Who Are Ryan J. Reilly & Wesley Lowery? The Journalists Face Criminal Charges After Being Arrested In Ferguson Last Year
In a strangely timed move Monday, reporters Ryan J. Reilly and Wesley Lowery, who had covered Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, were officially charged with trespassing and interfering with a police officer, nearly a year after they were arrested while reporting on the city's turbulent demonstrations. Back in August 2014, Lowery of The Washington Post and Reilly of The Huffington Post were covering protests in Ferguson sparked by the killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer when they were "violently arrested" by Ferguson police inside a local McDonald's. When police ordered everyone to clear out, and according to police, they allegedly failed to comply and leave the building immediately.
In a video recorded last year, Reilly claimed the restaurant had been occupied by multiple journalists using its WiFi when local police demanded everyone "clear out" even though the facility was still open for business. Reilly recounted officers giving him and Lowery a "countdown" to leave the restaurant, and when they weren't able to gather all of their belongings in time, officers allegedly assaulted and arrested them. Reilly alleged a police officer "slammed [his] head" against glass during his arrest. Lowery claimed officers shoved him into a soda machine after giving them "conflicting information about where to exit." Both reporters were quickly released and weren't charged with any crime at the time.
Cordell Whitlock, a spokesman of the St. Louis County police counselor's office, confirmed to The Washington Post that the summons was "legitimate," but did not know why the charges were being made one year later. The arrests of Lowery and Reilly have sparked outrage from both their respective news outlets. On Monday, The Washington Post's Executive Editor Martin Baron stated:
Charging a reporter with trespassing and interfering with a police officer when he was just doing his job is outrageous. You'd have thought law enforcement authorities would have come to their senses about this incident. Wes Lowery should never have been arrested in the first place. That was an abuse of police authority. This latest action represents contemptible overreaching by prosecutors who seem to have no regard for the role of journalists seeking to cover a major story and following normal practice.
In a statement posted Monday, The Huffington Post also condemned the charges placed against both journalists, saying it stood fully behind Reilly:
The Huffington Post condemns the charges filed by St. Louis County against our Justice reporter, Ryan J. Reilly, while covering the protests in Ferguson last year. Ryan has the full support of The Huffington Post in fighting these charges. ... At least we know St. Louis County knows how to file charges. If Wesley Lowery and Ryan J. Reilly can be charged like this with the whole country watching, just imagine what happens when nobody is.
Lowery has spoken out against the charges he now faces, too. "I maintained from the first day that our detention was illegal and unnecessary," Lowery said in a telephone interview with The Washington Post on Monday. "So I was surprised that a year later this is something officials in St. Louis County decided was worth revisiting." In an email to The Huffington Post, he stated: "Ryan and I have maintained for the last 358 days that we were exercising our constitutionally-guaranteed right to do our jobs, and I will happily explain that in court."
Lowery is currently in Ferguson covering the demonstrations that resumed on the anniversary of Brown's death. Reilly also wrote about this past weekend's demonstrations, which took a violent turn Sunday night when shooters opened fire. Reilly has since tweeted about the charges against him and brought back old tweets he posted after his arrest one year ago.
Lowery and Reilly have been ordered to court for Aug. 24 and could be arrested if they do not appear. The counts against the reporters carry a possible fine of $1,000 and up to one year in a county jail, according to the St. Louis County municipal code.
The treatment of these two reporters should raise questions about how police might be treating ordinary witnesses simply trying to capture and post interactions on social media. For police to go as far as violently arrest reporters who are just doing their jobs is certainly disappointing, but to see prosecutors also play along by pressing charges against members of the press is just downright unbelievable.