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Mobtown Beat

Epic Cop Fail

Or How Obama Won The Election, and I Spent The Night in Central Booking

Tim Castlen
A crowd of revelers gathered on the streets of Charles Village on Election Night.

By Michael M. Hughes | Posted 11/12/2008

It was sometime between 2 and 3 a.m., and I was handcuffed and sitting inside a Baltimore police paddy wagon.

"Officer," I yelled.

"What?" a cop brusquely answered from outside the van.

"Officer, I need to use the bathroom. I really have to go." It was the third time I'd asked since my arrest, over an hour earlier. It was no joke--my bladder felt as if it was going to rupture.

"You'll have to wait 'til we get downtown," he answered.

I grimaced. Behind my back, my wrists chafed against sharp, plastic cuffs. I squeezed my legs together. "I think I'm going to piss myself," I said to my only companion, a skinny kid in khakis and a pink oxford with a popped collar. He shook his head but didn't answer. My entire body began shaking, and I doubled over, sliding to my knees on the floor in pain. I remembered reading about a study in which volunteers were paid good money to piss their pants, and none could do it--such is the power of social conditioning.

"Fuck," I said, and felt warmth spreading between my legs.

It struck me, then--the pathetic and surreal absurdity of my situation. Why was I, a 42-year-old husband and father of two young daughters, a senior employee of Johns Hopkins, a freelance journalist, and a law-abiding, civic-minded guy, sitting in my piss-soaked underwear in the back of a paddy wagon outside the Northern District police station?

The day had begun with such promise.

That day I served as a Baltimore City election judge. I didn't do it for the measly paycheck but considered it a chance to connect with my neighbors. A handful of people were lined up when I arrived at 5:45 a.m., and an hour later the line stretched around the inside of the school and out along the sidewalk. The mood was electric. I saw lots of familiar faces and many, many new ones.

Some I'll never forget. A bearded 75-year-old white man holding a Noam Chomsky book said to me, "I didn't think I'd be around for the last election. And I know I won't be around for the next one. But this one . . ." he smiled.

A visually impaired black woman asked me and another judge to read the ballot for her. We read it all (yes, every last word of the bond issues) and when we finished, she pressed the button and turned to us with tears in her eyes. "That's the first time I ever voted," she said, and hugged us. My eyes welled up, too.

A smiling blonde woman approached the polls and explained to us that she had flown home to vote, in person--from Sudan.

As soon as the polls closed, I put on a bootleg Obama T-shirt I'd bought on Greenmount Avenue. It was over-the-top--an enormous image of Barack's face covering most of the shirt.

Later that night, I watched on a friend's television as a wave of blue swept over America. Eight of my friends had gathered, and after Obama's acceptance speech in Chicago, we heard car horns, whooping, and cheers from 33rd Street.

"Let's go," my friend Dan said.

I haven't seen such spontaneous celebration in the streets since the Ravens won the Superbowl. All around us cars honked, while people cheered and chanted "Obama!" and "Yes, we can!" We noticed an enormous gathering in North Charles Village, and as we approached several of the people in the crowd saw my Obama shirt and started cheering.

"This is amazing!" Dan said.

And it was. The crowd was an amalgam of the forces that had swept Obama into power: multiracial, young, old, straight, gay, with one commonality--they were all smiling. Students were holding American flags aloft with pride. Students! Ecstatic! About a presidential race! Strangers hugged and danced and high-fived one another. Tears flowed.

I need to write about this, I thought. I need to remember all of it, and document it, because it will never happen again.

Even the police were swept up in the mood, smiling and posing for photos. An occasional handful of students would venture into the streets to high-five enthusiastic, honking motorists, only to be waved back by the police, but otherwise, it was as peaceful and well-behaved as a high school pep rally.

Then I looked up the street, to where the police had blocked off St. Paul Street with almost a dozen cruisers. A phalanx of about a dozen cops had lined up.

They began marching, and I saw one of the cops holding a pile of plastic flexicuffs. No one had a bullhorn or a PA. They just moved into the crowd and started yelling at people. There was no clear officer in charge, just a group of belligerent, angry police.

My brother came running up the sidewalk. "Some guy just got tasered!" he said. I saw some cops walking back toward us, so I crossed the street to stay out of their way. The first arrestees were being led to the paddy wagon. I pulled out my cell phone and started snapping pictures.

A beefy officer saw me taking photos and approached. I held my hands at my side and said, "I'm a journalist. I'm just taking pictures."

He slapped my cell phone out of my hand and grabbed my shirt. "Well, write a nice, long story about this," he said, spinning me around as another officer cuffed me. I was in the paddy wagon before I could even comprehend what was happening. After processing at Northern District I was thrown into a concrete cell, strip-searched, fingerprinted, and subject to the singular degradation of a long night spent in Central Booking.

To the Baltimore City Police: I have met plenty of decent, respectful cops in this city. I could single out those who arrested and cuffed me, but I won't. This isn't about individuals--throughout the ordeal, I met many who were appalled at the behavior of their comrades. One complimented my Obama T-shirt and loosened my cuffs. Another strip-searched me while shaking his head in disgust. "Welcome to the Baltimore City Police," he said.

To Mayor Dixon: I hold you accountable for the appalling, irresponsible behavior of your police force. They turned a peaceful, orderly, euphoric celebration of democracy into a brutal, embarrassing fiasco. People spontaneously celebrated in cities across our country--indeed, the world--without major incidents. Baltimore failed. Shame on you if you don't address this and apologize. And oh, by the way, thanks for not returning any of my calls despite promising to do so.

Most importantly, to the voters of Precinct 12, Ward 8, and the students, professors, teachers, and other citizens who gathered in Charles Village to celebrate the end of eight years of divisiveness and toxic politics and to inaugurate the beginning of an era of new possibilities: thank you. Because of you, I know my country, and my city, is in good hands. You made me proud.

Finally, to the officer who dared me to write about my arrest: Here you go, sir--as requested. I just hope you read it.

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