Biden AdministrationUkraine InvasionInflationEnergyCybersecurity

Early members of ‘Wall of Moms’ reflect on where they went wrong as protests in Portland continue

October 6, 2020, 4:00 PM UTC

While people of color have organized and protested after instances of police brutality for years, 2020 saw a new trend: More and more white people were flooding the streets with them. There are lessons to be learned from cities like Portland, Ore., and now Kenosha, Wis., about how white people show up at demonstrations.

When the Wall of Moms group formed in July, attention turned from the vigil for 18-year-old Shai’India Harris––who was allegedly fatally shot by her boyfriend––to what Portland mayoral candidate Teressa Raiford says is more palatable: the majority-white Wall of Moms. As protests sparked across the U.S. in response to the killing of George Floyd, Beverly “Bev” Barnum organized moms from the Portland-area Working Moms Facebook group to protect protesters––and Harris’s vigil––from federal agents using tear gas and rubber bullets.

Barnum instructed the group to dress “like moms” because “Who would want to shoot a mom?” she told the New York Times.  

Masked up with bicycle helmets, the vision of women of all ages marching went viral. “Moms are here!” they chanted in sunflower-yellow shirts. “Feds stay clear!” In another video, the moms sang a common protest chant to the tune of an old lullaby, crooning, “Hands up, please don’t shoot me,” while facing down police in riot gear. It was memorable. It was jarring. It forced viewers to see their own mothers in the women being shoved and attacked night after night. 

Raiford and other Black mothers had just one problem: Black mothers have been leading the fight for Black lives from the beginning, and their motherhood has never protected them from violence. But because it’s white women, Raiford says, they’re receiving sympathy and awe that Black mothers have never been afforded.

“That same week, we filed a lawsuit against Donald Trump, but all people could talk about was the Wall of Moms,” Raiford explains, adding that the lawsuit was a joint effort between Don’t Shoot Portland and Wall of Moms. “Fifteen people were murdered in one city that the world is looking at in one month, and it’s invisible because white moms matter more.”

While the Wall of Moms gained media fame months ago, the protests haven’t stopped. The group, through twists and turns and growing pains, has continued to protest federal occupation in Portland and the treatment of their Black neighbors. Since its creation, Wall of Moms groups have popped up in over 20 cities, and more are forming as the success of the original Portland group continues to inspire more women of all races to take action. In the process, activists across the U.S. have had the unique opportunity to educate people who are protesting for the first time on how to be better allies.

Response to the Wall of Moms

As soon as anti-racism educator Catrice Jackson saw the Wall of Moms, she says she knew what the fallout would be. Videos of the protests went viral, in part, because white viewers were able to identify with the moms.

“They see their humanity,” says Jackson, who leads workshops across the U.S. strictly for white women. “When a white woman screams, when she speaks, historically, society responds to white women in distress.”

White women, Jackson says, have a tendency to put their experiences first––hence the chant “Moms are here” when Black mothers were there long before.

Jennie Breslow Vinson, who is white, previously managed social media for the original Wall of Moms group in Portland. By the time they headed downtown to join protesters around the Multnomah County Justice Center––home to the Portland Police Bureau’s Central Precinct and a maximum security jail––the response to George Floyd’s killing had already begun. People, she says, had been out every night for almost two months before the Wall of Moms arrived.

“And all of a sudden, every major news organization in the world was down there because a bunch of white ladies had joined the fight. I think that there’s righteous anger over that,” Vinson says. “When in reality, nothing changed, right? I can see why that would be upsetting.” 

In her workshops and books like Antagonists, Advocates and Allies, Jackson encourages white women to reflect on what role they play in the fight for equality. While white women are responsible for doing their part to combat racism––instead of passively benefiting from a society that prefers lighter skin––Jackson says that the way they choose to engage in activism can be performative and self-serving.

“We were focused on white women saving or protecting the protesters who are out there, and that defeats the whole purpose of protesting––so that the voices of Black people are heard,” she explains.

Formation

Because of her name, Barnum says, people assume that she’s white. In reality, she’s a first-generation Mexican-American who, although she had never organized before, sincerely wants to do her part. The Wall of Moms, she says, was her first ever experience protesting––and her first time in the spotlight. At 4 a.m. after protesting night after night with Wall of Moms, she would sit in her car and cry. Then she would go home, shower, and take her son to school, trying to cope with the pressure of it all.

“I just want to keep doing whatever needs to be done to make inequality go away, racial injustice go away, police brutality go away,” Barnum says. “I don’t care how it happens.”

Her son is on the autism spectrum, and she saw similar traits in 23-year-old Elijah McClain, who was killed by police in Colorado in August 2019. When she stood in her kitchen for her first media interview about the Wall of Moms this summer, Barnum says she had just donated to McClain’s mother’s GoFundMe a few days before. But, she says, she didn’t say his name, and it’s a moment she regrets.

“I didn’t say I’m here because of Breonna Taylor. I didn’t say I’m here because of George Floyd. And I realized now that if I said that, this would be a very different conversation,” Barnum says.

She was moved to act after watching a video of federal officers putting protesters into an unmarked van just eight miles from where she lives. 

“I’m a runner––I could run there. I could experience it––see it, the abhorrent abuse of power,” she says. “And I asked myself: What can I do?”

To help bring her vision of organizing moms to fight for justice, Barnum reached out to the president of Don’t Shoot Portland, a nonprofit founded by Black Lives Matter activist Teressa Raiford, for guidance. While Raiford says she agreed to work with Barnum with the understanding that Wall of Moms would be there to support Black protesters in the fight for racial justice, it became apparent that Barnum’s vision for the organization was a little different.

A Black leadership team was brought in for the majority-white Wall of Moms to both lead protests on the ground and let those experiencing police brutality decide how it should be addressed.

Barnum says the two weeks she was involved with the Wall of Moms were rife with conflict and harried communication as she and Raiford discussed next steps for the group, which had grown bigger than they ever expected. Communication mishaps, normal on any day but made more frequent owing to sleepless nights of protesting, happened over and over, exacerbated by the growing realization that their goals were different.

Intentions

Mutual aid is what Raiford knows best. Whether it’s funding a funeral or simply making sure a family can put food on the table, mutual aid networks are give-and-take relationships in which communities support one another. With the support of hundreds of volunteers and other grassroots organizations, Don’t Shoot Portland’s ongoing, statewide efforts to distribute resources have included free clothing, legal aid, mental health services, and now wildfire relief for Indigenous communities in Oregon and Washington. When Raiford agreed to help the Wall of Moms as a part of their leadership, that’s the kind of work she intended the group to do, she says. Within a week, not only did the moms show up for Shai’India Harris and her family, Raiford says, they joined Black Lives Matter protesters, enduring pepper spray and flash bombs to be with the community.

But as fast as plans were being made, Raiford recalls, they were falling apart. Raiford says she did not agree with the new direction the group was taking––expanding an organization originally meant to support Black people to include other causes––and the conflict of goals played out on Twitter.

Barnum started to see the Wall of Moms as a national movement against all injustices, a decision that Raiford says wouldn’t be a problem if the organization wasn’t built on a commitment to support Black lives and protesters against police brutality in the streets. When Barnum decided to steer the organization––now a licensed nonprofit––in a new direction when the conflict is nowhere near over, activists on the ground felt she was abandoning the fight after a taste of fame. While Raiford was giving the advice necessary to run the Wall of Moms as a mutual aid organization, the direction didn’t match Barnum’s own goals to have Black Lives Matter as just one cause that the Wall of Moms supported.

In the months that followed, Barnum says she has received death threats and had her reputation tarnished. Critics have accused her of speaking up about federal agents in Portland only because it was in her backyard and not because Black people have been living with police brutality for decades. There’s a question that Barnum always gets asked: Is there actually room for allyship?

“My answer is, I don’t know,” she says. “Because I thought that I was doing what I was told to do.”

Everything, Vinson says, was just moving too quickly.

“Part of the heartbreak for me in all of this has been the lack of trust that is there between women of color and white women. I think it’s on us as white women to figure out how to be not only allies but better friends to Black women,” Vinson says.

When organizing with the Wall of Moms, Vinson said a lot of very mom-like behavior happened, both in the streets as well as on social media.

“Moms were trying to do what moms do: take charge and tell people the right way to do things, and that wasn’t what we were there for,” Vinson says. “I think lots of mistakes were made on both sides, but that shouldn’t stop us from continuing, right? The fight is too important.”

Wall of Moms groups in other cities experienced similar issues. The Seattle Wall of Moms group started with around 4,000 people, Jackson says, and almost 500 left when she was brought in to refocus their efforts on Black Lives Matter. Within the Twin Cities Wall of Moms Facebook group, Jackson assumed control of the group from the white admin. At first, the top guideline listed on the page said that the group would disband after the election. 

“Like, really, Black Lives Matter doesn’t matter after the election? I essentially messaged the admin and said, ‘We’re not going to allow white women to hijack the Black Lives Matter movement and use it for their own intentions,’” she says.

Doing the work

Barnum was just one of many women inspired to act because of the federal presence near their homes. But that’s the same reason Black protesters are wary of their presence: The issue wasn’t real, Jackson explains, until it was in their backyard.

“They will want to talk about the Trump administration and how their constitutional rights are being hijacked,” Jackson explains. “When we try to redirect them—because this is not an anti-fascism group, this is an anti-racism group—then they say things like, ‘You’re not listening to me’ or ‘This is important to all moms.’”

Kimberly Milliard calls herself a rule follower, and before she marched across Minneapolis’s Hennepin Avenue Bridge for Freddie Gray in her very first protest in 2015, the rules were still very much on her mind.

“I remember asking, ‘Well, is there a permit for this?’ And it’s a good example of focusing on the wrong things. These things don’t matter in the long run. I was centering my safety over the work we were trying to do,” Milliard, who is white, explains.

Amelia Hansa became a protest marshal in Minneapolis this year with a team of mostly white women responsible for doing things like blocking off streets for the path of the protest. They are there first to protect protesters and de-escalate violent situations, whether that be with counterprotesters or the police themselves.

“One of the big things that I took away was just how much space we can take up in conversations,” says Hansa, referring to how white people, in their process of learning about racism, tend to rely on people of color to teach them instead of educating themselves. “I started to see how much labor I was putting on them to explain.” 

Without that education and a desire to listen, Milliard says, the presence of white people at protests can actually be a distraction. 

“I think one of the most impactful things as a white woman is, when anyone disagrees with us we’re just always ready to talk back and explain ourselves,” says Milliard, who acts as a marshal at protests. “We want to talk about our intent and not address the harm we may have caused.”

With the rise of book clubs featuring Black authors on race, there are ample spaces to practice. If white people are willing to be reflective instead of defensive, Jackson says, these conversations can be productive. That’s how a conversation can shift from figuring out how to support Black people to centering their feelings of hopelessness about violence against people of color.

“This is not about protecting protesters from the federal agents coming in. We need to be aware of the dangers and law enforcement that are in our cities every day, because our Black neighbors deal with this every day,” Hansa says. “And that’s something that I always have to remind myself as a white person.”

For Nekima Levy Armstrong, civil rights lawyer and longtime activist, her consideration of increased interest from non-Black women comes with reservations. Are they here to stay, she wonders, or is their support only temporary? 

It can be done, and it can be done right––if they’re willing to be consistent. 

“That’s why there has to be accountability for what happens privately as far as their anti-racism efforts, how they treat Black people personally and professionally, and how they are using their privilege beyond being visible at a demonstration,” Armstrong says. “How are they putting some skin in the game beyond being visible at a protest?”

If white people are serious about fighting racism in this country, Jackson says, they need to first confront racism in their own lives. That’s the task where many, she says, get stuck. 

“There’s that cognitive dissonance there that they’ve always thought they were good,” Jackson explains. “And here comes Black women like me, who say, ‘Well, no, not necessarily because you do X, Y, and Z.’”

Some women go silent. Some get angry. But what they need to do if they want to truly change, she says, is confront it head-on.

“I call it going down in the dungeon of your soul to gather all the ways that you’ve been racist,” she says. “Your thoughts, behaviors, beliefs, putting them in a box, bringing them upstairs, putting them on the table, spreading them out and picking each one of them up, examining it, and then figuring out how you’re going to stop doing or thinking or behaving in this way.”

More coverage on the intersection of race and business from Fortune: