‘They’re just waiting to use violence’: Portland’s Wall of Moms describe the abuse they’ve received from federal officers while protesting racial injustice

‘We’ve been tear gassed, we’ve been shot at with rubber bullets, we’ve been pushed, shoved, and called names,’ Wall of Moms co-founder Jaclyn Pritchard tells The Independent

Danielle Zoellner
Friday 24 July 2020 00:15 BST
Federal agents use batons and tear gas on Wall of Moms Portland protest group

A group of mainly white, suburban mothers never thought federal officers would dare to shoot at them or spray them with tear gas if they attended the Portland protests.

Enraged by previous nights of violent altercations between officers and demonstrators, the “Wall of Moms” group formed with up to 100 mothers linking arms in front of the federal courthouse starting from Saturday evening.

Their goal? To stand as a wall between federal officers deployed by the Trump administration and demonstrators who were there to protest racial injustice and police brutality across the country.

But despite their non-violent intentions at these protests, members of the group have found themselves in altercations with federal officers.

“We’ve been tear gassed. We’ve been shot at with rubber bullets. We’ve been pushed, shoved, called names by the [Department of Homeland Security] officers. We’ve been hit with batons,” Wall of Moms co-founder Jaclyn Pritchard, 41, told The Independent.

“They escalate it every night,” she added.

Footage on Tuesday evening showed a group of mothers – many clad in yellow and wearing protective gear like masks, helmets, and goggles – being pushed back from the federal courthouse by federal officers through shoving and spraying tear gas.

These women remained linked throughout the interaction and kept their arms at their sides. But their reaction did not stop officers from using aggressive force.

“People never thought that Trump’s federal troops would shoot us, act violently to us, arrest us, and tackle us to the ground,” Ms Pritchard, a mother of two teenage daughters, said.

“It’s very obvious that every night that they’re just waiting to use violence. It’s just a matter of when,” she added.

Wall of Moms was created in direct response to the Trump administration deploying federal officers from the US Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Protective Service to Portland in an effort to quell protests.

The city has experienced nightly protests for racial justice since police officers killed George Floyd in Minneapolis back in May.

The federal officers’ mandate was to protect federal buildings, but they have been accused of driving unmarked cars and seizing people from the street without explanation in recent days. Footage has also shown federal officers continuously using excessive force, including one video of Navy veteran Christopher David being beaten with batons and sprayed with tear gas as he stood still trying to talk to them.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler was even tear gassed on Wednesday evening when he attended the protests. This was after the mayor called for the Trump administration to remove the officers, calling their deployment “a direct threat to democracy”, but the president hasn’t budged.

Wall of Moms has participated in the Portland protests every evening since Saturday in response to federal officers using force against demonstrators. Each night they gather, arms linked, prepared to stand as a non-violent barrier between officers and other protesters, and their numbers have now grown to include 9,200 mothers in the area.

Melissa Nel, 43, joined the group on Sunday morning after hearing about it through Facebook. She then participated in Sunday and Monday’s protests, which involved her getting shot at with a .40 calibre rubber bullet.

“I was shot with .40 calibre ammunition. I was tear gassed. I had a federal officer take his arm, put it across my neck, and shove me backwards into a pillar, screaming at me to ‘move, move, move’, while he held his arm across my throat,” she told The Independent.

On the advice of her doctor, Ms Nel opted out of attending the protest on Tuesday evening. But she was back on the front lines again on Wednesday.

“I do have quite a large bruise ... it’s swollen and terrible looking on my arm,” she said when describing her injuries, which have come as a shock to her family, including her two daughters. “I think that was quite shocking to see their mom hurt like that. They are reluctant for me to go [back] but they understand the reason why we’re there.”

Ms Nel made it clear about the intentions of the group. The moms are not peaceful protestors, but instead they are “non-violent”.

“Using the words looters and rioters is wrong. That is the wrong word to use. We are activists and non-violent protesters. Not peaceful, non-violent,” she said.

Arianna Bradford, 34, added: “It is a non-violent protest because, as the saying goes, ‘no justice, no peace’.”

Ms Bradford, a black mother-of-two, has not attended the protests with Wall of Moms but instead used her writing and speaking skills to work as a public relations person for the movement.

One reason behind Ms Bradford working behind the scenes of the protests instead of standing on the front lines was because the white women in the group wanted to use their race as a barrier to protect women of colour.

“We’ve been doing this fight for a really long time as it is. [The white mothers] felt like they didn’t want us to put ourselves in harm’s way if we didn’t have to because it is more about their privilege being used to protect those who don’t have that privilege,” she told The Independent.

Fear over what federal officers could do to her as a black woman has also encouraged Ms Bradford to hold back from joining the protests.

“I know that I am of colour and so I don’t trust that I would be fairly treated. I don’t trust that I wouldn’t be beaten, or taken away, or arrested for something I have not done,” she said. “Does that mean I never will? No. I think that I may at some other point. But right now I feel like I am helping more by doing what I am doing now.”

Portland protesters have been called looters, anarchists, and rioters. But members of Wall of Moms have said that is the farthest thing from the truth.

“We’re not rioting. We are not descending into anarchy. We’re still Portland and we’re just trying to get people to listen to us,” Ms Bradford said.

She added: “And now, with the Feds here, now we’re not only trying to fight against systemic racism and police reform, but we are also trying to fight the fact that the Feds are here because they did not need to be here in the first place.”

Ms Bradford confirmed the stories of unmarked vans picking up protesters was true, with people being detained without officers reading them their rights or identifying what federal offices they were representing.

“We did not need them here, we did not need their tactics. Their tactics have been, by large, strong-armed tactics, needlessly violent, and pretty brutal,” she said.

The Trump administration has threatened to deploy federal officers to other cities like Chicago and New York to quell protests still going on. This has encouraged other chapters of Wall of Moms to launch in locations across the country, with mothers preparing to also form a wall of themselves between officers and protesters.

The Portland Wall of Moms members wanted other chapters to remember the non-violent movement and that their purpose was to lift up the Black Lives Matter cause, not distract from it if confronting federal officers in other cities.

“I know that they are angry, and they have every right to be,” Ms Bradford said, “but don’t let that anger cloud their judgement and don’t let it lead them to forget why we started this in the first place. Right now, I truly believe we are in the right but if we let our anger overtake us and we forget why we did this in the first place we could wind up losing moral ground.”

Ms Nel added: “I think it is incredibly important for them to be there and give the space for the BIPOC (black, Indigenous and people of colour) leaders and mothers to be heard.

“If it takes us standing there to give them that space, that’s what we are hoping. All we want to do is be able to give them that space to say the things that they need to say and demand the things that they need.”

How long could these Portland Wall of Moms, and other chapters across the country if federal officers are deployed elsewhere, stand between protesters and agents? Well that all depends on the treatment the mothers are seeing as demonstrators exercise their First Amendment right to protest.

“Our First Amendment right is freedom of speech, freedom of press, and to gather and assemble peacefully to protest grievances against our government,” Ms Pritchard said. “That is not a partisan issue; that is not an election issue; that is the First Amendment of the Constitution, and the reason we are exercising the First Amendment of the Constitution is because black lives matter.”

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in