With a lot of problematic activism, as soon as you take a minute or two to dig into it, the whole thing starts to crumble.
The reason we were spreading that harmful idea, demanding that ineffectual action, believing that harmful belief is often that people didn't take the time to get to the source. We just take it at face value, share it because we were told to (or felt like they should), then go about our day.
But today's entry is different.
I spent a good chunk of time trying to get to the bottom of today's subject, the "Anti-Blackness" controversy surrounding the Wall of Moms movement, which I first heard about indirectly. A friend of mine shared the following screenshot, with a comment in support of the action:
I had been following the Wall of Moms movement from the sidelines. I had seen the viral videos and photos of the moms locking arms and placing themselves between other protestors and police brutality. Many of my Facebook friends – people I would have never guessed to be protesting – were participating, showing up for Black Lives Matter. It was moving to see mothers take to the streets, step up to protect younger voices, and put their bodies on the line to stand against injustice.
They reminded me of the Mothers of the Movement, who came together in the beginning of the Black Lives Matter days, mourning their children lost to racist violence, acting as an inspiration to so many. And like the Mothers of the Movement, the Wall of Moms immediately garnered positive national press.
The biggest difference here, in this movement, was that most of the Wall of Moms moms (at least in the viral photos and videos) were white.
People everywhere have been hearing a clarion call to "Do." Don't just sit behind your computer, "Get out in the streets." And if you're white, a common ask from BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) organizers has been to, "Put your body between us and the police."
These moms heard that call. An unlikely group of activists, at least in a lot of people's minds: suburban white moms joining Black Lives Matter protests to block rubber bullets, tear gas, and batons.
This made it a shining, quintessential example of social justice allyship, creating a coalition across difference of identity, using privilege to confront unjust power.
"Don't just donate to an org and think your work is done," is a common ask in activist spaces. "Show up. Take action. Give up your comfort and safety in the name of providing others the same."
Okay, so what happened? What went wrong? What were the "drastic changes" that were mentioned to justify closing the Austin chapter? Was this bigger than just our little corner? And what does this mean for this movement, and our current social justice activism moment more broadly?
I decided to get to the bottom of it. Spoilers: I failed.
Why is the Wall of Moms Anti-Black?
[Note: I wrote all of what is in this section three days ago. I didn't publish this post then, because it, as you'll see, it didn't feel complete enough to share, and I chose to follow my own advice and wait for more information before sharing misinformation. What I've learned since, which I highlight in the next section, is even weirder. But I'm keeping this here, as in, because it's like a time capsule of what someone who really, really, really wanted to know what was going on could figure out. And it's not much.]
The first thing I did was google. And the first thing I found was this New York Post story:
That article left me with more questions than answers, so I followed the link to this article in the Oregonian. That one, again, left a lot of the story to be filled in. But it also linked to this post on Instagram, citing it as the impetus for all of this.
"Great!," I thought. "I'll read that Instagram post and this will all make sense."
Again, I ended with more questions than answer. And I wasn't the only one. Reading the comments on that post, the most upvoted ones were all people who were with lost with me: trying as we might, reading everything offered, but struggling to follow what was going wrong here, and where we were being called to act.
But the replies to those questions weren't helpful. People were being accused of asking Black women to do emotional labor, or anti-Blackness themselves, in asking for clarification.
At this point, despite knowing basically nothing, I realized I already knew more about this than most of the people who were mad about it – the people reacting and amplifying and decrying in response to this post, many of whom hadn't even seen this post.
I got a text message from a [Black mom] friend of mine. She was a member of another city's Wall of Moms Facebook group, which was being disbanded (because of the Instagram "ANTI-BLACKNESS" call to action), and she didn't know what was going on.
I asked if she had read the Instagram post. She said, "What instagram post?" Then I replied saying, basically, that I have no idea, but with more swear words and emoji.
I searched everything I could, texted dozens of activists and friends, and am still not really much more sure of what happened than when I started.
There is no shortage of vitriol leveled agains the WoM founder, Bev (including open attacks, threats, doxxing, and other really-no-helping-anybody bullshit).
Bev had left the organization at this point, or been fired – that wasn't clear. But people were leveling all sorts of accusations against her.
The Official Wall of Moms Twitter account even jumped in on it (presumably being run by a Don't Shoot PDX person at this point? I'm really not sure. Many people in the replies asked who was in charge of the account, but I didn't see a clear answer other than "not Bev"):
The best I could piece together, by reading hundreds of Facebook comments, tweets, legal/tax filings, and anything else I could find online, painted the following [super incomplete! Absolute conjecture! Probably wrong!] picture:
- Wall of Moms (WoM) became a basically-overnight activism international super-success.
- People noticed all the women leading WoM were white, and asked/demanded for Black women / women of color to be granted leadership roles (a la Women's March 2017). Don't Shoot PDX (DSP) was part of this activism-facing activism.
- So the WoM founder and Facebook group admins stepped down from the group and appointed BIPOC administrators.
- Meanwhile, WoM was getting donations, or being asked if they were able to receive donations, so they filed for 501(c)3 status and formed a Political Action Committee for to be able to accept those funds in an accountable/transparent way.
- DSP saw this filing as a breaking of the promise for Black leadership, or in a threatened/rivalrous way (as another local non-profit potentially competing for those funds in a zero-sum way), and released their statement on Instagram.
- WoM groups all over the world saw that statement, and were placed in a tough position of either disbanding (following DSP's lead and denouncing WoM) or going full BIPOC leadership, or being "anti-Black."
- So groups everywhere started to disband, shut down, or change names.
A WoM Facebook group admin in the rural western US messaged me [edited a little for anonymity and clarity]:
I don't know what to do. We can't give the group over to BIPOC because this sounds bad but there aren't any BIPOC here. Just us white moms. But we were out there protesting and this was the first time we got to stand up for what we believe in and now we have to stop.
I was wondering if something similar would happen in the Austin chapter. If a local BIPOC activist mom wouldn't step up, and the group would end up shuttering. And how many groups, how much momentum, was going to be lost to this.
At the same time, I was really torn by an inherent contradiction in this demand. A way that it was rubbing up against another Social Justice Dogma tenet: We're constantly told that we shouldn't be forcing people of color to shoulder the burden of undoing racism (or task any marginalized person with undoing their own oppression).
I was also exhausted. I had spent hours at this point talking to people about this, including many who had shared piping hot takes, and nobody really knew what was going on – we just "knew" Wall of Moms was problematic, it's founder was " All anybody really "knew" was that the Wall of Moms was trash, the founder was trash, or we'd be trash if we didn't denounce the former.
When texted my friend back and asked, "Are you going to take over your local FB group?", she summed this up perfectly:
Lmao is right.
What really happened?
A few days ago, PDX Monthly published The Complicated Rise and Swift Fall of Portland’s Wall of Moms Protest Group. This piece has an obviously anti-Bev bent to it, but fills in the gaps better than reading the social media posts openly attacking her.
This morning, the Oregonian published their own post-mortem of sorts, detailing what went down at WoM: Rebuilding the Wall of Moms: Founder Bev Barnum responds to accusations, new leadership plans for the group’s future.
It's behind a paywall (😓), so I'm not expecting you to read it, but the two pieces read together shine light on all the cracks in the story I couldn't figure out myself.
If everyone is telling the truth in these two pieces, here are three things that you'll learn about this kerfuffle:
- The WoM founder, Bev, had planned to co-chair the non-profit with the PDS founder, Teressa, and had gotten Teressa's thumbs up on this prior to filing the paperwork (despite the Instagram post and lots of other accusations).
- Nobody was going to be paid as part of the WoM non-profit (they'd continue volunteering their time as they had been).
- All donations collected via WoM were going to be redirected to PDS (again, something Bev got explicit permission from Teressa, who responded via text, "Yes let me know how you want it set up."), so the only org that was going to be profiting from all this attention was a BIPOC-led one.
(Side note for #3: Just adding up the public GoFundMe campaigns for Wall of Moms I was able to easily find, and combining that info with the tax records of past years' filing from PDS, the money raised from this redirection would have likely dwarfed any amount PDS had ever received – never having raised more than $50K in a prior year.)
Is that the full picture? Of course not. I'm sure we'll learn more as time plays out, or maybe we won't.
But the facts above certainly complicate things, at least for me.
Wall of Shame vs. Wall of Fame
The truth is that I'd say 99.9% of social-justice-minded people have no idea about any of this. Most of the people I texted and asked, "Do you know what's going on with the Wall of Moms controversy?", all of whom are activists, advocates, feminists, or all of the above, replied, "Huh?"
This is one of those situations where silos aren't our friend. It's so easy to think everyone is talking about this, when it's really just everyone Facebook decided to show you today.
And of the .1% who know, basically every person had the same impression. Most of the tweets and statuses I read could be summed up as: Fuck Bev.
But this is one of those things that is playing out like theatre, and the onlookers are learning as much or more as the people on stage.
The lessons people are learning from this aren't ones that are likely to get us closer to living social justice.
WoM groups all over the world shutting down, a mere weeks after they were created (most of the Facebook groups I could find were either already shut down, or awkwardly renamed, or in the process of shutting down). There's an unclear next step other than, "This is problematic. BIPOC should be in charge."
To the casual onlooker in this situation, I'm worried the following lessons will be learned:
- Moms aren't welcome in social justice activism, especially white moms. I have seen hundreds of such comments, responding to phrasing that sounds unfortunately similar to telling people to sit down and shut up.
- I shouldn't risk participating in activism unless I do it perfectly. There is no room for mistakes, or active learning. Unless I have it all figured out, I should stay out of it.
- We need people of color, and Black women specifically, to shoulder movements for justice, and should reject anyone else doing the work. Ignoring what it means to offload that [basically always unpaid] work, without explicit permission or orders following the lead of a BIPOC activist, stepping in and interrupting injustice is perpetrating a larger injustice.
That last one is enough for me to think this whole thing is problematic. But I can make it even worse.
The Writing on the Wall (of Moms)
Sometimes, I find it helpful (albeit depressing) to put myself in the mindset of someone who is entirely anti-social-justice and ask myself, "How happy would that person be seeing what we're doing right now?"
Imagine someone who is happy with the injustice prevalent today, who wants the world to be even more oppressive than it is – a truly sinister, bigoted, evil person who took glee in marginalized people's suffering.
"Would they be okay with what happened with the Wall of Moms?" I ask myself.
Even worse: "How similar is what happened with the Wall of Moms to something that is literally from their dreams? An ideal outcome to this situation?"
When the answer is anywhere neutral, or "They wouldn't really care," I take a step back and wonder if we're doing the right thing. A helpful thing. Something that is taking us closer to living social justice.
In this case, I'm applying that to everything that's happened with the Wall of Moms, which, to recap:
- An international movement inspires (suburban, white) moms to take direct action in protests for Black Live Matter against police brutality, literally putting their bodies on the line for the cause; and then
- The thing that kills it is activists within the movement who don't like that it's led by white women, or who have grievances with the particular white woman who started it, triggering a mass exodus and all around clusterfuck of confusing inaction and lack of paths forward.
Now, to that second point, I'll be happy to be wrong.
I'd love to see, a year from now, that Wall of Moms thrived under its new leadership, or whatever it's renamed as has the same globe-sweeping energy, results in a collective consciousness against police brutality, and leads to an entirely new vision of the role policing plays in our communities (or abolishment thereof), and we're ever closer to living social justice. And I feel like an asshole who raised the alarm about something that was actually good news.
But I think it's more likely that this is the beginning of the end of the Wall of Moms, and represents a massive blow to the momentum or killing of the spirit of this activism.
Movements are magical things, and successful ones like unicorns. We can't possibly know everything that goes into make the ones that worked work. But it's easy to imagine the massive forces aligned against them, to empathize with everything standing in the way.
Everything stacked against this working outweighs what we have on our side, even if we don't sabotage it ourselves.
The fact that it got as far as it did is a borderline miracle.
Back when I was trying to pice all this together, one of the last friends I texted was another mom who I knew would be sympathetic to the goals here, but I hadn't seen post anything about the Wall of Moms. I explained the controversy, and what I was asking about, and she replied:
That gave me a good laugh.
And, moving forward, it'll be something I'll be wondering a lot. I spent hours – way too much time – trying to figure out what was happening with Wall of Moms, waiting for the "official responses," looking for missing pieces of the puzzle, and I'm not even a mom (unless dogs count).
As moms (and everyone) try to decipher the writing on the wall going forward, and decide if this is/isn't a movement they should support, it'll be hard to blame them if they don't have the fucking time.