‘Waking up suburbia’: Trump’s use of federal agents backfired, spurring members of the ‘Wall of Mums’ and ‘Wall of Vets’ groups into action in Portland

Mothers raise their fists as they support a protest against racial inequality in Portland, Oregon, U.S., July 20, 2020. REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs
  • The deployment of federal agents to Portland was supposed to quiet protests that began with George Floyd’s death after an officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. It had the opposite effect.
  • Though federal agents have left, protests are ongoing in the city.
  • “I hope that we’re waking up suburbia,” Bev Barnum said. “That’s what I’m hoping happens here, that people like me no longer just grab their credit card and throw money at something and go to sleep.”
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Three weeks ago, Bev Barnum had never been to a protest.

“Me, in my suburban little life, I didn’t feel the need to pay attention to what was happening outside,” said Barnum, a mother of two teenagers in an affluent Portland suburb.

But late on July 17, she watched a video of federal agents roughly arresting a local protester. She searched the internet for 30 minutes and found more images and videos of federal agents using nonlethal munitions to shoot protesters, hitting them with batons and shooting tear gas at them.

Disturbed, she turned to a Facebook group of working mums in the area and proposed joining the demonstrations that began as protests of police brutality after George Floyd’s death after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

The group hadn’t discussed political or social issues before, Barnum said. She expected – and partly hoped – the mums would talk her out of it. Instead, her phone was filled the next morning with messages from group members who wanted to get involved.

That night, about 30 mums faced tear gas in a standoff with federal agents. Members of the group, who called themselves the Wall of Mums became fixtures at the downtown protests.

If the deployment of federal agents to Portland was supposed to quiet protests that began with Floyd’s killing, it had the opposite effect. Spurred by images of the federal aggression against mostly peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters, suburban parents and military veterans are among those who have become unlikely protesters. Loose networks calling themselves Wall of Dads, Wall of Vets, and Wall of Doctors followed the formation of Barnum’s group.

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PreviousNext Police respond to protesters during a demonstration, Friday, July 17, 2020 in Portland, Ore. Dave Killen/The Oregonian via Associated Press

The federal agents left at the end of last week, and since then the protests have quieted.

“I’m probably the last person anyone would expect to do something like this,” said Duston Obermeyer, a Marine Corps veteran and an organiser of Wall of Vets. “I’m not someone who would usually step out of line.”

Groups like Wall of Mums and Wall of Vets didn’t exist before agents from the US Department of Homeland Security arrived in Portland, and many members didn’t participate in the earlier protests. Though they’re supportive of the greater goals of the Black Lives Matter movement – to address police brutality and racial injustice generally – their presence is more a response to the federal intervention.

That distinction creates a tension between the largely white newcomers and some more veteran Black organisers. Amid early criticism that the group was led by mostly white women, Wall of Mums recruited Teressa Raiford, an experienced Black activist who leads an organisation called Don’t Shoot Portland. Raiford and other Black women briefly became administrators for the Wall of Mums. Don’t Shoot Portland and Wall of Mums are co-plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit filed last week challenging the federal occupation.

But last week, as Barnum took steps to make the group a 501(c)3, the partnership dissolved amid internal disagreement about the role of non-Black leaders. Some members accused Barnum, who is of Mexican descent, of seeking to co-opt the movement for Black lives and not ceding control of the group to Black leaders.

Barnum on Tuesday blamed the fallout on miscommunication and said she was “heartbroken” and doubtful she could remain active in Black Lives Matter movement in the city.

Still, she said she’s committed to the broader movement.

“The social justice goals are the same, and I really hope that more people come out,” she said. “I hope that the Black community comes out stronger. I really hope we all take this as a lesson of what can go wrong with miscommunication and under-communication.”

Raiford said she continues to support efforts to ally with Black Lives Matter groups. Asked if she was still involved with the Wall of Mums, she said she would continue organising similar groups.

“There are tens of thousands that I’m very acquainted with that are actually still organising,” Raiford said. “I’m a mum, I’m a grandma. We’ve always organised in our communities with mums, whether they’re called the Wall of Mums, or mums of mums or whatever.”

Other new protesters in similar groups also had to navigate how best to support Black protesters.

“I personally believe in Black Lives Matter, and I think that needs to be the focus,” Obermeyer said. “Wall of Vets is just there to ensure Black Lives Matter has the opportunity to voice their First Amendment rights and have the opportunity to assemble, as per the Constitution, which we’re bound to defend.”

Like Barnum, Obermeyer had never attended a protest before this month. His first time, on July 18, he intended to go to the federal courthouse in downtown Portland – the centre of the protests – only as an observer, he said. His observations included an episode that was captured on video and has since gone viral: an unidentified federal law enforcement repeatedly hitting Navy veteran Chris David, whom Obermeyer didn’t know, with a baton.

He felt himself transition from nominally neutral observer to protester himself as he watched “a phalanx” of federal agents advance on a group of unarmed protesters about 20 feet away from the curb of the federal courthouse, shoving one, who fell and skidded across the asphalt, he said.

Obermeyer said federal agents that night stuck a gun in his face and sprayed him with a type of tear gas he didn’t recognise but still feels the effects of.

Three days after his fact-finding trip, Obermeyer returned to the courthouse as one of the leaders of Wall of Vets.

As of last week, the video of the seemingly unprovoked attack on David was viewed 14.5 million times on Twitter. David did a handful of media interviews and mentioned the idea of a wall of vets in one. The idea became a hashtag on Twitter and at a July 21 protest, about 30 veterans showed up, Obermeyer said.

Veterans portland
U.S. Army veterans attend a protest against racial inequality and police violence in Portland, Oregon, U.S., July 31, 2020. REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs

‘Waking up Suburbia’

The protests in Portland hit their 67th day on Sunday. Though the federal agents have left, the protests attracted the attention of national media and politicians. But they’re confined to a small section of the city’s downtown, allowing almost all who live in the area to ignore or engage them at their own discretion.

On the night Barnum first viewed the video that sparked her activism, she asked her husband how they could help. He suggested holding a fundraiser, which she thought was insufficient. In an interview, she said there’s nothing wrong with contributing financially, but she hopes to show others with her background how to get more directly involved.

“I hope that we’re waking up suburbia,” she said. “That’s what I’m hoping happens here, that people like me no longer just grab their credit card and throw money at something and go to sleep.”

Some protesters want their presence and middle-class appearance to send its own message of how serious the situation is, said Zack Duffly, a Portland attorney and father of two.

“Part of the message is we are not the people that you’d usually see here,” said. “We wouldn’t normally be here, would prefer not to be here.”

“It’s not all green-haired anarchists,” he added.

But part of the appeal to suburbanites and middle-class parents led to criticism that groups like Wall of Mums, which is supposed to be an ally against racism, adopted a frame that centres on white people, instead of Black activists.

Whatever the protesters’ differences, organisers say the federal presence reignited the demonstrations, which didn’t quiet until they left.

“They were waning before the federal government appeared,” Duffly said of the protests before the federal agents left. “My opinion as a citizen of the city is that they will go on as long as the federal government continues to terrorize us.”

The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a request for comment for this story.