Toya Graham didn’t want her son to “be a Freddie Gray,” referring to the 25-year-old black man who died earlier this month, his spine nearly severed, while in the custody by Baltimore police.
Standing between a phalanx of officers clad in riot gear and a congregated, agitated crowd after Gray’s emotional funeral Monday, Graham went looking for her son. She saw a familiar pair of sweatpants, and a rock, about to be thrown, in the hand of the teenager wearing them. Once they made eye contact, Graham knew it was her 16-year-old son, Michael. What happened next has been viewed more than 3 million times on YouTube, landed Graham on the front pages of newspapers worldwide, and has earned her Twitter fame as #MomOfTheYear.
In the 40-second video, Graham grabs her son, pops him upside the head several times, and screams at him. When he walks away, she chases him down again, and continues chastising him. As the clip ends, he’s a kid busted not by the cops, but someone he fears far more — his own mother.
She has been called a hero, and the cover of Wednesday’s New York Post featured a video screen grab of mother and son with the headline, “Forget the National Guard . . . Send in the Moms.” Yet Graham insists she did nothing heroic. “My intention was to get my son and have him be safe. That whole scene was not safe. It wasn’t safe at all,” she said today on “CBS This Morning.”
Graham, who warned her son not to attend Monday’s protest, only wanted to protect him. She likely also wanted to spare herself the forever heartbreak now carried by the mothers of Gray, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Walter Scott, women who endured the unnatural act of burying their sons, all killed by police officers. She refused to allow her child to become another statistic in another city, and so she did what she had to do — she retrieved her son.
(For the record, I am not related to Graham, but have no doubt my mother or grandmother would have reacted exactly the same way.)
A single mother of six, Graham does not defend her son’s actions. “If he had wanted to stay home from school to go to [Gray’s] funeral, I would have allowed him to do that. But for him to be doing what he was doing was unacceptable.” She added, “He has been in trouble, but he knows right from wrong. You will not be throwing rocks and stones at police officers.”
Those who have criticized Graham for slapping her son are completely missing the point. Here is a mother whose son has lost friends to violence in a city slightly smaller than Boston, but with four times as many murders. Their neighborhood is a tornado of poverty and disenfranchisement, twin ills long ignored by its elected officials. For decades, black Baltimoreans have had an acrimonious relationship with its police department. According to the Baltimore Sun, between 2011 and 2014, the city paid $5.7 million to victims of police brutality; more than 100 people have garnered court judgments or settlements connected to allegations of brutality and civil-rights violations. Under such conditions, when a young man like Gray dies in such a callous manner, it’s like tectonic plates shifting suddenly beneath unstable earth — except this is a man-made disaster.
What also stands out in the video is the reaction of Graham’s son. Once tough, he’s suddenly just a kid — every kid — pleading with his mom not to embarrass him. He walks away, but he never runs from her. He pulls away, but he knows better than to take a swing and make things decidedly worse. He respects her. Those standing nearby simply watch – they don’t cheer, intervene, or laugh. Maybe they recognized that Graham’s actions were born of love and mother’s instinct to do what’s necessary to shield her children from anyone that might do them harm. It could recall a moment familiar in their own lives, or one they wish they’d experienced while coming up on these hard streets — someone who cared enough to save them.
After riots left parts of the city broken, looted and burned, Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts praised Graham: “I wish I had more parents who took charge of their kids tonight. Take control of your kids.” Perhaps if Batts had taken better control of his police officers, Gloria Darden, Freddie Gray’s mother, would not be in mourning, and mothers like Toya Graham could rest a little easier knowing she doesn’t have to protect her son from those sworn to protect him.
Watch: Toya Graham chases her son from riots
Renee Graham, a writer in Boston, is a regular contributor to the Globe Opinion pages.