The Complicated Rise and Swift Fall of Portland's Wall of Moms Protest Group
On July 18, an online video showcasing a gaggle of Portland moms singing a hauntingly creepy lullaby remix of the words “Hands up / Please don’t shoot me“ caught the attention of millions of Americans.
Linked arm in arm and decked in sunflower-yellow T-shirts, the moms were using their bodies as a physical barricade between Black Lives Matter protesters and federal agents, an effort that was quickly dubbed the “Wall of Moms.”
The idea was the brainchild of a Mexican American woman named Beverly “Bev” Barnum and would quickly become an internet sensation, with Barnum giving teary interviews to major media outlets, footage of the moms being repurposed for high-profile political ads, and chapters springing up in cities around the globe.
And then, just as quickly as it began, it imploded, very publicly, amid accusations of anti-Blackness and that the original Black Lives Matter message had been abandoned by its founders.
It all began on July 17, when Barnum issued a call to arms in the Portland-area Working Moms Facebook group. Earlier that week, Oregon Public Broadcasting had reported that newly arrived federal agents were snatching protesters off the streets of Portland and detaining them without cause; the story reignited the protests which had been simmering in Portland for nearly two months, and thousands more protesters flooded downtown streets.
On that night, there was a vigil for 18-year-old Portland woman Shai’India Harris, who was shot to death on July 10, in broad daylight. Barnum wanted moms to be there, too, she wrote, dressed in white, “to help build the wall of protection for the protesters.”
Right away, members of the parenting group—most of them white women—were skeptical.
“Bev Barnum, I am going to push you a little here,” wrote a fellow mom. “I’m saying take direction from Don’t Shoot or Snack Bloc. They are experts, and have been doing this for years. This is a Black Lives Matter movement. As a white person, it is important to show up, listen and be ready to do work—and not be in leadership.”
Barnum assured her fellow moms that she’d been in contact via Instagram with local organization Don't Shoot PDX, an Oregon-based accountability group formed by Black Lives Matter supporter Teressa Raiford to scrutinize actions of the Portland Police Bureau; the group’s profile has risen dramatically with the protests of the past two months, and Raiford is now the subject of a write-in campaign for mayor.
Don’t Shoot had given its blessing, Barnum wrote, and the Wall of Moms was born.
And almost immediately, on the strength of cheers like “Never fear, the moms are here,” the Wall of Moms went viral.
Signs of Trouble
But not everyone hopped on board: longtime Black activists immediately questioned the centering of white moms and their bodies, and how just by showing up, they had somehow legitimized the protests.
The affective power of the mothers’ group singing lullabies and standing before the police relies on white women’s innocence and the sancitity of white motherhood as its driving force. It’s like, appropriating the discursive/social/political potency of the 14 Words for good. https://t.co/JO05TLmc3d— Zoé (@ztsamudzi) July 21, 2020
Some of the moms who attended knew they were signing up to be in support of Black lives however they could be of service. But for many others this was their first time on the front lines of protesting or organizing at all, and they looked to Barnum for guidance that never came.
“When it first started we just thought—we didn’t know it was gonna get so big and everyone overwhelmed us with volunteerism,” says Jaclyn Pritchard, who is listed as secretary on the Wall of Moms legal paperwork. “So Bev and I just gave everyone who wanted to work on Facebook [admin] rights. And that was a huge mistake.”
At first, though, it seemed as if Barnum and her team could manage the backlash: they released a sunny statement to their 24.8k Instagram followers on July 24, announcing that Don't Shoot was taking over leadership and organization of the group.
On July 28 the two organizations announced the filing of a joint federal lawsuit against the US Department of Homeland Security defending the constitutional rights of Black Lives Matter protesters in Portland.
But behind the scenes, the relationship between the nascent organization and the established one was far more complicated. The graphic posted to Instagram was created from a not-for-publication draft of notes from a meeting that left out important edits, according to an essay written by local writer and activist Susan Bartley, who was invited to sit in on an early Zoom call between Barnum and the Don’t Shoot PDX team, including Raiford and activists Danialle James and Demetria Hester.
Others say that the publicly touted agreement to merge the Wall of Moms with Don’t Shoot PDX was never solid.
“I asked repeatedly for guidance and direction if we were partnering with Don’t Shoot,” says Rashelle Chase, a former Wall of Moms Facebook administrator who works in early-childhood education in the Portland area.
“We were told that we were coming under the umbrella of Don’t Shoot. That we were to take guidance from Don’t Shoot. That Danialle and Demetria would be our leaders. To further and advance the Don’t Shoot message. And I did that to the best of my ability. With no guidance. And there wasn’t guidance on the Don’t Shoot side either which was a little bit frustrating, until I found out that that relationship had been misrepresented to us. And that Teressa did not have the intention of taking responsibility for it. So we were essentially operating in a power vacuum which culminated with Bev contradicting me in a thread telling me that we were not here for Black lives and that we were not specifically aligned with Don’t Shoot. And then implosion. So basically we were operating with no guidance, no support, no accountability and when I pressed [and said] ‘Yes, we are here for Black Lives,’’ I was told no. Then [I was] removed and blocked from the group.”
Things Fall Apart
Then came the bombshell: In a page straight from the Pantsuit Nation Playbook, Barnum had filed the paperwork to turn Wall of Moms into a nonprofit, even as she had allegedly left Black moms unprotected on the protest front lines. She’d done so without the explicit consent of any of the Black leaders she had tapped to help lead.
In a recent Facebook post, Barnum claimed Raiford knew that Wall of Moms was starting a 501(c)3 and that, in fact, she did so in order to block a number of scam fundraisers springing up online, which she charged were associated with a Don’t Shoot PDX fundraiser named Rebecca Anderson.
“Not only did Teressa agree to be my co-chair over the phone. She agreed via text message to allow WOM’s 501c3 to re-route funds to her 501c3 (Don’t Shoot Portland) as a direct partner,” Barnum wrote.
But Anderson tells a different story. In an interview with Portland Monthly, Anderson says she was one of the first volunteers to approach Barnum and was quickly made an admin of the Facebook group, a job she held for only three days before quitting. Anderson says she started one GoFundMe, only after being asked to do so by the new Wall of Moms leadership put in place by Don’t Shoot PDX, with the goal of hiring a seasoned Black activist to be a consultant for the in-need-of-a-course-correct group.
After a conversation with Raiford, Anderson was told Demetria Hester would be the best person for the position.
“Because it was my idea to pay for a Black activist to come into the group and help us, especially the white moms, learn,” Anderson says. “That was a conversation that I had directly with Demetria as well as with Teressa and Demetria asked me to set up a GoFundMe [donation site]. And I have text messages as well. She told me what the goal should be and she told me who should benefit. It was meant for her and Danialle directly, as direct support. I set up one single GoFundMe under the specific direction of Demetria. And then two days later, I’m not sure why, I was asked to take it down. Teressa asked me to take it down and I made an update and explained what folks should do with their refunds, directing them directly to Don’t Shoot PDX.”
Raiford told Portland Monthly that business should never be affiliated with protesting. “You should not look to get paid for showing up for Black lives,” she said. “You show up willing to learn or be empathic for our cause.”
There was a reckoning over Zoom on July 29, with speculation running rampant that Barnum had big plans to commodify and monetize this movement while insisting that Black Lives Matter was only ever “a piece” of the Wall of Moms. Facebook fights and phone calls riddled with anti-Blackness and misogynoir ensued, leading to contradicting takes on what exactly led the group to dissolve.
“I want to call a little bit foul on the idea that you couldn’t find enough Black women in that group to help with the publicity, and understanding what was going on,” Bianca McCarthy, the executive director at Echo Theatre in Southeast Portland, told Barnum on one of the Zoom calls after word broke of the nonprofit filing. (Editor’s Note: Reporter Jagger Blaec was on this call, and took notes; the following quotes came from that call, and were verified afterwards with participants.)
“I feel like there’s been a lot of soldiering forward the way that you want to and not truly engaging the group that you have available to you that was willing to participate,” McCarthy continued. “I just want you to know that you are compromising our lives out there. We had spoken up about our safety concerns and the fact that it wasn’t addressed was a serious problem. We are obviously out there fighting for our lives and our kids’ lives and some racial equity. Calling all the moms to just immediately leave and not making sure your Black moms are safe is a big issue.”
Others pressed Barnum on her claim that she hadn’t been aware of the focus on Black Lives Matter until the feds came to town.
“I just find it hard to believe that you didn’t know anything that you just fell into. This has been going on for 60-plus days,” preschool teacher and local mother Elisha Warren told Barnum, on the same call.
On the call, Barnum doubled down, responding: “I need to do a lot of antiracism work going forward, but the way that the Black women in person yell at me. Just the way that they treat me it doesn’t make me feel like I am even human sometimes.”
She added: “The vision that Black women have is not the vision that I have. Wall of Moms is not even two weeks old. Again, I didn’t go into this with Black Lives Matter up here. I went into this with a “Wall of Moms” to protect protesters from federal agents. And I know that’s upsetting, but I can’t change the truth. I could lie, I could say, “Oh, I totally went into this with Black Lives Matter” but I’m being completely transparent with you.”
By this point in the conversation, Warren suggested that Barnum move on:
“Hand this off to Black women that have the time, that have the patience,” she told Barnum. “Because you have a lot on your plate as it is. But guess what? America was built on us; we have the backbone for it. So, pass it along and let somebody else take care of it that has that strength. I know I wouldn’t feel comfortable coming up to you and you're on the frontline crying.”
Barnum, though, wasn’t ready, responding: “To me, this is a business. It has the ability to do a lot of good.”
Others chimed in, asking her to slow down, to reconsider.
“I wanna slow down and ask why you think you’re able to take this on some national and global level when the local chapter is a complete dumpster fire?” said AJ McCreary, the cofounder and executive director of Equitable Giving Circle, a group formed to connect BIPOC farmers and community members. “A lot of things you’re saying that are very problematic and just from a basic business standpoint are very concerning. And there’s no way in hell, and I mean this with utmost respect, that you can build something out elsewhere when this right here is literally burning.”
Eventually, Black leaders cut off Barnum’s access to all associated social media channels, went public with the accusations of anti-Blackness coming from the Wall of Moms team, and quickly distanced themselves. They then launched a new group called, “Moms United For Black Lives” which named Demetria Hester and Danialle James as its leaders.
Hester respectfully declined to be interviewed by Portland Monthly, but gave an interview to the Oregonian, suggesting that Barnum had been trying to capitalize on the movement, without the knowledge and experience to lead it forward.
By Saturday, August 1, long after the national media had moved on from the Wall of Moms story, a Facebook post went up announcing that Barnum had formally been fired from the organization, for “violations of social policies.” The group’s newly appointed Black leader, Antoinette Rootsdawtah, a Black woman from California who was recruited via Facebook, asked for time to sort through the situation, adding that the group plans to “address the anti-Blackness. As of now we are supporting and lifting Black voices.”
Still, despite new leadership, members are divided and asking that the organization be dissolved due to what some consider irreparable damage due to the harm caused by unacknowledged anti-Blackness.
“People who joined this group who weren’t Black joined it for the proximity to whiteness and their comfort level with that,” says Rachelle Dixon, a Black Lives Matter chapter founder and Portland-area farmer. “As a new organizer you need to understand that there are things you don’t know and the reason why you want Black leadership is to show you where the minefields are. Because they are out there and you already stepped on them. And it's not like your voice isn’t valuable but it’s that you came in on a conversation 400 years into the conversation and then the narrative changed.”
In the aftermath of it all, a third “Mom” group is on the horizon to launch this week, made up of local Black moms and allies who are looking to show up for Black Portland and the protest community and will work alongside local groups that offers resources and educational support to local activists.
“We are taking lessons from the messiness of the Wall of Moms,” says Chase, one of the organizers. “We are calling ourselves “Mom Bloc.” For me and the moms that I’ve been talking with we just want to take care of our community. I think the one thing Bev did tap into that was really powerful was how much we can accomplish when we come together. I mean it sounds kind of cheesy, but in a week all of these moms came together with their skills and their passions and their areas of focus and built an infrastructure with no guidance from Bev. So then in the group there were moms who wanted to donate money, who wanted to donate supplies, who wanted to donate time. So we want to tap into that passion and those resources and funnel that level of support and engagement towards organizations in Portland that are taking care of the Black community.”
Reporter’s Note: My interest in a bunch of moms started out with a Facebook post, on the heels of #NakedAthena. I immediately noticed how differently white protesters were being discussed.
Right before our eyes, the Wall of Moms rebranded and reprioritized the feelings and bodies of white motherhood. It wasn't until I heard the stories of the Black mothers involved that I also recognized the insidious presence of anti-Blackness being demonstrated by many of the non-Black organizers.
“Listen to Black Women” is something that people like to say but then y’all just don’t.
Too often it’s demanded from others that our legitimate concerns and grievances are sugar-coated and packaged nicely even just to be considered as valid and other times we go unheard completely.
Unlearning how our behaviors are governed by white supremacy is long and arduous work, and that work gets really weird in Portland.
But this isn't just a Portland problem or a Wall of Moms issue.
All over the world, Black people are being told our lives matter, yet individuals from all backgrounds continue to disregard, murder, exploit, and gaslight Black people, especially Black women.
Wall of Moms has become somewhat of a national curiosity so I wanted to investigate what exactly went wrong and recenter the experiences, stories, and voices of Black mothers in their crusade for justice for Black lives. —Jagger Blaec