Warren signed an executive order on Wednesday to effectively impose a curfew on residents and ban gatherings of more than a handful of people. According to the emergency order, bans the gathering of five or more people in public places — as well as the indoor gatherings of 10 or more people — between the hours of 11 pm and 5 am. The notable exceptions to this order include restaurants and bars.
City officials note that 70 people in the Rochester area have been subject to gun violence since June 1, with eight of those individuals passing away as a result. During the last two weeks alone, 20 shootings have occurred — and over the Independence Day weekend, 13 people were shot. In addition, 10 people have been stabbed in less than two months. According to officials, many of these recent acts of violence have been connected to larger public gatherings or house parties, meaning that the executive order was put into place as a way to curb potential violence.
In a statement, Warren explained: “My first duty is ensuring the safety of our community. We must protect the lives of every citizen in Rochester, particularly our children. I will not tolerate the lawlessness we have seen on our streets and I will do all I can to prevent tragedy from destroying the lives of our families. We have been fortunate that we have not seen the loss of life that has occurred in other cities.”
Most people would theoretically want to do everything possible to reduce violent incidents — whether they’re the result of civil unrest or domestic incidents, often described as assault that occurs between people who have some established domestic relationship. However, the emergency order has been criticized by many locals as an “attempt by the administration to criminalize Black and brown communities,” according to reporting by Spectrum News. And given that residents are already continuing to hold Black Lives Matter protests, it only makes sense that people would take to the streets in opposition of the order.
On Wednesday night after the order was signed, demonstrators began to gather at Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Park around 10:45 pm — 15 minutes before the curfew was set to start. The group then began to march to the corner of East and Alexander before heading back to the park.
An official statement from the group organizers, which included Free the People ROC and the Coalition for Black Lives, said: “The city has shown a complete disregard for Black lives as they continue to criminalize Black and brown for simply existing in their neighborhoods. The community sees that this was never about public health or responding to gun violence, but rather a way to further criminalize Black and brown people instead of addressing the root causes of crime. The people will continue to rise up and challenge the status quo.”
Although the protest was peaceful and law enforcement reports that they gave multiple orders over a period of several hours for the protestors to disperse, police began making arrests around 2 am on Thursday. According to authorities, 30 adult men and women were arrested and charged with violating New York State Executive Order Law, a class B misdemeanor. Reportedly, no force was used there were no injuries; those arrested were issued appearance tickets for a later date.
Mayor Warren has stated that, unless the violence stops, the executive order will be renewed every five days. But both Monroe County Legislator Rachel Barnhart and Rochester City Councilmember Mary Lupien have spoken out against both the order and the subsequent arrests. Barnhart posed that the arrests were a “violation of protesters’ rights, a waste of resources, and an abuse of power,” while Lupien explained on Facebook: “Curfews have been found unconstitutional unless in dire emergencies. This amended Executive Order cites preventing community spread of COVID as the reason for the disallowing gatherings between 11 pm and 5 am, not gun violence. This is an overreach by our city government.”
Coming off of this most recent rally, city officials are bracing for another demonstration to take place on Sunday. A protest event called Shut it Down, organized by a group called Save Rochester – Black Lives Matter, is set to occur starting at 2 pm, wherein participants will gather in MLK Park and take an undisclosed route to the 490 Interstate. The group plans to block traffic on the highway close to downtown. In an interview with reporters, group organizers noted that access for emergency vehicles would not be disrupted, though they opted not to share details of their plan with media.
City officials are keeping a close watch on the demonstration to protect the safety of both participants and local residents, but some comments from citizens on social media have hinted at acts of violence in an effort to counter-protest the measure. At the end of May and early June, Black Lives Matter protests in the city were derailed due to acts of looting and property destruction. And although 72% of car crashes result in property damage, many residents had strong feelings about local businesses being destroyed as a result of the protests.
But in his interview with reporters, the organizer who identified himself only as Mikey, explained: “Save Rochester – Black Lives Matter is not a terrorist organization. We are not affiliated with any groups condoning violence, and we are vehemently opposed to using violence to settle any conflict. Unfortunately, some unruly Americans do think violence is the answer. Some Americans use social media as a platform to condone violence and hateful rhetoric against protesters.”
The group’s Facebook event says, in part, “Our goal is to shut down 490 until our demands are heard and once they hear our demands we will keep staging non-violent protests until our goal is met. We won’t stop until more money is spent on Black neighborhoods instead of police weaponry, equipment, and unused vehicles!!!”
It’s not yet known whether New York State police will disperse extra troopers to patrol the city of Rochester during the planned protest or throughout the weekend. But it seems clear that the obvious civil unrest in the city of Rochester will likely continue in spite of executive orders and even concerns about COVID-19.