Moments after my daughter was born, I turned to the delivery nurse, grabbed her arm and told her in no uncertain terms, “There can be no more violence!” When she smiled indulgently, I insisted — “You don’t understand — there can be no more violence!”
I’d been in labor, mind you, for four days. But my insistence that the world change had nothing to do with me and everything to do with the fact that my precious daughter had come into a world that suddenly scared me to death.
The delivery nurse couldn’t have been kinder or more patient. My demand apparently was not unusual. Brand new mothers — and even veteran mothers — are astonishingly clear about their priorities in the moments after they deliver. The hell with me — how’s the baby?
It’s apparently hard-wired, this drive to preserve our young. Procreation is, after all, our biological purpose and if the offspring die, the species fails. And yes, there have been studies done to prove that this inclination to protect our young isn’t universal — that mothers in war zones or facing starvation or other forms of abuse have been known to abandon newborns. But to my way of thinking this only underlines the maternal instinct — any sensible mother wants to make sure that her baby is welcomed into a world that is ready to support and protect her or him. Barring that, anyone who’s read Beloved will understand that mom may choose another way.
Which is not to say that all mothers are good or caring or even capable. There are plenty of cruel, spiteful, abusive mothers in the world. But the good — thank God — outnumber the dreadful and if you don’t like the mother you got, you can find another. I have been blessed with many mothers in my life who have inspired and nurtured me and I have returned the favor to many young people who’ve sought me out.
This capacity to mother is of course not limited to women. Men can be wonderfully supportive and nurturing. But there is something about the ability to give birth and nurse newborns that has historically given women a certain status. Look at the reverence accorded Mary in Christian religions and Lakshmi in Hinduism and Buddhism. Many native American and African cultures are matrilineal with property and authority following the mother’s line. And in Judaism, a Jew is not a Jew without a Jewish mother.
So mothers make up a sacred class and as a class, they wield enormous power, a power that seems to ignite when we reach the tipping point of violence against children. Look at the mothers who formed Mothers Against Drunk Driving when the number of children killed by drunk drivers spiraled out of control. Look at the mothers protesting the death of their children in school shootings, from Columbine to Sandy Hook to Parkland. Look at the mothers who risked their lives to gather for almost 30 years in the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina to protest the “disappearance” of their children into prisons and graveyards by an authoritarian regime.
These sorts of protests by mothers against governments who “disappeared” young protesters are all too common, happening in Nicaragua, Turkey, South Africa, Sri Lanka and now in our country in Portland and Seattle as comfy looking women in yellow T-shirts formed a “Wall of Moms” to protest the dragging of peaceful protesters into unmarked vans by unidentified federal troops.
To be clear, I’m not advocating for one party or another — I have been a registered Independent my entire adult life. And I don’t condone violence not only in principle but as a tactic. Anyone who studies history knows that those who embrace non-violence — from Gandhi to King to John Lewis — prevail. It may take time but those who pursue their goals nonviolently tend to attain those goals.
This is not only because non-violent persuasion is more apt to reach those people who are open to new ideas but also because in almost all cases, what has brought people into the streets in the first place is violence.
This time — in case we’ve forgotten — it was the death of George Floyd, caused by a police officer who knelt on his neck for nine minutes. This violence was unacceptable, turning the stomachs of all who watched the video made by the courageous young woman who refused to lower her phone. The video brought people out into the streets in cities and towns all over the country. These peaceful protests lasted for weeks — long enough to begin to change minds and policies.
In Washington state, the protests have continued. There are many reasons for this. Washington state has long attracted progressive movements, brought by its schools and its tech industry. But Washington state also has a dark history when it comes to race. Many of its earliest statutes condoned violence against non-whites and it’s the home to over 30 hate groups, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
So the argument has been brewing for a long time. And yes, there have been violent incidents this time around. But the majority of the protests have been peaceful. Until the federal troops arrived.
I have not been on the ground in Portland. But it doesn’t make sense to me to send troops who’ve been trained at the border to tear nursing infants from the arms of their mothers and put them in cages, to protect buildings in Portland. What was needed were folks who could calm the situation down so that people could talk and new policies could be developed. Instead people were dragged into unmarked vans and spirited off.
This was the tipping point, what prompted the white moms to leave their homes and come out into the streets. And I say white moms because moms of color had been in the streets for months. The white moms who came out acknowledge this — that their “white privilege” is in fact what attracted the media and lent power to the cause. And the “Wall of Moms” have placed themselves under the direction of the moms of color which is a good first step.
The problem was that not even “white moms” made a difference. The federal troops failed to respect their presence. They had their mission — to protect buildings at all cost. And so they tear-gassed and flash-bombed the comfy moms in yellow T-shirts. However when these moms were met with violence, it was “not a good look” and it brought the powers that be to the table and the federal troops were sent back to whatever grim duty they’d interrupted.
So let’s remember this as we go forward in these uncertain times. Federal troops may have left Portland but they are now in downtown LA and headed to Chicago and Minneapolis and other “liberal” cities. There are threats against the election from foreign powers. And a pandemic is ravaging our country.
Our children’s future is at stake. And white moms have the potential to protect it — especially when they link arms with moms of color.
(Thank you so much for all your emails. Reach me at WelcomeToThePandemic@gmail.com. And find me on Twitter at @epagenyc or on Facebook at ElizabethPage.)
Elizabeth Page’s work as a writer and filmmaker focuses on folks impacted by social issues. Plays include Spare Parts (produced by Olympia Dukakis at Whole Theatre, Off B’way at Circle in the Square Downtown and nominated for a John Gassner Award), The Nazi Plays (Denver Theatre Centre’s US West Theatrefest) and Aryan Birth (Best Short American Plays.) Her work in television brought her six Emmy Awards and four Writers’ Guild Awards. As a filmmaker she has made lots of award winning shorts, and web pieces for artists such as Melba Moore. Her latest short film, Safe, about an accidental shooting, is currently in distribution in Europe.