On Saturday evening my father, Tenney Mason, was in downtown Baltimore (my home city in the U.S.) attending ArtScape, a local arts festival. A group of #Afromation and #BlackLivesMatter demonstrators walked past, and Dad decided to check it out. He had his camera with him and although he’s mostly retired, Dad spent many decades as a photojournalist and newspaper editor. When he sees a news story, he follows it.
I don’t know much about this demonstration and neither did Dad at the time. But after a bit of online research, I have learned that the demonstration was a protest against police brutality and “an affirmation of black life”. (Read a statement by the organizers.)
Dad followed the protesters onto an exit ramp to Interstate 83. The ramp was closed to cars due to the arts festival. He saw a larger group of protesters down below, attempting to interrupt northbound traffic on I-83.
Suddenly Dad noticed that the group of people on the exit ramp – including himself – was surrounded by police officers. He tried to leave, but the police stopped him. Then he got arrested, along with several dozen others.
The police bound Dad’s hands behind his back with semi-flexible plastic “wrist cuffs”, and locked him into the back of a paddy wagon (police van) with five other men – “butt to butt”, Dad explained, “three guys on one side and three on the other.”
Dad and his cell mates quickly got to know each other. It was a diverse group – white guys, black guys, and one guy whose family came from Nepal.
The police told Dad that he was being arrested for failing to heed an official warning to disperse. But he never heard any warning, nor did the other people in the paddy wagon.
The group was driven to a police station, where the police briefly let them out of the paddy wagon, untied their wrists, and made them empty their pockets. The men then had their wrists rebound and returned to their mobile jail, where they were held for seven hours.
Seven Hours in a Paddy Wagon
“It was like torture,” Dad said. “I swear to god, it was like, if I was trying to torture somebody and get them to make a confession or something, this is what I’d do to them, you know?” They didn’t receive any water until five hours into the ordeal and for many hours there was no air conditioning in the van.
Dad was 40 or 50 years older than everyone else in the paddy wagon, and he became a source of entertainment as the minutes and hours ticked by.
“At one point it got real quiet, and this one guy says, ‘Does anybody have any stories?’ Well, I was amazed at how many stories I had, because I’ve lived for 72 years. I started with Navy stories…I decided not to tell ‘em all at once. I ended up being the main storyteller throughout the whole thing. They were flabbergasted by how much of the world I had seen.”
At one point, one of the guys in the wagon – a leader in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, who told Dad he serves as a liaison with police – became ill. He yelled for help but no one came. Eventually he vomited onto the floor and passed out. [UPDATE: The man who got sick is Tre Murphy. Here is a YouTube video of Tre talking about the ordeal.]
“When the guy threw up – that’s when I organized the chant,” Dad said. “I said, ok, on three, everybody yell ‘Medic!’…I would say somebody came within five minutes, but it seemed like an hour.” The man who vomited was let out of the paddy wagon for a brief time, then returned.
“I just can’t even describe to you how horrible it was, sitting in that paddy wagon for seven hours, literally with like one 15-minute break when they emptied our pockets. There were two guys who were really suffering…the handcuffs were really hurting them a lot, so we screamed and hollered and they came in and they redid their handcuffs. Me and another guy, ours were really hurting but we were afraid to let them do it because we had kinda found a good position.”
Dad received a bit of a break eventually, after he began to scream. “I started getting really claustrophobic… and since I was 72, the guy did cut me some slack and he let me out of the paddy wagon to sit, like on the edge, in the back. I sat there for maybe half an hour because he couldn’t find a knife to cut [the wrist cuffs] loose. Finally he did find one, and he cut them, took them off, and then let me put my hands around in the front…So it was like a special privilege, I had my hands in front of me for the last half hour or so.”
Having his hands tied in the front rather than the back, Dad explains, was a huge relief. The intense pain and swelling reduced dramatically. “You can’t believe the difference with having your hands in front of you – you know, when your nose itches, you can scratch your nose.”
The group was finally released at around 1:00 a.m. When I spoke to Dad last night, he couldn’t remember exactly what he had been charged with. But he knows there are two charges, one of them criminal, and a fine of $500.
Stop Police Brutality
I’m trying to tell this story objectively, even though I’m obviously not objective and I don’t have all the details. Everything I’ve written here came from one brief skype conversation with Dad, just a few hours after the ordeal.
But…really, Baltimore Police? This is how you’re doing things? Even now, after everything that’s happened? I realize we’re living in scary times, and you’re trying to protect the public and yourselves. But surely it isn’t necessary to round up dozens of people, including innocent bystanders, bind their hands, and imprison them for hours on end without water or proper medical care? We’re trusting you to come up with a better solution, and you’re letting us down. You need to do better.
Incidentally, my dad has never been a big supporter of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. We’ve argued about it in the past. But last night’s experience seems to have shifted Dad’s thinking. He says feels that the movement has “commendable goals”, although he still disagrees with some of its tactics..
“As much as I still disagree with many of the things that #BlackLivesMatter does, I was very impressed with the people that were in that van with me, even though I disagreed with some of them…They were trying to do good, they were articulate, and I’ve got some friends in the #BlackLivesMatter movement now. Maybe if I ever see them again we’ll have a beer. Or since I don’t drink beer, we’ll go have a coke.”
Here is a Baltimore Sun story about the arrests. I’ll update this post as I receive more information.
Another article about the arrests, from the Baltimore Action Legal Team.
An article in Baltimore’s City Paper, with quotes from this blog post.
Another article in the Baltimore Sun, which includes an interview with Tenney.