Dressed in her SpongeBob beanie and mask, with a smile on her face, Demetria Hester served up barbecue turkey, mac and cheese, and more for the holidays at the Red House on Mississippi, which became a site for community support after the Afro-Indigenous family who owned it were threatened with eviction last year. Though Hester, 47, lost her job as a cook due to the pandemic, it hasn’t stopped her from giving back.
“I look at the joy of life, of waking up every day, trying to make it the best day and being positive,” she says. “That’s why I love SpongeBob, ’cause he’s ready and he’s always just happy and sees the best in everything. That’s how we have to be.”
The grandmother, activist, and hate crime survivor moved to Oregon in 2015 to get away from the “crabs in a barrel” mentality she saw in her hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. On May 25, 2017, she was harassed and assaulted by Jeremy Christian the night before he stabbed three men on a MAX train. She faced him in court, delivering a powerful victim impact statement in June of last year even as he threatened her all over again. But her statement also called out a system she decried for upholding white supremacy. “The officer asked me for my ID and treated me like I was the assailant because of my color,” she said. “The officer let Jeremy walk away.”
In court, Hester wore a mask bearing the words “I can’t breathe,” calling out her connection to the Black Lives Matter movement during protests following George Floyd’s murder. Having been involved with activist group Don’t Shoot PDX, Hester took the helm of Moms United for Black Lives in the summer of 2020, a successor to the fraught Wall of Moms. Her leadership style resembles her mothering style, she says: “strict.” “I’m a Black mom,” Hester says. “I’ll cuss you out and say, ‘Baby, I did it for love.’”
She has led Moms United for Black Lives ever since, throwing her support behind the write-in campaign for Teressa Raiford that upended the mayoral race. Police run-ins haven’t stopped her, either—after an arrest in August at a Black Lives Matter protest for “disorderly conduct,” charges were dismissed by the district attorney. “We’ve been fucked up so many times it don’t even matter to us no more,” she says. “We like, ‘Is that all you got?’”
Amber Boydston, who got to know Hester through the Black Lives Matter movement, pays tribute to that commitment. “Being around her, there’s this sense to flame those embers even more, to keep that fire burning vibrantly,” she says. “That this is work that we are continuing for our ancestors and for our unborn grandchildren and for the healing of our planet and for Black liberation and for Indigenous sovereignty. And she is a clear reminder of that in every single interaction.”
Next up? Reparations, says Hester. Meanwhile, she makes a point of self-care—long baths, time with her grandson—and she’s learning tae kwon do from Kung Fu Mama, one of her fellow Moms United for Black Lives. “She gave me a self-defense [dummy] man that you get to beat and hit and stuff that I practice on,” says Hester. “He’s white. [laughs] Yeah, he gets fucked up, baby.”