WASHINGTON -- After taking almost an entire year to think about it, prosecutors in St. Louis County, Missouri, decided it was a good idea to press charges against two journalists for allegedly not leaving a restaurant fast enough.
They may be the only ones to think so. Press advocates have denounced the case against Ryan J. Reilly of The Huffington Post and Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post.
But local law enforcement apparently sees more here than meets the eye -- that is, a couple of reporters not exiting McDonald's as quickly as the police wished.
The 33-page police report associated with the incident asserts that the journalists' "unlawful actions" at McDonald's "directly contributed" to the civil unrest in Ferguson last August.
That document, which was written by the St. Louis County Police Department more than six months after the fact, goes to great lengths to establish the presence of the New Black Panther Party -- as well as various anarchists and communists -- not actually in the McDonald's, but in the general area at the time. "Incident Command determined it would be prudent to warn the citizenry" that "the presence of members of a known domestic terrorist group" would hamper police response to 911 calls, the report states.
The civil unrest in Ferguson, as you may recall, followed a police officer shooting and killing an unarmed black man. Not long before Reilly and Lowery were arrested, police were pointing sniper rifles at peaceful protesters in broad daylight.
The two reporters, who were covering the protests and the police response, argue the charges are ridiculous.
"We've been out here discussing this in part because it's so ridiculous and also in part because for so long they wouldn't give us any police report, they wouldn't give us any information," Lowery said on HuffPost's "So, That Happened" podcast late last week. Scroll to 24:20 in the podcast to hear the interview:
Reilly finally obtained the police report and its claims of a domestic terrorist threat last week.
"This sounds like an FBI file from the 1960s," he said on the podcast.
The police report also stresses that the manager of the McDonald's wanted the police to hassle his customers. McDonald's manager Keith Eyer "agreed the restaurant should close for the safety of all concerned and requested the assistance of the police department in asking the remaining patrons to leave the premise."
Lowery doubts that's true from his own observations that day.
"What seems more likely in terms of the way police were behaving during that time is they came in and said, 'Listen, we're going to close your restaurant down,'" Lowery said. "And the manager said, 'OK, whatever, guys.'"
McDonald's Corporation said on Twitter that it didn't ask for anyone to be arrested. That should be harder for prosecutors to argue that Reilly and Lowery were trespassing in a private establishment if the establishment didn't want them to leave.
Not that Reilly and Lowery refused to leave. The main problem alleged was that they just weren't moving fast enough for the officers on the scene.
"Rather than pack his belongings to leave, Mister Reilly simply moved his belongings around in an inefficacious manner," the report says. "Officer [Michael] McCann then packed Mister Reilly's bag for him in a further effort to assist him in leaving the restaurant. When it became apparent that Mister Reilly was not going to leave as directed, Officer McCann placed Mister Reilly under arrest for trespassing."
One detail the report omits: Reilly said that while he was handcuffed, the officer slammed his head into a window and then sarcastically apologized for it.
Likewise, Lowery allegedly lollygagged when police told him to stop his legal video recording of their interaction and leave the McDonald's.
"While Mister Lowery did not cease to record, he did begin to move, though slowly," the report says. "Mister Lowery turned and began to walk past the soda machines as if it was his intention to leave through the north door. However, when he reached the soda machine, he attempted to put his bag down and stopped. He then directed his recording in the direction of Officer McCann and Mister Reilly, indicating that he was not going to leave the restaurant."
Jonathan Peters, an attorney and press freedom correspondent for the Columbia Journalism Review, called the charges "bullshit."
The Huffington Post similarly considers the charges outrageous. "A crime was committed at the McDonald's, not by journalists, but by local police who assaulted both Ryan and Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post during violent arrests," D.C. bureau chief Ryan Grim and senior politics editor Sam Stein said in an earlier statement.
Reilly and Lowery have a hearing scheduled in their trespassing case next week.
This podcast was produced and edited by Adriana Usero and engineered by Brad Shannon, with assistance from Christine Conetta.
Have a story you'd like to hear discussed on "So, That Happened"? Email us at your convenience!