Revolutions tend to devour their own, but rarely has this happened as swiftly, publicly, and predictably as it did with Portland’s overpraised “Wall of Moms.”
The brainchild of a suburban Mexican-American woman named Beverly Barnum, the group was loosely organized among other moms on Facebook who were incensed that President Trump had dispatched federal officers to Portland to protect the federal courthouse that had become the main target of three-months-long protests in the city. Wearing yellow T-shirts and linking arms, the Moms created a “wall” between federal officers and Black Lives Matter protestors in July, chanting “Feds stay clear. Moms are here!” and calling themselves “Momtifa.”
Not surprisingly, the moms became instant media darlings. Barnum and others gave emotional interviews to reporters, and outlets like National Public Radio swooned over the women as brave symbols of motherhood and activism—contrasting sharply with the officers Trump had stationed around the courthouse. Sen. Ron Wyden called them “courageous” and copycat groups like Wall of Vets, Wall of Dads, Wall of Doctors — again, self-identified—also joined the Moms in downtown Portland.
No one in the mainstream media seemed interested in questioning why supposedly “peaceful” protestors needed to be protected from law enforcement by a human shield of Moms (perhaps because they weren’t all peaceful?), or why some of those same moms were also filmed vandalizing the federal courthouse and hurling objects at officers.
They didn’t even ask if they were actually, in fact, moms. As NPR conceded, “The Portland Wall of Moms includes those who are nonbinary and people who consider themselves mothers.” This was apparently deliberate, since the optics of a wall of mothers was understood to be more appealing than the optics of, say, a Wall of Non-Binary Cat Moms. NPR quoted Teressa Raiford, leader of a local activist group called Don’t Shoot Portland, as acknowledging “the image of motherhood helps make the protesters more relatable.”
However useful the image, it wasn’t powerful enough to withstand the relentless demands of identity politics. Just two weeks after the initial onslaught of fawning media coverage of the Wall of Moms, Teressa Raiford publicly accused others in the group of “anti-Blackness” and demanded that they relinquish their leadership of the organization.
The Moms group quickly agreed, posting a public apology that acknowledged that they were “in a problematic but predictable place—too many of our group admins were White women.” Shortly after talking to Raiford and her supporters, the group announced that they had “quickly realized that there is not a context where White or non-Black women could be leading a group whose goal is liberation and justice for Black people.”
This, too, was evidently not enough. Shortly thereafter, Raiford’s group took to Instagram to denounce the Wall of Moms organization in its entirety, urging supporters of Don’t Shoot Portland to withdraw all support for the group.
Raiford’s complaints ranged from vague accusations that Wall of Moms leaders had “left vulnerable Black women downtown after marching” by refusing to provide them with on-demand “safety, transport, etc.,” to failing to inform them of attempts to register Wall of Moms as a non-profit organization. Raiford’s group claimed it was “not surprised that anti-Blackness showed it’s [sic] ugly face with Wall of Moms.”
Others piled on with their own critical takes on the white Moms. “The affective power of the mothers’ group singing lullabies and standing before the police relies on white women’s innocence and the sancitity [sic] of white motherhood as its driving force,” a fellow at a social justice think tank complained.
In her assessment of the Wall of Moms, Robin Givhan of the Washington Post could barely disguise her disdain for them: “The women stood arm in arm, shoulder to shoulder, wearing armor reflective of their privileged lives: scuba masks, shiny bike helmets, and white skin.” Of the Moms’ chants of “Hands up. Please don’t shoot me,” Givhan says, “the syrupy sweetness of their refrain was infantilizing, practically caustic to Black adult autonomy.”
There were hints of trouble early on. When NPR first reported on the Moms, it noted, “Raiford is frustrated at which moms have been getting attention in Portland. ‘The media shows a line of white moms standing together, but these Black moms are organizing,’ she said.”
After everything fell apart, Raiford was more caustic, telling Vox,“We are fighting for liberation, but [Barnum] ended up using Black bodies when she centered herself as an individual and incorporated the Wall of Moms through three agencies. That is violence and doesn’t liberate Black people.”
Neither will Raiford’s kind of activism. As Vox reported, Raiford “made it clear that its mission is to address the problems plaguing Portland’s Black communities, like the number of Black teens recently slain, the damage done by the coronavirus, and a police department that reportedly isn’t working to investigate gun violence.
But Mayor Ted Wheeler disbanded Portland Police’s Gun Violence Reduction team in June in response to the demands made by Black Lives Matter protestors. The result was grimly predictable: a dramatic increase in gun violence in the city—including triple the number of shootings in the month of July compared to the previous year. And Raiford’s criticism of Wheeler should be understood within a larger context than the one Vox provided in its story: she is challenging him in the upcoming election for Mayor.
As the dust settles, Wall of Moms founder Beverly Barnum has departed the group to form a new organization, and Raiford has thrown her support behind a new group called Moms United for Black Lives. The “official” Wall of Moms group tweeted that the brouhaha was a “cautionary tale.” “DO BETTER THAN BEV. Put and KEEP Black people in leadership. DEFER TO THEM. This was not meant to be a ‘brand,’” the organization stated. That deference means ceding leadership positions but not demands for funding by white allies. As Raiford told Vox, allies should do things like “cater to the needs of our community by sharing Cash App, setting up vigils, ordering flowers, or Postmating—these are the resources and things that Black families literally cannot get or do because of inequity.”
The Wall of Moms is correct that the recent debacle is a cautionary tale, particularly for all of the white liberals who have been signaling their allyship with Black Lives Matter and its many like-minded activist groups like Don’t Shoot Portland: Racial litmus tests will be as eagerly applied as ideological ones; and even if you pass the latter, the former can and will lead to expulsion and charges of racism by black activists if they don’t like your particular form of activism.