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“Nobody’s Symbol, But Somebody’s Mother”: Toya Graham Simply Doing What Mothers Do

A few thoughts about Toya Graham, just in time for Mother’s Day.

You may not know her name, but you probably know what she did. You’ve probably seen the viral video of Graham, during last week’s unrest in Baltimore, using some rather pungent language and some open-handed smacks upside the head to pull her 16-year-old son out of the riot zone. She told CBS News he had gone there in defiance of her orders. When she saw him, dressed for mayhem in a black face mask, rock in hand, “I just lost it.”

In so doing, Graham, a single mother of six, has inadvertently become enmeshed in the ongoing shouting match between left and right. She has become a symbol — though neither side can agree on what she is a symbol of.

On the right, where many observers seem just a little too giddy over the image of a black boy being smacked, Fox “News” contributor Ben Stein called her “Rosa Parks for 2015.” It was an inane observation that minimized the legacy of Rosa Parks, but it was perfectly in line with the conservative view that says our most pressing concern in Baltimore’s unrest is “behavior” — i.e., the need to rein in lawless Negroes smashing windows and setting fires in the city.

Fact is, behavior is, indeed, our most pressing concern: but it’s the behavior of police in dealing with African-American citizens. Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man whom police arrested for carrying an illegal knife — a charge that is hotly disputed — somehow wound up with a partially severed spine while in their custody and died. Death seems to come with jarring frequency to unarmed black men who interact with police, something that ought to trouble us all.

The fact that some knuckleheaded black kids used the protest over Gray’s death as a pretext to riot — in other words, to behave as knuckleheaded white kids do after sports victories, sports defeats, and during last year’s pumpkin festival in Keene, NH — makes that no less true.

On the left, meantime, there is a tad too much dewy-eyed hand wringing over Graham’s resorting to violence to drag her son off the street. While conceding that her actions were “understandable and maybe even reasonable” under the circumstances, Eliyahu Federman, a columnist for USA Today, nevertheless wants you to know her parenting style was not “ideal” — whatever that means.

“Shouting and insulting teens just doesn’t work long term,” he writes. “You are more likely to positively modify teen misbehavior by calmly and maturely discussing the consequences of the misbehavior.” One struggles to imagine how a calm and mature discussion with a willful teenager might have played out at ground zero of an urban riot.

Look: that video — the hitting, the cursing — is not a pretty picture. Such tactics would never be endorsed by Parents magazine. On the other hand, the largely white and middle-class readership of that magazine likely does not live where Graham does, nor struggle with the challenges and fears she faces.

Every pundit, yours truly included, has the sometimes-regrettable habit of reducing people in the news to symbols of our own social and political concerns. But if we want to understand what she did, it might help to concede that Graham is nobody’s symbol, but somebody’s mother. As she said, she “lost it” because she feared her son might end up like Freddie Gray, another tragic police “oops.”

For most of us, that is a distant and unimaginable fear. But for some of us, it is a fear all too close and all too imaginable, a night terror that gnaws at sleep. Understand this, and that video becomes less of a mystery. When she saw her son in danger, Toya Graham waded in to save him from it — at all costs and by any means necessary.

Is that not what mothers do?


By: Leonard Pitts, Jr., Columnist for The Miami Herald; The National Memo, May 6, 2015

May 7, 2015 Posted by | Baltimore Riots, Black Men, Police Violence | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Liberty, Racism And Police Militarization”: Those Entrusted With Our Safekeeping Have Become Agents Of Racial And Class Division

An important duty of any law enforcement professional is to prioritize the safety of the public over that of his or her self, which is precisely the sacrifice for which we owe our officers immense respect and gratitude. Their selfless commitment to protect and serve our communities warrants praise and commendation, without question.

Unfortunately, it is becoming evident that police agencies are instead implicitly prioritizing their own safety over that of the public, and they justify this trend by citing heightened threat levels on the job. This reorganization of priorities is implied by a passive but evident willingness to increase their protection and firepower at the cost of civil liberty and comfort.

Police militarization is in and of itself an escalation of sorts; when confronted by a police force that is armed with and protected by military grade equipment, a reasonable person will likely perceive himself to be under immediate threat of physical violence. Therefore he will be more likely to reciprocate, resulting in increased aggression by both parties whether that manifests passively (police intimidation) or physically (hurling rocks at a line of police). It is by no means an imaginative stretch to say that the chances of a peaceful protest becoming violent increase dramatically if the assembly is approached or contained by an intimidating and imposing police presence.

Unnecessarily subjecting our police to harm is also ill-advised, but we should pay careful attention to the balance between their safety and the degree to which their presence hinders individual and collective liberty. Even if any perceived assault on liberty is wholly unintended, it is nonetheless unwarranted and unjust.

My critique of police convention is not to trivialize the issue of the structural racism evident in Ferguson and which is pervasive across our justice system. Contrarily, the issue of the militarization of law enforcement directly contributes to and perpetuates this unfair system since the burden of militarization most often rests on the shoulders of underprivileged minority groups. For comparison, consider this year’s Pumpkin Festival at Keene State, which largely devolved into a destructive riot, and how the police response was relatively subdued.

In the aforementioned example, it could be argued that a reduced perception of threat could have driven the relatively amicable police response. This line of thinking alone is indicative of the inequality prevalent in our society. It suggests that those we have entrusted with the safekeeping of our communities have themselves become agents of racial and class division, and that their understanding of institutionalized privilege and oppressive power structures is largely nonexistent.

Though it is easy to believe that such subjectivity is warranted and possibly even a best practice for the protection of our law enforcement officers, placing the safety of a police force over the safety of the community is a dangerous line to cross in the context of a supposedly free and progressive nation. How can we expect subjective law enforcement conventions to establish and maintain an objective peace in our marginalized communities if they themselves perpetuate the structural violence that affects these communities?

Furthermore, we cannot readily expect communities that receive privileged treatment from law enforcement agencies to denounce, acknowledge, or even understand the impacts of inherently racist police practices, their ignorance a result of their own advantaged realities. Such existential distance diminishes the power of compassion to rally our ally communities in support of the less fortunate.

Will a less intimidating police presence fix our problems? No. But it will be a lot easier to support our officers when we don’t see them as being catalysts of the very violence they are employed to suppress.


By: Andrew Nathan Bartholomew, The Blog, The Huffington Post, December 1, 2014

December 2, 2014 Posted by | Criminal Justice System, Ferguson Missouri, Law Enforcement | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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