Set Back On My Heels

From a quieter protest in Minneapolis earlier this year, by Avi Nahum.

From a quieter protest in Minneapolis earlier this year, by Avi Nahum.

A friend asked the other day why she hadn’t read anything new in this blog lately. And I realized I was still wrapped around an axle over the emotions I was struggling to name following the events in Baltimore late last month.

I realize that the time span involved in saying “late last month” is ancient history in this micro news cycle era driving our ever-diminishing attention spans. But something about those events set me back on my heels.

It was the images from Baltimore that did it. Frustrated young men hurling objects and shouting out their anger at all of those forces that have led them to the lives they’re now living – being born into poverty or neglect, inadequate community support structures, and a series of choices that are one bad over another. 

Yes, we’ve seen those images in other places in the last year and continue to see them, but Baltimore is different than other places. I have spent time in Baltimore. I have friends in Baltimore. With Baltimore, it became personal.

And the images of Toya Graham pulling her son from a group of masked teenagers really brought it home.

If you missed that moment, go find it on Google. Just type in “the mom who pulled her son from Baltimore riots” and the stories pop up. Every now and again, television cameras focus on images that go beyond the story they think they’re telling. This was one of those times.

When Toya Graham recognizes her son among a group that is shouting and throwing rocks – despite his hooded sweatshirt and mask – she runs to him, grabbing his arm and walloping him across his head.

I don’t use the word wallop very often, but there really is no other way to describe the action of that moment.

The maternally protective fierceness of those images is what set me back on my heels. There is something primal and visceral about Toya Graham’s desire to pull her son back from the edge of that crowd of anger. She knows, in a way I can only imagine, that her son’s actions put him in grave danger, and she runs into the middle of angry frustration to pull him away and keep him safe.

It didn’t take long in our instantly connected world of images to identify the mother and son in the video, and their moments of media attention began.  Her son, Michael, is an articulate young man who may have needed that wallop to realize at that moment that he had a mother who would fight for him.

In Toya’s words, “That’s my only son and at the end of the day, I don’t want him to be a Freddie Gray. But to stand up there and vandalize police officers, that’s not justice. I’m a single mom and I have six children and I just choose not to live like that no more, and I don’t want that for him.”

That’s the expression of a universal maternal instinct that reaches across geography and race. I believe we all want our children to understand the principles of justice and to live in a society that is just. What is so striking to me is that Toya Graham expresses that as I would, despite the fact she’s raising her child in a society that has a different form of justice for her son than I see for mine.

It’s hard for me to even imagine my son being in danger from over-reacting police officers. He’s generally respectful and has learned that the police are there to be helpful overall.

But I’m not raising a black son. That’s what has me wrestling over this issue. I can’t get my arms around the deep anxiety of that role. How can the maternal instincts of motherhood be both so universally understandable and yet so diametrically different in American society of 2015?

I simply don’t worry about my son or my daughter and their interactions with police officers. In the middle-America of their childhood on the North Coast of this country, our experiences with officers were fair and just.

Yet I also know that today, a black mother in America is giving birth to a son that she knows in her heart is in grave danger of not surviving to adulthood based on the very same interactions. I just don’t know what I can do to change that – thoughts, friends?