Toya Graham, a single mom in Baltimore, became a viral sensation after showing up to a Freddie Gray protest, finding her son Michael among the crowd, and smacking and berating him into going home. Before their names were even known, commentary flooded social media. The consensus seemed to be that Toya did the right thing, with some even labeling her Mom of the Year. But it is her son who we should all be applauding and encouraging.
Better not to judge the parenting tactics of others – particularly single, black mothers juggling six children – so this article won’t. But the story has been widely misinterpreted as a mother shocked and appalled at her son’s riotous behavior. While Graham says she doesn’t believe violence against police is the right course to take and was disappointed in her son for potentially participating in it, the primal motivation can be heard in the video when she appears to say, “Do you want to get killed?” and in interviews afterward: Toya feared her son might end up another black kid in a headline.
This element of the story – which is far more interesting than the generic, “Mom wants son to stay out of trouble” angle that’s been played up – has been left virtually untouched in all the praise Toya’s received from white observers. What we’re seeing in the video is not a mother punishing her son, but a mother so overcome with desperation and fear that she truly loses her mind in front of a crowd of people. Her biggest fear is losing her son to the streets, but she understands fully well that the success rate of encounters with police is dismal for minorities like her son. All she wants is for him to be safe.
Meanwhile, she’s been coopted by the establishment as a hero. The Baltimore police commissioner apparently said, “We need more moms like [Toya],” and Baltimore police tweeted in support, “Several juveniles are part of these aggressive groups. WE ARE ASKING ALL PARENTS TO LOCATE THEIR CHILDREN AND BRING THEM HOME.” Meanwhile, the truth of the situation – as can be seen in the responses to the tweet – is that Baltimore police canceled school buses, corralled students into a tight area around Mondawmin Mall, intimidated them with riot gear, and all but forced them to respond with desperate aggression.
Here, it’s important to make a distinction between state violence and violence against the state. We have a media that spends far more time lamenting protesters throwing rocks at police than it does those same police choking, tasering, shooting, shoving, and beating unarmed, disproportionately minority citizens. The former, while perhaps undesirable, is at least understandable. The latter should be what captures all our attention, ire and scrutiny.
Having the bravery to stand up to unjust authority should be celebrated in young people, not punished. For obvious reasons, the Baltimore Police Department disagrees, and therefore praised Toya’s actions. Most institutions of authority, including parents, disagree as well, bemoaning a lack of respect for authority in young people. But if there is even a single good reason why Michael Graham should respect Baltimore police – who have a terrible record of officer-involved deaths, massive lawsuit payouts, and racial discrimination – it hasn’t been made clear. As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in a widely circulated and praised essay, police encourage nonviolence because what they really want is compliance with their own illegitimate exercise of all-too-often deadly force.
Michael Graham had to take to the street because generations of mostly white observers and policymakers remained blissfully unaware, or unconcerned, as poor and minority Americans were victimized by an ever-expanding, increasingly militarized police state. If the generations before Michael spent more time confronting state violence head-on and demanding a better society, young people might not have to take up the cause today. Now, with state violence heading toward resembling Tiananmen Square more than Mayberry, Michael’s generation and community are forced to make a statement that captures the nation’s attention.
Sadly, reaching the masses is no guarantee of getting the right message out. Corporate media much prefers footage of burning buildings and rock-throwing to the far more revealing – not to mention common – stories of, for instance, rival Baltimore gangs coming together to temper the violence and protect businesses from looters. That police instigate what violence does break out by their long history of brutality and discrimination, their behavior in trying to control crowds and by their very presence where they aren’t wanted isn’t a serious proposition put forward in mainstream media. All they see is the rock-throwing, which pales in comparison to state crimes, and wonder what went wrong without bothering to truly investigate.
A CBS interview asked Toya if strong mothers could prevent behavior like Michael’s. The interviewer echoes the Baltimore Police Department’s stance that good kids are the ones who stay home. While it may not be what every parent wishes, good kids are the ones who stand up against illegitimate authority in defense of their beliefs and their communities. From the short video, it’s impossible to tell whether Michael embraced the more violent aspects of the protests or not. The crowd he’s in appears calm. Either way, Toya’s concern as a mother is understandable, but hopefully there is a part of her that’s proud of her son for making a stand that should’ve been taken a generation ago.