WOOD RIVER, Ill. — A YouTube video that has gone viral purportedly shows two young black men being kicked out of an Illinois Walmart last month for wearing masks to protect themselves against the coronavirus.
The video, uploaded under the account Halo Dale, has been viewed nearly 270,000 times since it was made public March 18.
According to Jermon Best, who recorded the video and uploaded it, the incident took place March 15 inside a Walmart in Wood River, located on the Illinois-Missouri state line about 25 miles north of St. Louis.
“I don’t know this guy personally,” Best told the Telegraph in Alton. “We just want to shine some light because this happens so often.”
The Walmart incident isn’t the only one to draw national attention to that particular patch of Illinois over recent weeks. The mayor of neighboring Alton, Brant Walker, found himself embarrassed by his wife’s “stunning lack of judgment” last week after she broke the state’s stay-at-home order to attend a party at a bar.
Police officers, on Walker’s orders, cited those at the party -- including his wife, Shannon Walker.
Best, of Bellville, told the Telegraph that he and a friend, Diangelo Jackson, of Wood River, went to Walmart to shop when the officer, whose name has not been made public, began following them.
In the footage, Best tells the camera that the officer followed them from outside the store and told them they could not wear masks inside.
According to the Telegraph, the officer cited a city ordinance that prohibits people from wearing masks inside businesses.
Wood River Police Chief Brad Wells has since said there is no such ordinance.
“There’s a presidential order, there’s a state order, and he’s following us right out of the store,” Best says as the officer tails the men through the store. “We’re being asked to leave for being safe.”
Though health officials at that time were not recommending the general public wear masks outside their homes, the World Health Organization on March 11 had declared COVID-19 a pandemic. The U.S. government on March 13 declared a national emergency regarding the outbreak.
As he walks through Walmart in the video, Best has a mask covering his mouth but not his nose. Jackson walks beside him, his own mask pulled down around his neck. Jackson later pulls his mask back over his mouth and nose.
“For anyone who’s watching, the coronavirus is real,” Best says. “This guy is following us. He followed us from outside, he followed us all the way in the freaking store just to follow us out of the store.”
As the men walk, the police officer falls back and starts speaking with another customer who flagged him aside for assistance.
As Best and Jackson walk out, Best calls the officer an expletive.
Watch the entire video posted by Jermon Best below. Warning: It contains some explicit language.
“I don’t know if he was having a bad day,” Best told the Telegraph. “I’ve never said that the guy was racist. All I’m saying is that his actions were suspect.”
When initially asked about the incident, Wells said he backed the officer after hearing the officer’s side of the story.
“There’s not much I can say,” Wells told the newspaper. “Just like anything, there’s more to the story.”
The chief told the Telegraph Best and Jackson “immediately went to the race issue” and that the officer did not kick the men out of the store or refuse them entry.
Best told the newspaper they took off the masks and left the store rather than comply with the officer’s orders to show identification.
“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,” Best said.
In a follow-up statement dated Tuesday, Wells said the officer believed Best and Jackson were “acting suspiciously” but that the officer had erred in demanding they remove their masks.
“The officer incorrectly informed the individuals that the Wood River city ordinance prohibited the wearing of masks and requested their identification,” Wells said.
Once the men said they were leaving the store, the officer dropped the issue, the chief said.
“The officer did not further pursue their identity and the individuals left the store of their own volition. Subsequently, the two individuals have filed a formal complaint with the Wood River Police Department,” Wells said.
The complaint is being investigated internally, and Wells said he has contacted the Alton branch of the NAACP for assistance. He said he would also request the FBI review the incident when the investigation is complete.
Wells said the officer never should have told the men there was an ordinance against wearing face masks in public businesses.
“In fact, I support the wearing of a nonsurgical mask or face covering when in public during the COVID-19 pandemic period,” Wells said.
NBC News reported last week that the homemade cloth masks recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are making many men of color, particularly African American men, nervous.
“The CDC coming to you and saying, ‘Put a bandanna over your face, walk out and that will make you more safe,’ as a black man in New York City, it’s like them saying put on a hoodie and walk behind a white grandma. That’s not how life works for us,” Greg Iwinski, a New York City-based comedy writer, told the news network.
Mark Anthony Neal, chair of the Department of African and African American Studies at Duke University, shared similar concerns.
“If you’re a person of color, you can’t just wear a mask,” Neal told NBC News. “You have to be conscious of wearing a mask in a way that it will be disarming, even comforting, for some of the people you share social spaces with and I’m sure those are concerns that most of our white peers don’t have to think about.”
Those sentiments are summed up in an April 4 tweet by Aaron Thomas of Columbus, Ohio. Thomas wrote an opinion piece on the subject that has appeared in multiple publications.
“I don’t feel safe wearing a handkerchief or something else that isn’t CLEARLY a protective mask covering my face to the store because I am a black man living in this world,” Thomas tweeted. “I want to stay alive but I also want to stay alive.”
Wells said there would be no further public comment on the Wood River Walmart incident while it remains under investigation.
“I want to reassure all citizens of the Wood River community and visitors to our city that I subscribe to the principles of integrity, empathy, respect, and fairness,” Wells said. “Moreover, I expect the same of our police officers and together, we will continue to work with our community to solve problems.”