Wearing bike helmets and yellow T-shirts, America’s mothers are confronting federal agents in combat gear to protect anti-racism protesters in Portland and, soon, other US cities where US president Donald Trump has vowed to crackdown.
Trump announced a plan on Wednesday to send federal agents to the Democratic-run cities of Chicago and Albuquerque to crackdown on violent crime in an escalation of his “law and order” theme heading into the final months before the presidential election.
The controversial program involves deploying federal law enforcement agents to assist local police in combating what the US justice department has described as a “surge” of violent crime.
Trump hopes his “law and order” push will resonate with his political base as he trails Democrat Joe Biden in opinion polls ahead of the November 3 presidential election.
But the initiative risks inflaming tensions running high in many cities in the wake of the death in police custody of George Floyd, an African-American.
In opposition, Wall of Moms groups have formed in at least six cities including New York and Chicago in the four days since mainly white suburban moms in Portland started making human walls in front of demonstrators.
Images of federal agents wearing camouflage whisking away Portland demonstrators in unmarked vehicles last week mobilised the mothers.
Protests against racial injustice have rocked the largely white city for nearly two months since the death of Mr Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.
The deployment of federal agents in Portland last week is a flashpoint in a national debate over civil liberties and what demonstrators and local officials see as a political ploy by Trump, who is facing an uphill re-election battle.
“This was a call to action. I was honest, and I said that I didn’t know how to protest but I knew that something had to be done,” said Bev Barnum, a 35-year-old Portland mother of two who used Facebook to organize the group’s first demonstration of several dozen moms.
Carrying sunflowers, large peace symbol cut-outs and signs like “You need a time out,” hundreds of mothers now link arms on the frontline of nightly protests at the city’s federal courthouse, braving tear gas and other non-lethal munitions.
A “Wall of Moms” group in Washington called on mothers to gather at the “March Against Trump’s Police State” on this week. Chicago organiser Katje Sabin said her group had been asked to attend a weekend demonstration.
“If we have these groups of moms in yoga pants standing there, people kind of behave a little better,” Sabin, 57, said of police who she believes want peaceful protests but get “all excited and threatened and scared.”
Portland’s mothers thought officers from the US department of homeland security and other federal agencies would not use force against them at their first demonstration Sunday at the courthouse. They were wrong.
“We got gassed and that was the most heinous, excruciating experience in my entire life,” said Barnum.
The Wall of Moms movement carries on a tradition of maternal activism, notably the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires who held weekly vigils for nearly three decades to draw attention to the disappearance of their children under a military dictatorship.
In Portland, Barnum and other organisers are trying to ensure their fame does not eclipse the anti-racism, anti-police brutality messages of protesters they are defending.
Barnum, who is Mexican American, coordinates with local Black protest leaders to support the wider movement.
Still, some activists such as E. Gomez have broken away from the moms, frustrated by what she calls “boomer-aged white women and men” who do not listen to concerns that they are drowning out the voices of people of color.
“It’s quickly turning into a #wallofkarens. It’s feeling like a lot of optics and photo ops to make these white women feel better about themselves,” said Gomez, using a pejorative term to describe entitled, middle-aged white women.
Gomez, a woman of colour, plans to put on black clothing and return to the protests with another mother.
Luna Jane, 27, a Black mother, is glad to have moms creating what she believes is a safer environment that has encouraged more protesters to come onto the streets.
“I’m fighting for my daughter’s rights to live in her own home safely,” said Jane, using an alias out of fear of doxing and referring to the Louisville police killing of African American emergency medic Breonna Taylor in her apartment.
Trump’s announcement to expand “Operation Legend” followed an alarming night of violence in Chicago which included a drive-by shooting by suspected gang members at a funeral that wounded 15 people and the shooting of a 3-year-old girl, who is expected to survive.
Trump criticised Chicago politicians for what he characterised as “deadly” soft-on-crime policies and cited the recent spate of violence, including over the July 4 weekend, when 87 people were wounded by gunfire in the city and 17 were killed.
“For those people in Chicago and other cities where we’ll be: Help is on its way,” Trump said.
The effort in Chicago will include 100 investigators from the FBI, the drug enforcement administration and the bureau of alcohol, tobacco, firearms and explosives (ATF), more than 100 members of the US Marshals Service Great Lakes Task Force and some 100 agents from a unit of the US department of homeland security already stationed in Chicago.
Critics say the US administration is seeking to divert attention away from its widely criticised response to the coronavirus pandemic, one of the reasons Trump is trailing Democratic challenger Joe Biden in opinion polls.