Undeterred by federal officers using increased force and unmarked vehicles to detain people, protesters in Portland have continued to show up in the streets for nearly two months.
But the sounds of the city’s protests against systemic racism and police brutality started to change this last week thanks to a group called the “Wall of Moms,” self-identified mothers who have converted chants into lullabies and formed human shields between federal officers and other protesters.
Beverley "Bev" Barnum, one of the original organizers behind "Wall of Moms," says the viral video of two federal officers apprehending a protester and putting him in an unmarked minivan motivated her to join the protests. Now, she continues to show up to learn how to best serve the Black community.
Barnum notes that the group follows the direction of Black leaders.
“If [Black leaders] want one wall of moms, they get one. If they want two, they get two,” she says. “If they tell us to jump, we jump. And if they tell us to leave, we leave.”
Before the killing of George Floyd and the federal response in Portland, Barnum says she wasn’t an activist — but rather “stuck in my own little world.” Many of the mothers she speaks with share the same story.
Mothers have a responsibility to protect human rights, she says. Mothers run to help when they see someone drowning or falling off a bike, she says, and the same idea applies to police violence against Black Americans.
“Here in the suburbs, we're so focused on serving our families that sometimes we forget that the entire world is our family,” she says. “And as mothers, we have a responsibility to look up and pay attention and do something.”
When the moms arrive, protesters say, ‘Thank God the moms are here,’ she says.
The “Wall of Moms” garnered national attention after joining hands and singing, “Hands up, please don't shoot me,” like a lullaby. The mothers follow chants started by Black leaders and don’t create their own, Barnum says.
When protesters organically started singing the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome,” the moms had to sing it three times because they didn’t know the words, she says. The song is commonly known among Black Americans, but not often sung by white Americans.
The moms used their phones as candles to set the mood. Then, leaders invited the moms to march at the front and protect the protesters, she says.
Mothers have historically come together to call for change, such as the group "Mothers of the Movement," which includes the mothers of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner. Now, mothers across the country inspired by the “Wall of Moms” are forming similar groups in other cities.
“As soon as you become a mom, something primal inside of you just lights up, and all of a sudden the world isn't this peachy keen place,” Barnum says. “You know deep inside that you have to protect it. You have to protect people.”
Mothers hold up families, she says, and these instincts are one of the reasons the Black Lives Matter movement has “caught fire” in suburban communities.
Seeing mothers put themselves in front of bean bag rounds, tear gas and rubber bullets means a lot to Black leaders and the Black community because it shows “finally we have some skin in the game for them,” she says. It’s easy to support the movement by contributing to a GoFundMe and then returning to life as usual.
“It's a lot harder to get up knowing that you were just shot and you're going to do it again the next night because they've been enduring that for God knows how long,” she says.
On Wednesday night, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler was sprayed with tear gas after joining a crowd of protesters for a listening session. Barnum says the mayor’s answers to questions from the Black community were “soft” and is calling for stronger leadership from Wheeler, who has authority over the Portland Police Bureau.
People with power — who “call the shots” — need to use their voice and condemn the actions of Portland police instead of hiding behind a veil of impotence, she says.
“Work to actively change that so that your mothers and your grandmothers and your doctors and your librarians aren't getting shot at in an effort to allow the Black community to advocate for themselves,” she says. “Because it hurts. It physically hurts.”
This segment aired on July 23, 2020.