Although federal officials are strongly encouraging people to wear masks to lessen the chances of coronavirus transmission through droplets in the air, fears among African Americans of being held criminally suspect for wearing masks are apparently substantive.
In a video posted to YouTube on March 18, two Black men shopping at a Walmart in Wood River, Illinois say that a police officer booted them from a store for wearing the protective masks.
“We’re being asked to leave for being safe,” one of the men said in the video, which shows the officer walking behind them with his hand on his service weapon. “He followed us all the way in the freakin’ store, just to follow us out of the store.”
One of the two men, Jermon Best, spoke to Alton, Illinois newspaper The Telegraph on Tuesday (April 7), saying he posted the video to YouTube saying he wanted to spread the message that the face mask guidance could lead to racial profiling.
“I don’t know if he was having a bad day,” said Best, who walked out of the store with another man, identified as Diangelo Jackson, who also was wearing a mask. “I’ve never said that the guy was racist. All I’m saying is that his actions were suspect.”
He called the incident “terrifying” and said he didn’t know what could have happened.
“Being a young African American male, it’s kind of hard when you interact with the police because you don’t know what state of mind they’re in,” said Best.
Jackson echoed the sentiment.
“Just watching a lot of videos of police officers abusing their authority towards people was keeping me afraid, wondering why this cop was harassing us,” he said. “I was just more worried about him doing something he’s not supposed to do.”
Wood River police chief Brad Wells told The Washington Post the incident was being internally investigated. But said the officer made an error by telling them city ordinance prohibited wearing the masks.
“This statement was incorrect and should not have been made,” Wells said in a written statement to The Post. “The city does not have such an ordinance prohibiting the wearing of a mask. In fact, I support the wearing of a nonsurgical mask or face covering when in public during the COVID-19 pandemic period.”