Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Build That Wall; The Politics of Motherhood in Portland

Bonnie Honig
Brown University

The Wall of Moms in Portland, Oregon, are mostly dressed in yellow to stand out and make it easier to find one another in case they get separated in a melĂ©e. On their first recorded night out as a unit, July 19, the women linked arms and chanted “Feds steer clear, Moms are here.” One of them was visibly pregnant. All were brave, as they faced anonymized federal police forces wielding tear gas, pepper bombs, and truncheons. Someone on Twitter called the women Momtifa, which is an excellent coinage. Moms against fascism and with antifa helps to undo the associations Trump and Barr have constructed. No longer thugs and anarchists, antifa becomes someone’s beloved sons and daughters. Those watching from afar may feel their sympathies start to shift.
Just a week earlier, a 26 year old protester, Donavan La Bella, was shot in the face with non lethal ammunition by a federal officer. “The video of the shooting shows no sign of aggressive provocation on the part of the protester… La Bella was a regular and nonviolent presence at protests.” That night, he underwent facial reconstruction surgery. After surgery, his mom said doctors were still trying to drain blood from her son’s brain. She is now said to be considering a lawsuit on her son’s behalf. Intentionally or not, she is now part of Momtifa too.
On a Monday night, July 21st, the ranks of the Portland crowd of protesters increased considerably and so did the ranks of the Moms. Some were inspired to come from out of town to join them. The moms went all in on their mom’dom, and sang “hands up, please don’t shoot me,” to a sing-song tune associated with lullabies or children’s teasing, and the moms united the gathered crowd singing “One Love.” They were also, on Monday for the first time, joined by the so-called Dad brigade, men wearing mostly Orange t-shirts, some in hard hats, some carrying leaf-blowers, which turn out to be effective in the removal of pepper spray.
The Wall of Moms grew out of a Facebook post that appealed to the special powers of moms: “We moms are often underestimated. But we’re stronger than we’re given credit for,” Bev Barnum posted, “So what do you say? Will you help me create a wall of moms?” Over 70 women showed up the first night, which was a Saturday. The moms’ group joined with an existing organization called Portland Don’t Shoot for training on protest safety. One of the Wall of Moms’ co-founders, Maureen Kenny Mimiaga, posted after their first appearance on Saturday night: “we got gassed last night and it did suck, but we’ve all been through childbirth, IEP meetings, and long barf -filled nights.” This is nothing, she seemed to suggest.
By Tuesday a protest poster appeared saying, “I’m so disappointed in you – Mom.” Don’t mess with the moms, social media posters noted. One said just wait til they find out the middle names of those federal officers. Then they will really be in for it. It is a healing thrill for a child to see the awesome power of the maternal call-out turned against an opponent. But it was also a joke about the power of the powerless: women; the middle name; the disappointment…it is all so Mrs. America 1950.
    Bev Barnum says: “as soon as you become a mom, something is triggered in you. It’s primal. It doesn’t matter if it’s your kid or not, you’re going to help them.” Now this is obviously not true for all mothers. Or all women. But it does effectively pull many women into the front lines. “Toren Brolutti, 65, had seen images of the Wall of Moms...on the news over the weekend. Seeing other mothers stand protectively in front of young demonstrators stirred something in her, she said. She felt she needed to be there, too. When Kim Brolutti, her husband, saw a similar call for Portland dads to come out on Monday, the couple made up their mind: They were going. Their kids, 31 and 29, met them downtown with helmets and goggles.” Protection goes both ways.
   Another woman came from Salem to join the Wall of Moms on Monday. She had seen the clip of a young protester hurled into a dark and unmarked van by men dressed in camo with large guns, and no pronouncement of arrest, no Miranda rights, nothing. It was disturbing to her and she felt compelled to protest. So 2 days later, there she was in Portland, responding to the Wall of Moms’ invitation to step up, link arms, protect the protesters.
Although there are plenty of disturbing American precedents for this type of domestic police action, including round-ups for anarchists and communists in the 1910’s, 20’s and 50’s, and of undocumented people now, some observers of the ‘arrests’ of protesters by unidentified federal agents thought first of Argentina’s 1970’s junta and its disappearance of a generation of young, leftist protestors, thrown into cars, imprisoned, tortured, and killed. They became known as the “disappeared.” It happened in Chile too, under Pinochet, and elsewhere.
As Stuart Schrader said in The New Republic, noting the salience of the Argentine comparison: “In Argentina, death squads drove Ford Falcons, the country’s most popular car, which meant that one of these sedans rolling down your street could mean you’d never see your family ever again, or it could mean nothing at all. To this day, the sight of a vintage Falcon can cause an older Argentine heart to skip a beat.” In Portland now, it is Dodge minivans that are repurposed for kidnappings by federal police, and they may suffer the same stigma later, after this is all over. Does Dodge know? Ford certainly did. The company provided the cars to Argentina’s junta in return for union-preventing protections for their factories.
   The comparison of our moment with Argentina is especially poignant, though, because of the moms.
In Argentina, the disappearance of young men and women brought the Moms of that country, the Madres, into the city center, the Plaza, where they met weekly in a silent mournful protest that called for the return of the disappeared. The Madres of the Plaza hoped to see their loved ones alive again. They wanted at least to receive the bodies of their dead, if that was their fate – to bury them, to mourn them, together. That the Madres played a role in the regime’s eventual downfall is undisputed. Their pure maternalism forced its way into the conscience of a nation. But they did not subvert the traditional gender politics in defense of which the junta was actually positioning itself as the defender of patriarchy. This is the irony: because the Madres exercised a specifically maternal power, they were all too easily, made (in the words of Diana Taylor) “somehow marginal to the happy ending.” Maternalized power is efficacious, until it isn’t. After the junta was toppled, the surviving sons of the Madres took power. Did they appoint the Madres to the new Cabinet? No, they sent them home, because home is where moms belong…
The attraction of the Wall of Moms is that it seems to have the requisite ironies well in hand. Calling themselves a wall, they appropriate the faux wall of the President that promises invulnerability at the border but cannot secure it. Instead, ironizing their powerlessness, these women link arms and show what real invulnerability looks like. It looks like vulnerability alongside others who empower each other to stand bravely up to militarized forces in their city. But the gender trap is inescapable. This is the double bind of maternal politics. In the end, moms go home. Not that there is anything wrong with that: unless it is a restoration of the patriarchal power whose militarization they were protesting.
    A few days after the shooting of La Bella and a day or two before the Wall of Moms first appeared, another woman confronted the mysterious ‘police’ forces in Portland. The LA Times referred to her as an “apparition” and there was indeed something almost supernatural in her slow, deliberate movements on the street. By contrast with the moms, this woman was not dressed in anything at all and she was alone. 
She had stripped naked and wearing only a facemask and cap, she walked, solo, to the center of the street. She stood at an intersection beneath the changing red and green traffic lights and pointed her long arm to the line of unidentified men in camouflage. She did not speak. She then appeared to position herself in some yoga-like poses before sitting down on the asphalt of the street, her knees up and legs spread wide. Pussy-power, one commentator said.
When a young male protester tried to protect her with his shield, he drew more fire and she stepped away from his protection. Chivalry is dead, she seemed to say, as she killed it. She was as confident and powerful as Melisandre on Game of Thrones, but not evil. Faced with this one naked “No,” the armed forces got in their cars and drove away.
She is now called Naked Athena, after the warrior virgin goddess who had no children. Naked Athena performed vulnerability as protest in the face of violence. She posed and sat, out in the street, with absolutely nothing on, without the cover of maternalism’s innocence but with the protection of youthful beauty. It is fitting that she earned herself a Greek nickname, Athena, because it was she who somehow found the federal agents’ Achilles heel. All that nude pacifism was just too much for the heavily armed soldiers. The moms, though, the federal agents were willing to gas: turns out maternal authority begets not just acquiescence but also violence. Not everyone loves moms.
    Incredibly, the LA Times contextualized Naked Athena’s action as part of a “Portlandia” style of “quirky organic earthiness,” even noting that “courts have held that appearing nude in Portland is a protected form of political expression.” The Times saw an apparition and quickly turned it into a sitcom punchline.
    But what Naked Athena did was to disturb the registers of female agency that privilege purity and treat women’s power as scandalous, funny, or quirky. The relevant context for her action is not “Portlandia” but a feminist activism from Femen in Ukraine to the “naked agency” protests in all their variety in Nigeria, to the anti-rape protesters of Chile, and many many more. All of them feature women in public, unclothed, showing power because they are together, and vulnerability because they are naked, and determination because they are focused on bringing into being a future in which women are equal and not there to be grabbed, manipulated, or dominated.
We are also not here to be worshipped, as in some recent anti-Trump ads where a woman’s relationship to her children is depicted as sacred and incomparable. You didn’t carry them 9 months to sacrifice them to the god of covid, is more or less what a female voice-over says, as we see images of young women dropping their kids at school in happier times. Keep them home, where it is safe. The advice seems sound. But why is it addressed to women? Men can home-school the kids too. But no man appears in the ad’s familial settings, as we hear the film’s instruction: telling women how they feel, what to do, aligning their pussy-power with the mandate of reproduction. There is certainly no mention of the mommy-track effect of school closures already, which have caused many women in hetero-normative households to leave their jobs because with the kids home … well someone has to stop working.
These ads may be effective against Trump just as the Wall of Moms may be effective in Portland. But they will have more than one kind of impact, surely. The gender politics of the moment are almost as retrograde as the Trumpy men we are fighting against. A feminism worth fighting for needs its Naked Athenas too. More of them please. May they march WITH the Moms in Portland. And maybe Mary Trump can join them too. I hear it takes a village. I know it takes a world. The challenge, for the sake of that world, is to find ways to translate the vexed maternal relationships we have into political power and collective action. That is the question for any "mom" –based movements. The answer requires that we “Stay together, stay tight;” as the marchers in Portland say, and that: “We do this every night!”
“In my experience,” says Daniel Drezner in the Washington Post, today, (July 22) “radicalizing mothers is a bad political harbinger for anyone responsible. These optics are extremely unlikely to cause voters not already with Trump to shift toward him.” But the question remains, whether radicalizing mothers is a good political harbinger for radical mothers.
Everywhere, the gendered division of public and private space is both challenged but also confirmed by mothers who mourn. The Mothers of the Movement are an American example of the difficulty. Created after George Zimmerman was outrageously acquitted in 2013 for the murder of Trayvon Martin, these Black mothers work to politicize the loss of Black life to policing. Their maternity and their grief empower them on this issue. They have helped energize the movements whose long slow years-long organizing has prepared the way for the months of protests across the U.S. and the world after the police murder of George Floyd.
It is hard not to thrill at the images of women saying No to the escalating power grabs of the last weeks as a President, famous for saying he can “grab” women “by the pussy” and “they let you do it,” searches desperately for a way to stop his fall in the polls and maybe in November at the ballot box.
     More and more women are saying No to a man who says women do not say no to him. Some of them are elected officials, including Lori Lightfoot, Mayor of Chicago, and Keisha Lance Bottoms, the mayor of Atlanta mayor, both Black. Lightfoot has now been told she is next, or her city is. That these cities are run by Black women no doubt adds to the relish with which the President contemplates the thought of occupying them as they protest such a move and he blames them for it. They govern badly he says; their cities, led by Democrats, are out of control. Blaming them for the violence he will inflict on them? As my 21-year old child would say, that is rapey. 

*This post draws on reporting by Sergio Olmos and Tuck Woodstock in Portland.


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