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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

“When Baltimore Burned”: There Are Crucial Underlying Inequities That Demand Attention

Conservatives have sometimes been too quick to excuse police violence. And liberals have sometimes been too quick to excuse rioter violence.

It’s outrageous when officers use excessive force against young, unarmed African-American men, who are 21 times as likely to be shot dead by the police as young white men. It’s also outrageous when rioters loot shops or attack officers.

So bravo to Toya Graham, the Baltimore mom captured on video grabbing her teenage son from the streets and frog-marching him home. The boy wilted: It must be humiliating to be a “badass” rioter one moment and then to be savagely scolded in front of your peers and sent to your room.

“That’s my only son, and at the end of the day I don’t want him to be a Freddie Gray,” Graham later told CBS News. It was of course Gray’s death, after an injury at the hands of the police, that set off the rioting.

On social media, there were plenty of people making excuses for rioters — a common refrain was “nothing else works to get attention.” But to their great credit, African-American leaders provided firm moral guidance and emphasized that street violence was unconscionable.

President Obama set just the right tone.

“When individuals get crowbars and start prying open doors to loot. They’re not protesting. They’re not making a statement. They’re stealing,” Obama said. “When they burn down a building, they’re committing arson. And they’re destroying and undermining businesses and opportunities in their own communities.”

Or as Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks basketball star who grew up in Baltimore and has invested in a youth center there, put it: “We need to protect our city, not destroy it.”

Yet as Obama, Anthony and other leaders also noted, there are crucial underlying inequities that demand attention. The rioting distracts from those inequities, which are the far larger burden on America’s cities.

That also represents a failure on our part in the American news media. We focus television cameras on the drama of a burning CVS store but ignore the systemic catastrophe of broken schools, joblessness, fatherless kids, heroin, oppressive policing — and, maybe the worst kind of poverty of all, hopelessness.

The injustices suffered by Freddie Gray began early. As a little boy he suffered lead poisoning (as do 535,000 American children ages 1 to 5), which has been linked to lifelong mental impairments and higher crime rates.

In Gray’s neighborhood, one-third of adults lack a high school degree. A majority of those aged 16 to 64 are unemployed.

And Baltimore’s African-American residents have often encountered not only crime and insecurity but also law enforcement that is unjust and racist. Michael A. Fletcher, an African-American reporter who lived for many years in the city, wrote in The Washington Post that when his wife’s car was stolen, a Baltimore policeman bluntly explained the department’s strategy for recovering vehicles: “If we see a group of young black guys in a car, we pull them over.”

Likewise, the Baltimore jail was notorious for corruption and gang rule. A federal investigation found that one gang leader in the jail fathered five children by four female guards.

Wretched conditions are found to some degree in parts of many cities, and Shirley Franklin, the former mayor of Atlanta, told me that when we tolerate them, we tolerate a combustible mix.

“It’s not just about the police use of force,” she said. “It’s about a system that is not addressing young people’s needs. They’re frankly lashing out, and the police force issue is just a catalyst for their expression of frustration at being left out.”

Whites sometimes comment snidely on a “culture of grievance” among blacks. Really? When tycoons like Stephen Schwarzman squawked that the elimination of tax loopholes was like Hitler’s invasion of Poland, now that’s a culture of grievance.

If wealthy white parents found their children damaged by lead poisoning, consigned to dismal schools, denied any opportunity to get ahead, more likely to end up in prison than college, harassed and occasionally killed by the police — why, then we’d hear roars of grievance. And they’d be right to roar: Parents of any color should protest, peacefully but loudly, about such injustices.

We’ve had months of police incidents touching on a delicate subtext of race, but it’s not clear that we’re learning lessons. Once again, I suggest that it’s time for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to step back and explore racial inequity in America.

The real crisis isn’t one night of young men in the street rioting. It’s something perhaps even more inexcusable — our own complacency at the systematic long-term denial of equal opportunity to people based on their skin color and ZIP code.

 

By: Nicholas Kristof, Op-Ed Contributor, The New York Times, April 29, 2015

April 30, 2015 Posted by | Baltimore, Police Abuse, Racial Justice | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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