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.”
It may have stung Smitherman to see her son in handcuffs, but it didn’t surprise her that he would make such a sacrifice. In many ways, this day was a long time coming for a kid who has always prided himself on being a leader, daring to be different and standing up for what was right.
An uncommon student
There is hardly anything about Seth Towns that’s typical of a basketball player with dreams of making the NBA.
The sweet-shooting 6-foot-7 forward has long been as accomplished a student as he is a basketball prospect.
At Northland High School in Columbus, Towns earned all-state honors twice in basketball yet maintained a GPA of above 4.0. He tutored older students, read voraciously and competed for the school’s nationally renowned math team.
Instead of accepting scholarship offers from the likes of Michigan or Ohio State, Towns opted to take a less common path. He selected Harvard out of high school, gambling that he could fulfill his basketball potential in the Ivy League while also receiving an unparalleled education.
“A lot of people in the basketball world were like, ‘Why would you go there?’ ” Towns recalled. “I told them, “It’s a chance to go to the best school in the world. Why wouldn’t I consider it?’ ”
At first, Towns dreamed of becoming a computer software engineer and developing apps for Google. Then a series of events altered his focus, taught him the power of his own voice and caused him to embrace the fight for racial equality.
The son of a black father and a blonde-haired, green-eyed mother, Towns grew up in a family that was pragmatic about racism. James Towns and Melissa Smitherman taught their son to cherish all humans regardless of race or ethnicity yet to never forget that some strangers will view him differently because of his skin color.
That message didn’t fully resonate with Towns until he took an African-American studies class for college credit his junior year of high school. No longer did Towns underestimate racial injustice in America after studying the high-profile deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and other unarmed black people during encounters with the police.
“It was late in my adolescence, I was starting to form my own thoughts and that was a very pivotal moment in history,” Towns said. “In many respects, it was an awakening for me.”
In December 2014, amidst a national reckoning on police brutality against minorities, Towns decided he wanted to play a role in fighting for meaningful change. He helped organize a protest that not only fostered discussion at his high school but also drew the national media’s attention.
Just before the end of one school day, Towns and his African-American studies classmates gathered in the school’s common area and laid down as though they were dead. Taped to each of their backs were pieces of paper with the words “I can’t breathe,” a slogan derived from Garner’s last words while in a police officer’s chokehold.
— Miceli Peña (@_MiceliRoyce) December 12, 2014
“Seth was the kind of student that made you want to be a better educator,” said Kevin Tooson, Northland’s African-American studies teacher at the time. “He was hungry for knowledge, he possessed the intellectual bandwidth to take it all in and if he thought something was wrong, he was willing to stand up and say something about it.”
Seth Towns’ inspiration
If Towns learned to speak his mind during high school, it was Harvard where he developed his voice. He forged relationships with the kind of people that most college basketball players don’t have on their contact list.
Harvard coach Tommy Amaker organizes a monthly breakfast in Cambridge that exposes his players to leaders from the sports world and beyond. Among the invited guests who Towns now counts as mentors: Best-selling author Mitch Albom, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and civil rights activist Dr. Harry Edwards.
It also influenced Towns seeing other high-profile athletes use their clout to further important causes. Towns described himself as “monumentally inspired” after Colin Kaepernick came to Harvard in 2018 and spoke about why he was willing to jeopardize his football career to keep fighting for racial justice.
Perhaps Towns’ biggest source of motivation was a tragedy that reminded him how rare it is for an inner-city kid like himself to have the opportunity to mingle with luminaries or to get a world-class education. On Oct. 19, 2018, close friend and former high school teammate Jordan “Kizzzy” Kinchen died in a double shooting in Columbus.
Kinchen’s murder led Towns to focus on creating more opportunities for underprivileged African-American kids. He researched ways to improve test scores, to offer internships and to provide college opportunities where they didn’t previously exist.
“Seth wanted everyone to believe that if he could do it, they could too,” Smitherman said.
Towns had more time than he wanted to focus on making a difference away from basketball at Harvard because injuries limited his impact on the court.
The Ivy League’s 2017-18 player of the year suffered a right knee injury late in a loss to Penn in that season’s conference title game. Lingering pain in both knees sidelined Towns for both the past two seasons and forced him to undergo surgery last December.
That injury history didn’t keep marquee programs from pursuing Towns when he announced his intent to leave Harvard as a graduate transfer this spring. Towns chose hometown Ohio State over a long list of suitors that included Duke, Kansas, Virginia and Syracuse.
On May 28, the day he graduated from Harvard with a sociology degree, Towns celebrated at a rooftop bar in downtown Columbus. He remembers experiencing a twinge of regret when he peered down at the street below and saw a throng of demonstrators protesting the death of George Floyd without him.
“It made me upset that I wasn’t part of that,” Towns said, “so I decided that the next day my voice was going to be heard.”
‘Say his name!’
The protest that ended with Towns in handcuffs began with him fighting back tears.
It was emotional for him to see his hometown come together to demand equal rights.
When Towns arrived, he joined dozens of protesters gathered in front of the Columbus police station calling for justice for Floyd. Once the crowd swelled to about 500, protesters marched up and down High and Broad streets while chanting Floyd’s name.
“Standing among them, I felt such deep solidarity and such deep pain from their voices,” Towns said. “It brought tears to my eyes hearing and feeling all that.”
The mood of the protest became more tense later that evening when police officers sought to clear the area. Columbus police allege that protesters were throwing bricks and rocks, setting off fireworks and breaking windows of downtown businesses.
Towns was among the protesters who chose to stand their ground despite verbal warnings. Police then began using their bikes or horses to push the crowd back by force.
Towns said he was standing with his arms around his throat screaming “I can’t breathe” when six police officers surrounded him and forced his hands behind his back. The Ohio State forward described the incident as “a surreal moment to say the least” and said the officers’ decision to detain him “seemed out of the blue.”
In a video that went viral on social media that night, Towns can be seen shouting, “Say his name!” while officers restrain him. “George Floyd!” a group of protesters yell back.
“I was standing up for what I believe in,” Towns said. “I wasn’t stopping whether I was being detained, arrested or beaten.”
A fellow protester who witnessed police take Towns confirmed that he did nothing to provoke them besides stand his ground.
“From what I saw, he was simply not moving from the road,” Eric Bailey said. “I'm not sure what he did that was different from what I had done that would make them detain him and not me. He had not acted aggressively. He had not thrown a bottle. He did not yell at the officers. He did nothing but exercise his first amendment [rights].”
Whatever the reason, Columbus police took Towns away by van and held him at the nearby firehouse with four other protesters arrested that night. There he remained until his mother spotted him through the chain-link fence a few hours later.
From Harvard graduation to the back of a police van
If Towns was surprised to find himself in police custody, he was just as shocked to have his mother arrive out of nowhere.
Smitherman even talked her way into the firehouse, where police allowed her to sit alongside her son while he was detained.
“I’ll tell you what crossed my mind when I was sitting there,” Smitherman said. “If I was a black mother, would I have been afforded that same opportunity? Would a black mother have been given the same opportunity to keep her child safe?”
Columbus police eventually released Towns without arresting him. Then his mother drove him home and he got a few hours sleep.
By the time Towns awoke the next morning, his story was everywhere. Media outlets across the country picked up the story of a basketball player who graduated from Harvard one day and was detained by the police the next.
Rather than hide from the story, Towns recognized that he “had a unique opportunity to have people listen.” Later that day, he filmed himself reading a powerful statement that made it clear he had no remorse for his detainment.
“In a span of just 24 hours, I walked across a Harvard virtual graduation stage to the back of a police van, both of which I am equally proud of,” he said.
Towns reiterated that sentiment during an interview on “SportsCenter” that evening. He pledged to continue to use his voice to speak out for “people who are unheard.”
On May 31, two days after his detainment, Towns returned to downtown Columbus to protest again, this time armed with a megaphone. Towns delivered a passionate speech, telling fellow protesters, “We are here, we are peaceful, we are loud and we will do this every day until we get what we demand.”
The way Towns sees it, this is a historic moment that the Black Lives Matter movement must seize. Americans are more cognizant of the systemic racism that persists in this country and more open to embracing change.
“This has been the most educational two weeks of my entire life,” he said. “I’ve learned a ton about how the system works and what steps we need to take going forward.
“My biggest takeaway is that having a few things change with police reform wouldn’t be enough. Now is the time that ending institutional racism needs to be pushed to the forefront of our nation’s efforts. Liberty is what this nation is founded on and right now there is a group of people that is not experiencing the same liberty as others.”
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