On a Friday evening in late May, the mother of an Ohio State basketball player grabbed her purse and keys and headed into the night.
“I didn’t know where I was going,” she said, “but I knew I needed to find my child.”
Melissa Smitherman learned her son might be in danger minutes earlier when she received a disturbing phone call. A friend spotted Seth Towns among the protesters standing their ground against police orders during a Black Lives Matter rally in Columbus.
When Smitherman FaceTimed her son to check on him, an unfamiliar man answered her call. The man told Smitherman that Columbus police had just arrested Towns and taken him away, leaving only his phone behind.
For Smitherman, the uneasiness of the next few hours was the scariest experience of her life. She said she “didn’t know what was going to happen” to her son and she was “afraid of what I might find.”
Smitherman started her search for Towns by placing a handful of calls in hopes of discovering where detained protesters were being held. When that proved a dead end, Smitherman drove to the downtown Columbus police station to seek answers in person.
Barricaded streets did not deter Smitherman, nor did the presence of a horde of police officers standing guard in tactical gear. Eyes red and cheeks tear-stained, Smitherman pulled over her car and approached the nearest cop.
A Columbus police sergeant eventually directed Smitherman to a downtown firehouse a few blocks removed from the protests. When she arrived, Smitherman peered through a chain-link fence at the rear of the station and spied a sight no mother ever wants to see.
“My son was sitting with his hands behind his back and I could see that they were zip-tied,” Smitherman said. “My heart broke into a million pieces to see him like that.”