OpEd: I was interrogated by the Counterterrorism Unit for a Facebook comment

Welcome to my life as a Black queer journalist.

Ernest Owens, a queer Black journalist, details his traumatizing experience of being interrogated by police over a Facebook comment.

Ernest Owens thegrio.com
Ernest Owens Photo Credit: Sam Newhouse

To be a journalist of color in America is to know that being hired to tell the truth comes with undeniable consequences.

“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.”

The detective read me my Miranda rights in a small, cold interrogation room in South Philadelphia. I had been called into the Counterterrorism unit after police alarmed me that I needed to “cooperate” with them immediately after receiving an “urgent complaint.”

“Do you have any military experience?”

“Do you have any knowledge on how to create a bomb?”

“Do you intend to harm yourself or others?”

“Do you own a gun?”

I answered “no” to each of these questions as I began to feel intimidated by police after spending nearly an hour in custody. The reason why I was questioned by authorities was because a white man complained to police that a Facebook comment I wrote in December 2017 could potentially endanger an organization he was a part of. What he failed to mention in his complaint was that I was a journalist and that his organization had been the subject of constant criticism in columns I’ve written about in the past.

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I was essentially the victim of “Facebooking while Black,” another “while Black” phenomenon in which white people abuse their privilege in calling the police on Black people for doing innocent things. But such micro-aggressions aren’t anything new for me or any journalist of color.

As a Black journalist, I expected some level of online harassment and surveillance while on the job. Whether it was calls from nasty readers demanding that I be fired for denouncing white privilege or blocking routine racist Twitter trolls, I knew these were some of the cuts that came with the job.

But writing about race during the Trump administration automatically made me a target for hate, which has become my new normal. “A very big part of the Anger we see today in our society is caused by the purposely false and inaccurate reporting of the Mainstream Media that I refer to as Fake News,” Trump tweeted this week after a suspicious bomb package was mailed to the CNN newsroom. “It has gotten so bad and hateful that it is beyond description. Mainstream Media must clean up its act, FAST!” In other words, journalists are being blamed for the hate we’re facing — not the Commander in Chief who has constantly made it a point to bash us every step of the way.

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The Power of Words

It also doesn’t help to work within an industry that lacks proper minority representation. This can distract from the trauma journalists of color face while on the job. As newsrooms struggle to diversify their platforms, not enough conversations are being had about the current state of marginalized journalists already working. Who is checking in on us? Who is unpacking our depression and stress that comes from the subtle racism in the workplace and blatant bigotry outside of it? When will Black journalists matter?

As I dealt with the trauma of being interrogated by the police, an internal conflict inside of me deepened. Every story I began to cover, I over-questioned. Every social media post I published, I needed to take a deep breath. Even though nothing was ever said to me directly, I felt as if I was walking on thin ice in the newsroom.

The road to self-reassurance began once I recognized that my fear would have only coddled the very oppressive forces that tried to silence me. Now more than ever, diverse voices should be emboldened to speak up and out — including Black journalists who are often subjected to a disproportionate amount of targeted ridicule while on the job. Newsrooms across all disciplines should do more to check in with their staff of color, on what they are facing daily on the beat. More dialogue and sensitivity trainings should to be factored into how newsrooms serve their talent.

Whether it is Facebooking while Black or reporting on race unapologetically, one thing I have learned from my traumatic experience is to never question the power of words, for they carry a weight much heavier than fear.

Ernest Owens is the Editor of Philadelphia magazine’s G Philly and CEO of Ernest Media Empire, LLC. The award-winning journalist has written for USA Today, NBC News, BET, HuffPost and several other major publications. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, orInstagram and ernestowens.com.