The Wall of Moms Got Your Attention, but Mothers Have Always Been Fighting for Change

Photo credit: Art by Ingrid Frahm
Photo credit: Art by Ingrid Frahm

From Harper's BAZAAR

The mothers are everywhere. Hundreds huddle close, wearing yellow and raising their arms above their heads, as captured in video footage from a July demonstration in Portland, Oregon. Together, they sing-song Hands up, please don’t shoot me, transforming the chant so often recited at Black Lives Matter protests into a haunting nursery song. The moment reverberated across the Internet, glorifying the group of mostly white mothers opposing the deployment of federal troops to the liberal West Coast city. Later that night, those very troops doused the crowds with tear gas. More support across social media followed. But by the end of the month, the Wall of Moms would crumble.

Its rapid and public dissolution is owed to the founder’s ostensible failings to center the agenda of the Black Lives Matter movement in her activism. Bev Barnum “went rogue,” the group’s Twitter account later stated, when she filed paperwork to turn Wall of Moms into a nonprofit without consulting any Black leaders. Don’t Shoot Portland, a local anti-racist organization, also said certain actions undertaken by the group left Black protesters “vulnerable” on the ground.

In its stead, a new group emerged: Moms United for Black Lives. Headed by Teressa Raiford of Don’t Shoot Portland, along with two other Black mother activists, Demetria Hester and Danialle James, the new organization this time made sure to enunciate exactly what they’re fighting for. “This group supports Black Lives Matter,” reads the first line of rules on its Facebook page, which now has more than 11,000 members. “Our focus is Black Lives, and we prioritize Black voices for this reason.” The splintering of the original assembly attested to the power of the kinds of mothers we listen to—and the mothers we don’t.

The mothers again are everywhere. They always have been.

Over time and space, the collective force of moms—steeped in the cultural mythos of what it means exactly to be a “mother”—has radically transformed certain conditions of society, if not toppled the whole structure. Sometimes, the gravitas of this maternal organizing can erupt into international shockwaves, as with the 1977 protests of Argentina’s Madres de Plaza de Mayo, which saw mothers protest the disappearance of their children during the country’s military dictatorship. More often, however, maternal activism is quieter and less flashy. Usually, it starts at home.

“Are those the bad men?” Arianna Bradford recalls her six-year-old son asking her one night, pointing to a group of federal officers walking through a cloud of tear gas on a livestream of a Portland protest she was watching. Bradford, who worked on communications with Wall of Moms at the time, answered neutrally, saying only that the group were the federal police. He then asked, “Well, why are they throwing smoke?”

“And I had to choose my words very, very carefully, but I said, ‘They’re stopping people from coming closer,’” she recounts. “And he said, ‘Oh, okay. Why are they coming closer?’ And I said, ‘Because they don’t want those men here anymore.’”

Bradford had never waded into political activism before joining Wall of Moms. Growing up as a Black, Puerto Rican, and Cuban woman in a mostly white community, racism wasn’t something that was often discussed among her peers. But after the killing of George Floyd, the 46-year-old Black man who cried out for his late mother as a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for several minutes, Bradford says, “It was almost like a towel came from over my eyes.”

She recanted her support of Wall of Moms after the group imploded, and now dedicates her efforts to the new Mxm Bloc, another mother-centered group dedicated to providing the community with anti-racist education.

“My son is at the age where he wants to play police officer. And it’s very hard for me not to tell him, ‘Hey, let’s talk about where police officers actually come from historically, son,’” Bradford says. “But I want to be fair to their childhood.”

In her 1990 essay, Homeplace (A Site of Resistance), bell hooks reflects on the innate subversive powerof Black motherhood under a racist status quo: “Historically, black women have resisted white supremacist domination by working to establish homeplace. It does not matter that sexism assigned them this role. It is more important that they took this conventional role and expanded it to include caring for one another, for children, for black men, in ways that elevated our spirits, that kept us from despair, that taught some of us to be revolutionaries able to struggle for freedom.”

Camille Wilson, a professor at the University of Michigan whose work explores community leadership and educational activism, says that the stain of slavery has always shaped the way Black women parent—and organize. “Black mothers have always had to think about the survival of our children in very literal ways given the continued legacy of racial violence. I think it’s something that the power holders haven’t wanted to deem as legitimate and constructive action when it absolutely is,” she says. “Because African-Americans have been excluded from mainstream spaces of power, we would have to organize outside of the mainstream for justice and for equity. Black mothers’ activism is a part of that work.”

Photo credit: Boston Globe - Getty Images
Photo credit: Boston Globe - Getty Images

Julianne Jackson has been organizing for years now. First through labor actions conducted with her union, SEIU 503, and then through efforts with various local organizations, the Salem, Oregon–based activist is a seasoned veteran of grassroots movements. Still, Floyd’s death, which fell on her 35th birthday, shifted something inside her.

“Something snapped,” she says. “Now, I pretty much dedicate the majority of my time, other than mothering and working, to do this work.” Activism, according to her, “is a hundred percent personal.”

“I’m raising a Black son, and I don’t ever want to get that phone call,” she says.

Jackson recounts telling her 14-year-old son, “You don’t get to do the things children your age get to do.” She drills into him a daily caution: Make sure to have your receipt on you when you leave a store; walk away if someone tries to fight you; put your hands on the dashboard if cops pull you over while you’re driving; be careful how you speak to white women. “You cannot make a mistake,” she warns. “And I think that’s really difficult for him. That’s a lot of pressure for a child to be under.”

She also tries to set an example for her two daughters. “It’s very important for them to understand that Black women have a voice,” she says. “We’ve been a wall of moms our entire lives. We’ve been creating these walls of safety around our children from our communities forever. This is not new for Black mothers. Most of the female organizers I know are mothers.”

History bears powerful examples of this kind of maternal organizing. From 1977 to 2006, mothers marched in Buenos Aires’ Plaza de Mayo wearing white headscarves, symbolic of diapers, embroidered with the names and birthdays of their children and grandchildren, 30,000 of whom were “disappeared” under Argentina’s military regime. Resisting intimidation tactics, including the kidnapping and killing of some of their own leaders, the mothers persevered for the truth. Today, the Abuelas are still working to find their missing grandchildren through methods like the establishment of a national genetic database.

Photo credit: Rafael WOLLMANN - Getty Images
Photo credit: Rafael WOLLMANN - Getty Images

Contemporary maternal activists also draw on their identities to support their organizing on the streets. In Mexico, Mother’s Day has become a holiday of resistance, as mothers march annually to demand the whereabouts of their presumably abducted children in the wake of the country’s war on drugs. In Chicago, after a 2015 shooting killed a young woman, moms formed Mothers Against Senseless Killings, intending to disrupt the normality of gun violence by simply convening on the streets and making their watchful presence felt in their community. From environmentalism to desegregation efforts, maternal health to voting rights, the mothers have always been there.

“They made critical the activities of mothering as necessary, social, and consequential by doing, collectively, what they already knew how to do as individuals,” writes Ruth Wilson Gilmore in her seminal book, Golden Gulag, in which she observes the making of anti-incarceration organization Mothers Reclaiming Our Children.

Long before Wall of Moms took to the streets of Portland, Black mothers across the country whose children were killed by police forged the Mothers of the Movement, using their grief to fuel the fight against police violence. These matrons of the Black Lives Matter movement include Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner; Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin; Maria Hamilton, mother of Dontre Hamilton; Lezley McSpadden, mother of Michael Brown; and Geneva Reed-Veal, mother of Sandra Bland.

“Black women have always done this work, and the work is dangerous,” Wilson says. “It’s dangerous because of the ways that Black bodies and Black women are demeaned in this society.”

So much of the emotional poignancy and political efficacy of mother-oriented movements like Wall of Moms draws on this long-standing tradition, tapping into an existing pool of maternal resources and cultural capital in order to channel despair into political might.

“The journey one takes from wrestling with their own struggles—learning that they’re not alone, learning that they have skills and experiences that they want to share—is a really impressive journey,” says Wilson. “I think folks outside of organizing don’t realize how strategic and tactical and sophisticated and intellectual this work is.”

While the potency of such maternal activism rests on communal care-taking and the recognition that everybody’s stakes are intertwined, parenthood is often an alienated activity under the Western lens, something that is practiced privately behind closed doors.

“Child-rearing is very individualized, very private, and even competitive,” says Andrea O’Reilly, a professor at York University and a prominent theorist on feminist mothering. “That’s not the way children have been raised historically.”

O’Reilly—who coined the term matricentric feminism, or a feminist theory that zeroes in on the peculiar challenges of motherhood—says that this way of parenting is only a decades-old phenomenon. Before, children were raised communally. Siblings, grandparents, and even friends would step in to care for a child. “Mother was working, she was running a farm. You didn’t have time to change a nappy or read a bedtime story,” says O’Reilly. “Everything we think of now as natural, it’s really a recent invention of what motherhood looks like. And it’s not a good one.”

After World War II, moms were pushed out of the workforce and back into domestic spheres as men returned, making home life “far more isolated and privatized.” Then came the ’90s, and with it the neoliberalism that championed a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality. It made way for what O’Reilly calls “helicopter parenting,” or a type of parenting that attempts to over-control and over-perfect.

“We live in a world that is precarious right now,” she says. “The parents, perhaps understandably, are so anxious that their child will be the one that makes it. They do all this hyper-parenting in the hopes of making their child successful in a world where it’s become so competitive and so individualized.”

Motherhood and feminism have a thorny history. Second-wave feminists from the ’70s revolted against the institution of motherhood, seeing it as inherently oppressive and patriarchal. Yet, acclaimed poet Adrienne Rich pushed back against this notion, arguing in her book Of Woman Born that mothering can actually be an empowering experience if those women can determine the conditions under which they labor.

“We don’t really see mothering as work. We see it as natural, inevitable, instinctual, when I think it's anything but that,” says O’Reilly. “I don’t think just because you were born with a womb, you automatically want to be a mother or know how to be a mother.”

Mothering, of course, doesn’t exist in a monolith. Its experience hinges on the locus of race, class, and sexuality, just to name a few. And for many, motherhood hasn’t been something to eschew but rather a rare conduit of agency.

“Just because you’re all mothers doesn’t mean you all share the same politics or use the same strategies,” O’Reilly adds, noting, for instance, that white mothers were often vigilant bulwarks of anti-integration efforts in the Jim Crow South. “Of course, it is an identity and it changes who you are and how you live in the world. But I think what makes you a mother is the work of mothering.”

Wilson defines mothering as an exhaustive love for one’s own child, but also for the intangible: community, freedom, justice. “Many of us talk about Black motherhood from a lens of wanting empowerment—not necessarily wanting to reject the title, but wanting to actually own the title and have it be respected and empowered,” she says. “But also understanding that it’s not all-defining of who we are as Black women.”

Communal child-rearing perseveres in Western societies, often manifesting itself in communities of color or working-class families. “Even the word mama has a collective meaning in Black communities,” Wilson says. “You can be everyone’s mama. It’s the community mother.”

Photo credit: Bill Clark - Getty Images
Photo credit: Bill Clark - Getty Images

In recent years, there have been increasingly louder calls to do away entirely with the West’s alienating iteration of parenthood. In her 2019 book, Full Surrogacy Now, Sophie Lewis envisions a world in which children belong to no one and everyone. Analyzing the surrogacy industry, Lewis makes a bold case for viewing all gestational and reproductive activity as labor and thereafter deconstructs the necessity of the nuclear family—at least, in a world without the mandates of capitalism.

“If babies were universally thought of as anybody and everybody’s responsibility, ‘belonging’ to nobody, surrogacy would generate no profits,” she writes. “Would it even be ‘surrogacy’ at this point? Wouldn’t the question then simply be: how can babymaking best be distributed and made to realize collective needs and desires?”

Sociologist Nancy Naples expresses a similar argument, if in a less radical lexicon, in her 1992 article, “Activist Mothering,” which observes the cross-generational activism of women in low-income communities. She writes, “When we limit our analysis of mothering practices to those activities that occur within the confines of a nuclear family, we miss the material conditions that contribute to differing family forms as well as the social construction of gender and mothering.” Put another way, one need not be a mother to be a mother.

It may be easy to dismiss such empowered and philosophical mothering as something that a mother should already be doing, but such an assumption, as hooks writes, “obscures the political commitment to racial uplift, to eradicating racism, which was the philosophical core of dedication to community and home.”

“A lot of people who criticize motherhood groups say it’s not a chosen activism. So, they’re a member of a group because their son was killed by a gun or killed by police,” adds O’Reilly. “They say it’s a politics of necessity or a politics of grief, not a politics of choice or thought. But a lot of people have countered that and said, ‘Wait a minute. All activism is ignited by personal circumstances.’”

In an age that celebrates hyper-individualization and chimerical scarcity, the easier choice would seem to be to retreat from a fight against an impregnable status quo and simply protect one’s own. Yet, evidence shows that that’s not the case. The maternal masses continue to swell and organize, subvert expectations, and lay the groundwork for a new world order. The mothers aren’t going anywhere.

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