(RNS) — D.L. Mayfield is quick to admit the “wall of moms” gathered in protest in Portland, Oregon, was a publicity tactic.
But it also had an important goal.
She wants people to understand that the purpose of the group is to show solidarity as allies — but, ultimately, to focus attention on the Black mothers who have been decrying racism long before the current wave of protests.
“It’s also a bit of a PR stunt to get eyes on what’s been going on for almost two months downtown,” Mayfield, a Christian writer, told Religion News Service in an interview on Wednesday (July 22).
It was a stunt that got Mayfield — and many other moms — tear-gassed.
“I noticed all these police officers in full tactical gear, camouflage, guns, standing in front of the courthouse, and I had made a sign that said, ‘Mother Mary lost her son to state violence’ with a picture of Mary crying,” said Mayfield. The author has been a vocal advocate of Black Lives Matter. Her recent book “ The Myth of the American Dream ” argues that many American ideals are at odds with Jesus’ call to his followers to love their neighbors.
“I wanted the officers to see the picture of Mary,” she continued. “Within seconds, there are flash-bangs at my feet, and we’re surrounded by tear gas. It was really disconcerting to realize how fast it happened, with no warning and no real reason.”
Mayfield was participating in a Black Lives Matter protest with a chapter of Wall of Moms, a network of self-identified mothers committed to ending police brutality, when they were tear-gassed in Portland Tuesday night.
Hundreds of mostly white mothers, clad in yellow, had been singing and chanting for nearly two hours, when around 11 p.m. federal agents lobbed smoke bombs, flash-bang grenades and tear gas at them as they stood in front of the federal courthouse.
The Wall of Moms collective formed online less than a week ago and has been attending protests in Portland since Saturday. Black Lives Matter protests have been ongoing in Portland since George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis on May 25.
Wall of Moms has quickly become an internet sensation. It has also drawn criticism from scholars and social activists who believe the movement overshadows the work Black mothers have already been doing.
Organizers say the movement is committed to uplifting Black voices and empowering mothers to use their bodies as a frontline barricade that protects Black bodies.
“Our goal is to push the media to turn the focus where it belongs: Black leaders,” reads the Wall of Moms’ manifesto. It also commits to using “our white bodies, not our white voices.”
Some observers have taken to Twitter to praise the Wall of Moms’ success: “The Trump secret police never counted on facing this implacable, determined adversary: moms,” tweeted MSNBC host Joy-Ann Reid.
Shannon Watts, founder of the grassroots organization Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, also tweeted. “Americans moms are always on the frontlines because if we lose our children, what else do we have to lose?” she wrote. “Portland moms stand on the shoulders of BIPoC moms advocating and resisting for decades with little recognition and more danger. #wallofmoms ”
Mayfield described the protest before the tear gas as peaceful and said it was “a very festive atmosphere.”
“We stood around chanting, listening to music, there’s drums, cowbell,” she said. “It’s a very amazing communal feel. There are these organizations like Riot Ribs, which has been down there in tents grilling food for people. Everywhere you went, people are offering you cold bottles of water or little baggies of baby wipes in case the tear gas comes.”
Mayfield, whose sister convinced her to attend the downtown protest, said doing so challenged her “binaries of good protester and bad protester.”
The movement is inspired in part by Floyd’s dying words.
“All mothers were summoned when he called out to his Mama,” reads a banner on the Wall of Moms’ site.
“When you’re a mom you have this primal urge to protect kids, and not just your kids, all kids,” Wall of Moms organizer Jennie Vinson told The Washington Post. “To see a grown man reaching out and calling for his mother — I think that was a transformational moment for so many of us. It’s like: What choice do we have but to do this?”
According to the Post, there are already Wall of Moms chapters in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Washington, D.C.
The group formed in anticipation of increased deployment of federal agents in U.S. cities. President Donald Trump recently called the protests in Portland “worse than Afghanistan,” and he threatened to send U.S. law enforcement to other Democratic-led cities, including New York and Chicago. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has demanded the removal of federal troops from the city for days.
While protests in Portland had been waning in recent weeks, Wall of Moms has bolstered efforts and brought renewed media attention to the city.
Mayfield and her sister attended Tuesday’s protest with four other mothers from their church prayer group.
“We believe Jesus values Black lives, and in particular the way Jesus talks about the kingdom of God is always about prioritizing those who are the farthest away from flourishing, from the seats of power, from having their basic needs met,” she said. “It makes total sense to center Black lives in whatever we do, including protests.”