Ever since the death (now declared murder) of 25 year-old Freddie Gray, peaceful demonstrations have been taking place in the streets of Baltimore, MD demanding justice in the face of police brutality. It wasn’t until the middle of this week that a “disgruntled minority” grabbed the attention of major media outlets through disruptive forms of protest, setting cars on fire, and throwing rocks at police. There is much criticism and praise concerning this form of “rioting”, and the media’s position on both ends have often highlighted the worst of the worst, rather than highlighting the sustained momentum of a street movement working to dismantle the “powers that be” of police brutality in Baltimore. Video after video, article after article, has made visible the “thugs” and the “mischievous” black youth standing on top of cars and destroying a CVS, while simultaneously making invisible the majority of black protesters who have been absolutely peaceful. There have also been protesters, including rival gang members, who have sought to prevent violence and disruptive forms of protest, all the while demanding unity and justice for Gray. (Sidenote: As incomplete media narratives sought to shape the baltimore protests in a negative light, counter-mainstream media vigorously sought to display the fact that these so called “riots” happen in white communities all the time after sports games, and they are often deemed celebratory).
But one media sensation has caught the attention of both the white and black community. Meet (if you already haven’t met her), Toya Graham, Baltimore mother of 6. A video of her smacking her son continuously after catching him about to throw a rock toward the police went absolutely viral on not only social media, but major news outlets, (especially Fox news, see video here).
Now, raising 6 kids should alone merit some type of mom award, like sheesh, what’s a woman got to do to get some praise around here? I can easily imagine that Graham, as any mother would be, was genuinely worried about her son and what kind of epic, violent mess could spring forth from engaging the police in such a violent manner. After all, what immediate good could come from a black teenage boy throwing a rock at a fully armed and shielded line of police and guardsmen in an already racially charged environment? Did her son’s passionate action to display his hatred for police brutality in his own community warrant such a strong physical response from Mama? That’s not really our business. He’s obviously fine, though some have criticized Graham’s actions as excessively violent, giving a break down on how we should encourage mothers to use non-violent approaches towards their children. Interestingly, each blog post I read in this regard has contained a disclaimer of sorts about trying not to judge a single mother of 6 living in an impoverished community (gag me). But of course, critics went on to say their peice. In my opinion, Graham’s intention was to do what most mothers would do, to remove her child from a dangerous situation. That doesn’t make her a hero. She’s a single mother. She’s already a hero.
What is curious to me though, is how conservative media has used Graham to help shape their own narrative of the Baltimore protests. Further, it is puzzling how numerous black people, including Graham’s pastor, have jumped on this bandwagon of praising her for ripping her child off of the street. She is being called “Mom of the Year”, and it seems like white, conservative news reporters have jumped on this chance to make an icon out of Graham, asking her questions that entice her to basically condemn the “riots” happening in her city. I have no problem with Graham being called “Mom of the Year”, but I do have a problem with the way the media seems to be using Graham as a puppet to publicly denounce the “Baltimore riots”, which in white mainstream media is synonymous with the “Baltimore protests”. Treating this mom as a pawn in their warped media portrayal of the Baltimore protests is baffling and manipulative! And what’s worse is that she probably doesn’t even recognize what role she’s playing in their incomplete narrative of Baltimore’s criminal justice predicament.
Further, those who praise her on social media in the black community are also playing into this twisted phenomenon of “black exceptionalism”. Graham’s video-taped actions have helped in corroborating the agenda of critics of the Baltimore protests…critics who very obviously seek to delegitimize the efforts of peaceful and un-peaceful protesters alike. I take a step back and see this color-blind agenda playing out right before our eyes once again, where the white majority says, “Hey! This black person agrees with us, so we can’t be racist! These protesters are a bunch of THUGS who don’t deserve a nice CVS in their neighborhood!”. The intentional spread of Graham’s video took away from what was actually happening in Baltimore, MD that day, shifting the attention of many citizens towards “rioting”, rather than towards the desperate need to address the violent and fatal act of 6 police officers in an illegal arrest of another black individual. And it is here that I realize, we still have a long way to go in achieving a racially conscious society.. both in white AND non-white communities.