Let Us Drink in PublicHistorians in the News
tags: urban history, alcohol, Prohibition, policing
Racial disparity in the application of drinking laws tracks across the rest of the country, as does outsized enforcement in poor and working-class communities. These disparities helped motivate New Orleans lawmakers to finally shuffle off the coil of public drinking laws in 2001. As Henry Grabar writes, “the New Orleans City Council repealed the city’s open container law, which had been enforced with an 80-20 racial bias, after a black man carrying a beer was shot and killed by police.”
Many modern open container laws derive from previous “public drunkenness” and “vagrancy” ordinances that criminalized not just alcoholism, but also poverty and homelessness. In 1953, Chicago established such a law against “drinking in the public way” as a means of expelling what were called “bottle gangs” — groups of men who were, in reality, often doing nothing more than congregating on city streets.
In the 1960s, as the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum, the racially motivated enforcement of these laws was contested in court, and many were ruled unconstitutional. As a result, rather than outlawing “drunkenness,” in subsequent years, many cities and municipalities moved to instead simply ban the act of public drinking itself.
These new laws fit into a broader pattern of “broken windows” policing that took hold of much of American policing in the 1980s and beyond, viewing petty violations like open alcohol consumption as a pathway to criminality. In effect, they offer law enforcement new opportunities to ticket and detain large numbers of people for doing nothing wrong or socially harmful while hanging out in public.
As Grabar points out, the language of New York’s bill banning open containers was hardly subtle: “When New York City banned open containers from its streets in 1979, lawmakers were quite explicit about the law’s intent: ‘We do not recklessly expect the police to give a summons to a Con Ed worker having a beer with his lunch,’ a sponsor of the bill told the Times. ‘This is for those young hoodlums with wine bottles who harass our women and intimidate our senior citizens.’”
This motive continues to inform the law’s enforcement. Since January, 91 percent of public drinking tickets handed out by the NYPD went to Black and Latinx New Yorkers, even as the pandemic ravaged the city. The takeaway is clear: These laws have never been meant to improve public safety, but rather give police tools to target those who they see fit. This unjust order will continue to produce racist and biased outcomes, until it’s overturned.
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