On Saturday, September 5th, I was unlawfully arrested in downtown Greenville for “contributing to the delinquency of a minor.” I had organized a protest against the emergency curfew ordinance, which in my view punishes the vast majority of responsible youth for the lawlessness of a deviant minority. This protest was planned with the knowledge and advisement of the Greenville County Police Department. Picketing ordinances were obeyed, and the protest was extraordinarily docile, especially for this day and age.
But something went terribly wrong that night. As expected, the police showed up shortly after the protest began. Officers were doing their jobs, checking IDs, and asking any minors present to vacate downtown. The curfew ordinance states that any young-appearing individuals are subject to questioning by police, and that they may be detained at City Hall if they refuse to leave or return after being instructed to leave. Implicit in the ordinance is that any minors are to be given the opportunity to leave when ordered to do so. For the most part, that is how officers on the scene handled the situation, with the exception of one – a bicycle cop named Corporal Nelson.
Nelson burst onto the scene with a fury and began questioning three young men sitting on the statue platform adjacent to the Poinsette Hotel with protest signs. After being instructed to leave, they began to comply immediately, but one of them committed an unforgivable sin in the eyes of Bicycle Bad Cop – he handed me back his protest sign, said “Thank You,” and turned to make good his escape. Nelson interpreted this as a refusal to leave and arrested him immediately. About 30 seconds later, one of the other young men came back to find out why his friend was not in tow. Nelson then arrested him, as well. These young men were not given the opportunity to leave. The arresting officer had not complied with the letter or spirit of the ordinance. Nelson’s actions were belligerent and unlawful; but the worst was yet to come.
When Nelson first walked up, I had been speaking to a Greenville News reporter named Richard Walton. Walton was one of the only journalists who responded to my announcement that the protest would take place, and he was interviewing me about the purpose of the event. After the two minors were detained, I expressed to Walton my exasperation at what had just occurred. What Corporal Nelson did next may cost him his job, and may cost the city millions. A partial transcript from my chronicle of the events:
Dan Edge: [To Mr. Walton] Can you believe this? That kid was just trying to leave! All he did was say “thanks” and give me the poster…
Bicycle Bad Cop (BBC): [Now addressing me] YOU! Shut your mouth! NOW! Stand right there! Don’t move! I’ll deal with YOU in a minute!
Dan Edge: By what right are you detaining me here? By what right do you order me not to speak? What am I being charged with?
BBC: We’ll figure that out in a minute. I’m going to go deal with these minors, who are now under detention, then I’ll talk to my superior and we’ll figure out what you’re being charged with. But right now, if you know what’s good for you, you’ll sit right there and keep your mouth shut. Earlier, you said you respected my uniform and my need to do my job. I’m just doing my job. Just sit down right there! NOW!
Dan Edge: Listen, this guy [referring to Mr. Walton] is a journalist. Are you saying I’m not allowed to speak to the press?
BBC: You are now in my custody. You can either sit right there and keep your mouth shut, or I will put you in hand cuffs and throw you in a squad car right now. Is that what you want?
Dan Edge: Hmmm… [Considering the inevitability of arrest] I’ll have to think about that…
BBC: There’s nothing to think about! I’ve taken you into my custody! Now I’m going to deal with those detainees, and I’ll be back to deal with YOU in a minute. Sit right there!
Mr. Walton: [Stands idly by, complying with the order to step back a few feet, a seeming look of shocked disbelief on his face.]
Walton was standing less than ten feet away during this exchange. He saw and heard everything. He may not have known chapter and verse of the egregious Civil Rights violations on the part of Corporal Nelson, but he must have known that something terrible had happened. I was arrested for two counts of “contributing to the delinquency of a minor,” and spent 17 hours in the Greenville County drunk tank before being released upon arraignment.
After I got out of jail the next day, I was shocked by the media coverage of the event. No one mentioned what really happened, including Walton. The articles only quoted the police chief’s report (she wasn’t there): that two minors refused to leave and were detained, and that the protest organizer had been arrested. Walton emailed me after I published my chronicle of what happened; he said he wanted to keep the story alive, tell my side of it. I told him I was very upset that his paper had not reported the criminal actions of Bicycle Bad Cop. You were there, Walton, you saw everything, so why didn’t you tell the whole story?
Walton replied that he had submitted a full report to his editorial staff, but that they then took complete control of the article and chose not to publish what really happened. Why would they do that, I asked? He paused. Then, in a moment of truth which he may come to regret, he said that there were political elements in play here. Many downtown patrons, including the businesses who advertise with The Greenville News and citizens who purchase it, strongly support the curfew ordinance. “That’s why journalistic ethics exists,” I told him. “When things like this happen, a man has to make a choice. And they made the wrong one.” So, too, did Walton, but not until later.
As a result of the media’s refusal to publish facts crucially relevant to my arrest, for days I was lambasted in discussion forums on the local news websites. I defended myself, posted a detailed chronicle of what happened, and made myself available to the media to tell my side of the story. But no one cared. A very few journalists have contact me since, but no one has yet published the terrible truth: that me and the two minors were unlawfully arrested, and that Corporal Nelson was guilty of serious Civil Rights violations.
In a few cases reporters have candidly communicated that their respective editorial staffs know what really happened, but refuse to publish the story for “political reasons.” This was certainly the case with Walton and The Greenville News.
A few weeks after my arrest, I contacted Chris Weston, Managing Editor of The Greenville News. I told him what happened, where he could find more information (my blog), and that his staff was likely guilty of serious breaches in journalistic ethics. He was defensive of his paper, but promised to look into it and get back to me. Over a week and a half later I had still heard nothing from him.
Yesterday, 9/30, I finally received a copy of the transcript from my interview with the Internal Affairs division of the Greenville City Police. During that interview, the officers asked me if I had had any contact with Richard Walton since my arrest. I said yes, and when they asked about the content of that discussion I told them about Walton’s claim that his story was doctored by the editorial staff. I had planned to distribute this transcript to the media, so I made it a priority to contact Weston and find out how he was going to respond to his staff’s breach of ethics. I wanted to give him a chance to make things right before I released information demonstrating the corruption of his newspaper.
To my disgust, Weston hadn’t bothered to look into it. He never read my side of the story, seemed not to have discussed the issue with Walton, and had taken no steps to correct the immoral actions of his staff. But the most shocking news was yet to come. After speaking with me over the phone, Weston asked Walton about my claims, then called me back a short time later. Walton had denied that our conversation about the editorial manipulation of his article ever took place. I couldn’t believe it.
As mentioned earlier, after my arrest a few journalists have kept in touch with me, looking for a way to bring the truth to light. I had hope that at least one of them would serve as my champion, or a champion for the cause of truth, which in this case is the same thing. Walton was one of those journalists. More than anyone else, he knew that my version of the story was fact. He seemed sincerely interested in exposing what really happened, sincerely interested in vindicating me.
A few days after Walton first told me about his editorial staff’s creative political editing, I called him up to issue a benevolent warning. I will work with you, I said, but you may not want to work with me. I cannot promise to keep silent about the things you say to me, I said, especially considering my efforts to restore my reputation in Greenville, where I hope to live and work for many years to come. I did not consider our phone conversations privileged information. He is not my doctor, lawyer, counselor, or spouse. I assume that anything I told him was on the record and may be published. But this goes both ways. I said that I liked him, and for that reason I didn’t want to put him in a situation in which his job might be in jeopardy. He replied that he was unconcerned about this – that he intended to do his job and report the facts as he could ascertain them. Little did I know that his lack of concern was based on a willingness to lie to his boss.
When Weston told me about Walton’s dishonesty, I almost shed tears of fury and disappointment. I had trusted Walton. As far as I knew him, I believed in his dedication to journalistic integrity. He seemed sincerely interested in keeping the story alive. It’s entirely possible, in fact probable that his intentions were honorable. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and Walton earned himself a one-way ticket. He hopped onto the caboose of the Hell Train just as it was leaving the station, with Weston at the helm. Given what has happened, it’s also possible that Walton’s original claim about creative political editing was a lie, that he never told his paper what really happened, and that he continued to correspond with me in order to find other ways to assault my character. But I think the former possibility is much more likely.
Weston didn’t say so, but I think he could tell that my story was the truth, including what I had said about Walton. When I started to get upset, and told him that I planned to write and distribute this article, he began to take the situation much more seriously. Would I be interested in going on the record with his paper?
Are you serious, Weston? Why the hell would I do that? Every one of your staff I’ve come into contact with has been dishonest and corrupt. Why would I give you another opportunity to throw me to the wolves? My side of the story is posted publicly, I said. If he wants to retract his original story and tell the truth, then he can do it without my help. The Greenville News will receive a copy of this article, but they will not receive a copy of the Internal Affairs interview transcript. Nor will I communicate with them again for any reason, not if I can help it.
Besides, Weston’s manner was not that of a man dedicated to justice and journalistic integrity. He was in damage control mode. He didn’t care that his staff had lied to the public, or that they did it for political reasons, or that an innocent man was being persecuted; he cared only that I might expose the damning truth about his paper. Initially, I had considered waiting a few day to publish this article, to give Weston the opportunity to make things right. But after consideration, I rejected that plan. Weston and his staff have shown that reporting facts are not their highest priority, especially if those facts lead to unpopular conclusions. And most especially when those conclusions are unpopular with those who buy or advertise in The Greenville News.
Had The Greenville News reported the story honestly from the beginning, I may have had only to endure 17 hours in a drunk tank and an interview with Internal Affairs. Had details about what really happened been publicized, the Greenville City Council and Solicitor’s Office may have taken notice. The Solicitor has the power to refuse to prosecute my case (though Bicycle Bad Cop could arrange for his own prosecutor, not likely). The Solicitor may have looked into my case, seen the egregious violations of Civil Rights, been made aware of the potential for a 1983 Civil Rights lawsuit, and refused to prosecute. The City Council may have discovered that the letter of their curfew ordinance is illegal in numerous ways, and either terminated the ordinance or restructured it to conform to legal requirements. But none of this happened.
As a result of what did happen, I have been forced to spend hours and hours of my time defending my reputation. I’ve had to delve into the law in preparation for my preliminary hearing (Lord only knows when that will finally take place). I’ve had to begin researching the process of waging a 1983 lawsuit against the city. I’ve lost sleep and devoted so much time and emotional energy to this – when I should have been studying for the GRE, which I took this afternoon. I’ve had to do these things, because I want to live and work in this town. I’m pursuing a Masters Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy, and this case had made me look like a danger to children. Not to mention that the maximum sentence for my charge is six years in prison.
Nor was The Greenville News alone in ignoring the story. A few journalists have expressed some interest in my case, but no one has interviewed me, and no one has published my side of the story. Just as I organized and executed this protest by myself, for the most part I’ve been alone in defending myself. I certainly have no defenders in the local media.
Last night, I happened to meet a gentleman who worked at a local news publication. He asserted that, when reporting on criminal cases, journalists generally restrict themselves to the data contained in official police reports. This is the case even if the journalists know for a fact that the police report contains false or misleading information. They do this, he said, to avoid libel lawsuits from the city. When he told me this, it didn’t make sense to me at all, and upon further reflection, I find his comments to be potentially frightening.
For one thing, there are certainly many, many cases in which media reports extend beyond the official statement from police. Other can be interviewed, and journalists often report on events they are personally witness to. You see it on TV all the time. The media interview many people charged with crimes and allow them to tell their side of the story, often before a preliminary hearing.
But what really frightens me is this: What kind of country do we live in where media outlets are afraid to publish facts for fear of legal action by Big Brother? Does the 1st Amendment not protect the right to a free press? If this policy is widespread, then how many illegal actions by police go unreported, even though the media knows what happened, because they fear a lawsuit? There are many different forms of physical force, including the threat to confiscate property. If city, state, and federal governments are cowing the media using threats of legal action, then we are all in deep trouble.
Depending on the response of the City to my case (I plan to send my Internal Affairs transcript to every Council Member, City and County, the Mayor, and the Governor), then I may well soon write an article titled 1983. 1983 is the year prior to 1984, the year in which the fictional events of George Orwell’s famous novel take place. I fear our country is headed in that direction. 1983 is also the section of the law under which one can sue the government for Civil Rights violations. I do not want to go through that, but if that’s what I have to do to restore my reputation, I will.
To employees of The Greenville News: I hope you are ashamed of what your paper has done here. Your editorial staff allowed a man they knew was innocent to burn at the stake in the court of public opinion. When your managing editor found out about it, he did nothing until prodded with promises that the ugly truth would be revealed. Only then did he act, not out of a sense of justice, but in a knee-jerk reaction to defend his unethical organization’s reputation. Then the only seemingly honest journalist of the bunch lied to his boss to cover his ass. The conduct of your paper has been shameful in every respect, and it deserves rousing condemnation from all quarters. Please keep in mind that I will not speak to anyone at The Greenville News about my case, and that if you do speak to me, anything you say can and will be used against you in the court of public opinion.
*Update: I was just informed that The Greenville News plans to publish another article about my case. Mr. Alongi, a reporter for The Greenville News, read to me the story he intended to publish and asked if I had any comment. I told him no, but that the story as written contained numerous factual errors. I'm pleased at least that the article refers readers to my version of events (i.e., the truth). Needless to say, this story would not exist had Weston not been prodded by concerns about his paper's reputation.