'I want to stay alive but I also want to stay alive': Video of police following black men wearing masks raises concern over racial profiling

Alex Woodward

Two black men wearing medical masks inside a grocery store were followed inside and pursued by a police officer as they left the store, captured on a viral video and underlining why many people of colour hesitate to wear face coverings during the coronavirus pandemic.

Inside a Walmart in Wood River, Illinois, a man tells the camera that a police officer, seen over his shoulder with his hand at his hip above his gun, had "just followed us in the store" and told them that "we cannot wear" masks

He said: "We're being asked to leave for being safe."

As they left the store, the man called out to other shoppers: "This police officer just put us out for wearing masks and staying safe ... This is going viral right now."

Jermon Best, the man who uploaded the video, which has nearly 200,000 views on YouTube, told local outlet The Telegraph that "we just want to shine some light because this happens so often."

He called the incident "terrifying" and said the officer made the men feel like they were "prey" as he stalked them in the store.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and health officials across the US have suggested people wear makeshift masks to cover their mouth and nose while out in public, but many Americans fear doing so would endanger themselves and heighten the risk of being racially profiled by police and others.

"It's a damn shame that black men can't go shopping wearing a mask to protect themselves," NAACP Illinois conference president Terea Haley said. "I'm proud of these two young black men for staying calm and recording the incident. ... This situation will get worse before it gets better."

The Wood River Police Department says the men were "acting suspiciously" but that the officer "incorrectly informed" the men that masks aren't allowed to be worn in public

Both men filed a formal complaint with the department, and a local branch of the NAACP also is assisting an internal investigation. The department will also "request a review of the incident" from the FBI, police chief Brad Wells said in a statement.

He said: "I want to publicly state the officer incorrectly informed the individuals that the Wood River City Ordinance prohibited the wearing of masks. This statement was incorrect and should not have been made. 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."

The threat of racial profiling is exacerbated by heightened law enforcement efforts to enforce "social distancing" measures and more stringent quarantine efforts in cities across the US, which are more likely to target people of colour. The ability to "socially distance" for many communities is next to impossible

In a recent jobs report from the Economic Policy Institute. Fewer than one in five black workers and roughly one in six Hispanic workers are able to work from home.

Those threats are compounded by the Covid-19 disease itself, which is disproportionately affecting black Americans. In Milwaukee, more than 80 per cent people who died from the virus were black, despite African Americans making up roughly a quarter of the county's population.

Similar outcomes were reported in Chicago and Louisiana, where 70 per cent of the nearly 600 deaths in the state were African Americans.

New York Times columnist Charles Blow wrote: "The idea that this virus is an equal-opportunity killer must itself be killed."

Andrea Young, executive director of the ACLU of Georgia, said the latest mask guidance from the CDC undermines the "racial insensitivity that pervades the response to this pandemic" as health officials struggle to respond to the overwhelming racial disparities in healthcare.

On Twitter, Aaron Thomas wrote: "I want to stay alive but I also want to stay alive."

"Black men and women in this country have been killed for any and everything," he wrote in the Boston Globe. "Knowing all that, I just don't feel safe. Even in a time of pandemic, the discrimination does not stop."

He said he won't be covering his face until he can obtain a mask "that is unmistakable for what it is ... not because I do not trust the advice of the CDC -- I do. I believe in science, and I have followed all of its guidelines up to this point. I know masks work, and I trust the CDC's recommendation.

"What I do not trust are the innate biases and lack of critical thought about the implications of these decisions. I do not trust that I can walk into a grocery store with my face covered and not be disturbed. I do not trust that I will not be followed. I do not trust that I will be allowed to exist in my Black skin and be able to buy groceries or other necessities without a confrontation and having to explain my intent and my presence. I do not trust that wearing a make-shift mask will allow me to make it back to my home."

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