As nightly protests have dominated downtown Portland for nearly two months, both local officials and the Trump administration have attempted to cast the largely peaceful demonstrators as ruffians with suspect political values, hellbent on destruction. “It’s a very big difference between protests and the kind of mayhem that we’ve seen every night,” deputy chief of the Portland police Chris Davis insisted at a July 8th press conference. “Protests and this are two different things.” President Donald Trump delivered the same message from the Oval Office on July 20th: “These are not protesters. People say ‘protesters’; these people are anarchists. These are people that hate our country. And we’re not going to let it go forward.”
But the composition of the protest crowd in Portland is changing, following revelations that “the federal government effectively kidnapped people of Portland streets,” to quote the city attorney’s description of unidentified federal agents hauling protesters off into unmarked cars. Hundreds of mothers from across the city have shown up downtown this week, wearing yellow shirts and bike helmets or hard hats and improvised goggles. They’ve locked arms near the front of the protests to form a “Wall of Moms,” attempting to shield younger, edgier protesters from law enforcement violence. As one mother protester, Tara Russell, described her intentions on Facebook on July 20th: “Going to join the Wall of Moms…. I really hope I don’t get tear gassed, but I can’t sit at home anymore and watch these brave young people get beaten and rounded up by the Federal Secret Police. (And the Portland Police for that matter).”
The Wall of Moms draws on a long history of anti-authoritarian activism, particularly in Latin America where mother protesters famously demanded accountability for the thousands “disappeared” by right-wing regimes in Argentina and Chile. But the arrival of these demonstrators to protests that arose out of fury against official violence against Black people is complex. The layers of race- and class- and gender- privilege and expectation and subversion involved when a large group of (largely) white mothers shows up to make it more challenging for armed federal agents to injure marginalized people require a lot of unpacking. But many have welcomed the Wall of Moms:
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
The Wall of Moms is taking more active steps to protect the civilian population than these local municipalities.
— Bree Newsome Bass (@BreeNewsome) July 23, 2020
The arrival of the moms has certainly made it more difficult for local and federal authorities to justify their crackdown on protests by appealing to public hostility toward black bloc agitators. Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, pulled no punches:
Only a coward would try to convince the entire country that these people are violent anarchists then deploy paramilitary forces to tear gas them. https://t.co/7JAqvCXUsC
— Ron Wyden (@RonWyden) July 21, 2020
These demonstrators in yellow shirts have not just lifted their voices. On the night of July 21st, they put their bodies on the front line outside of the Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse, in which federal agents have barricaded themselves. A Trump administration court filing on July 21st cites vandalism to the building — with estimated damages “in excess of $50,000” — as the key justification for the deployment of 114 federal law enforcement agents in Portland. The courthouse has been heavily tagged with graffiti, some of it reading “Mamma,” evoking George Floyd’s call for his mother with his dying breaths as he was pinned by cops in Minneapolis in late May.
The feds, wearing fatigues and holding military-style rifles, showed no special treatment to the Wall of Moms. The protesters absorbed blows and tear gas from federal agents who were trying to shut down the protests.
Jesus feds just came directly for the Portland moms using batons and tear gas while carrying assault rifles.
— Joshua Potash (@JoshuaPotash) July 22, 2020
As resistance to Trump’s paramilitary buildup in Portland has gone mainstream, the administration has announced it is expanding deployment of federal agents to “assist American cities which are experiencing upticks in violent crime.” The unwelcome federal surge, which began earlier this month in Kansas City, Missouri, will soon expand to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and to Chicago.
Trump, who is trying to rescue his failed presidency by campaigning on “law and order,” also invoked the sanctity of motherhood in justifying the federal intrusion known as Operation Legend and named after a four year old, LeGend Taliferro, who was recently killed in Kansas City gun violence.
“No mother should ever have to cradle her dead child in her arms,” said Trump, a president who has refused to take action on gun control, furthered lethal policies at the border for undocumented immigrants, and demonized a movement aimed at preventing black people from being killed at the hands of police, “simply because politicians refused to do what is necessary to secure their neighborhood and to secure their city.”