Footage of the now-infamous Wall of Moms — the hundreds of badass moms who stood between Black Lives Matter protesters and federal agents who, under Trump’s orders, dolled out violent, unconstitutional attacks — skyrocketed to viral status earlier this summer.
But soon after, the group faced controversy. Its leadership was predominantly non-Black. (Several white leaders have since stepped down.) WoM's founder Bev Barnum (who is Mexican American) was accused of shifting focus away from Black lives toward her own self-interests, and of not protecting Black protesters.
In response, a small group of Black mothers and activists — including Demetria Hester, Teressa Raiford, and Danialle James — left WoM and banded together under a different name, Moms United for Black Lives, a group that’s now seeing new chapters popping up all over the country.
And nearly a month after the first “Wall” showed up, this dedicated group of moms is still protesting.
Two MU4BL founders, Hester and Raiford, spoke with Refinery29 about their activist roots, their deep and complicated ties to the Portland community, and their hopes for the future of the city and the country.
Demetria Hester Isn’t New To Kicking White Supremacy’s Ass
When I first met Demetria Hester, she was marching up and down the frontline of Portland’s protesting moms, who on that night were standing in front of the Justice Center. Adorned with a megaphone and her signature SpongeBob SquarePants backpack, she alternated between leading the crowd in chants of “Whose lives matter? Black lives matter!” and leaning in to ask each mom on the line if she was okay, and if she knew what the game plan was, and if she had a plan for extraction later when things with the Feds got ugly.
This was back when she was still organizing for the Wall of Moms, and Hester’s galvanizing leadership was apparent. She was determined and focused, but also funny and silly, showing off her dance moves and high kicks in between serious speeches. She had an undeniable charisma and powerful voice that cracked just a little bit from weeks of shouting out the names of Black lives who no longer have their own voices because of police brutality.
Hester is not new to kicking ass against white supremacy. Back in 2017, Jeremy Christian, a white supremacist, killed two men on Portland public transit who tried to stand between him and two innocent Black Muslim girls he was verbally attacking. The night before that attack, he harassed and attacked another woman, who sprayed him with mace and kicked him in the groin — Hester.
Portland mom, grandma, chef, and lover of tiny penis jokes, Hester has been in the streets fearlessly protesting since maybe before you were born. She’s been a community organizer in Portland for years and describes herself as having been an activist all her life, since she was a kid in Memphis, TN.
At a recent demonstration, Hester animatedly told me the story of how, in the 1970s, her activist mother was shot in the pelvis by a white man who was not charged or prosecuted, “because that’s the way they did things with white men who had money.” Now, roughly 50 years later, Hester deals with near-nightly attacks of tear gas, rubber bullets, pepper rounds, flashbangs, physical violence, and other supposedly “less than lethal” riot control methods that have landed her in the hospital, all for getting in that "good trouble," and demonstrating non-violently for Black lives.
When I ask Hester what the most important mission of her work with Moms United for Black Lives is, she doesn’t hesitate. “Reparations,” Hester replies. “We want reparations written into law. We want people to understand that Black lives do matter. We want Teressa Raiford as mayor. And we want to defund the police.” A tall order? Not if you have a woman like Demetria Hester working on your side.
Editor’s note: Hester was arrested at a protest late on Sunday, August 9, accused of disorderly conduct and interfering with a peace officer. Eyewitness accounts and video posted to twitter appear to show that Hester was protesting non-violently, and did not resist arrest. She was released Monday afternoon when DA Michael Schmidt declined to press charges. Upon her release, Hester thanked the crowds gathered at a press conference for their support, saying, "We are united, we are together, we stand together."
Teressa Raiford Is More Than Ready To Be Heard
Speaking of Teressa Raiford: Though she’s at the heart of the current protests, like Hester, this Portland native, mom, grandma, and veteran activist has spent much of her adult life organizing for change in her community. This past spring she came in third in the Portland Mayoral race. And currently, her local fanbase is organizing a pretty legit-looking write-in campaign for her to oust the current controversial mayor and police commissioner Ted Wheeler on November 3, 2020.
As a child, Raiford remembers the Portland police leaving two dead possums on the front porch of her grandparents’ soul food restaurant. That was far from the last time her family has had to deal with blatant racism and senseless violence in Portland.
I spoke with Raiford by phone as she was on her way to Don’t Shoot Portland’s gallery show entitled “Stop Killing Us," which is part of a yearly “community art project to honor victims of police violence and community violence.”
Don’t Shoot Portland is Raiford’s passion project, a community direct action organization that has recently been archived in the Library of Congress as an example of American anti-racism work on the web. She was inspired to found it in 2014, four years after she lost her nephew, Andre Dupree Payton, to gun violence.
After her nephew’s death, Raiford began speaking with first responders and politicians about the simple ways her nephew’s life could have been saved. “The work became advocacy because so many people would see me speaking out at different events,” she told me. “Even when I became a protester… I'm literally just trying to figure out how to make the kids safer in this community. I can't get my nephew back. I can't make my brother and my family feel better about all the people we've lost in this community, but we can figure out ways to be included in the processes that concern us.” One of Raiford’s organizations’ most important direct actions is maintaining a vetted list of ways the public can directly donate to help the families of gun violence victims.
More recently, Raiford says Don’t Shoot Portland has, “been working to provide food, medical supplies, transportation support, housing support, funeral support, and health support to several thousands of people throughout the nation,” during the pandemic.
Don’t Shoot Portland has had a major presence in the George Floyd protests. In early June, the organization filed a class-action lawsuit against the city of Portland for indiscriminate excessive force against protestors. A preliminary injunction was granted against the city — but Portland police continue to use tear gas on protestors. In July, after leadership from WoM asked Don’t Shoot Portland for help organizing, the two groups co-filed a civil lawsuit against the federal government for violating procedural laws and protestors’ constitutional rights. The lawsuit has been assigned to a judge but is still in progress — though Raiford ended her relationship with WoM after it became clear to her that, among other issues, materials she had written for WoM were being used in “problematic” ways without permission. That’s when Raiford, Hester, and James came together to form Moms United for Black Lives.
Raiford hopes MU4BL continues to gain support, which in turn would allow the network of moms to provide support, aid, and assistance to more communities around the nation. When I asked the activist to comment on the key focus of Moms United for Black Lives, she said, simply, “Listen to Black women.”
Don’t Shoot Portland accepts donations online. Check Facebook to see if there is a budding Moms United for Black Lives chapter near you.