'Wall of Moms' at Portland protests on getting tear-gassed: 'We held the line'

The group, which includes hundreds of mothers, has said the protests are peaceful, but the police have been violent.
TODAY Illustration / Getty Images / AP
/ Source: TODAY
By Kerry Breen

After nearly two months of protests in downtown Portland, a group of mothers formed a "Wall of Moms," putting themselves between protesters and federal agents in an effort to keep all sides of the protests peaceful.

But within hours of forming, the group was met with force from police and federal agents, with viral videos capturing the peaceful group being tear gassed, hit with flash-bangs, and targeted by rubber bullets.

Bev Barnum, a first-time protester who was one of the first organizers of the group, said that it was videos of federal officers arresting protesters in Portland that spurred her to action. Protests have been a nightly occurrence in Portland for more than 50 days now, since the killing of George Floyd sparked global demonstrations against police brutality and systemic racism.

"I was like, I have to do something, but I don't know what ... My husband suggested a fundraiser, and I thought 'There has to be more,'" Barnum said. "(I thought) what if I got a group of moms, just chill moms wearing normal clothes, not in black, not looking scary ... What if I could get moms in front of the (protesters)? They wouldn't throw things, because they won't want to hit us."

That night, Barnum posted in a local Facebook page, and within hours had heard from hundreds of mothers. She reached out to Don't Shoot PDX, an activist group of color, who helped her refine the idea.

"(The group) was like, 'We've been waiting for you. We've been waiting for suburban moms to do something, to help us,'" said Barnum.

In the days since the group first went out on Friday night, beginning at a protest for Shai'India Harris and eventually gathering in downtown Portland, their numbers and viral fame have grown — but the mothers protesting said the response from law enforcement officers has also been escalating.

"It was a little bit before 11 p.m. (Saturday) when (federal agents) came marching up the street fully camouflaged with rifles pointing at us," said Michelle Schardt. "One of them did a full-on, two-arm running shove at one of the moms. They threw flash-bangs at our feet. They threw gas at us right away. And that felt really wrong to me."

Schardt said that she had participated in protests before, typically local marches, but had never felt "violence" like during these instances.

"I've never been teargassed before. I’ve never felt the violence before," she said. "I was raised in a military family, we have police officers in our family, and (among) our friends. I’ve never felt a target before. And when I felt that, I wanted to go back."

Longtime activist Jaclyn Pritchard said that she had been involved in protests in Portland for about a month before stepping back for a few days, but joined again with the Wall of Moms. Like Schardt, she said the level of violence was new.

"At midnight (Sunday), they'd had enough," said Pritchard. "It was obvious, someone made the call to gas us, and not a little bit, but to gas the f*** out of us."

Pritchard said that she and a handful of other activists involved with the Wall of Moms stayed to protect protesters, even in the onslaught of tear gas.

"We held the line. It was very scary for us to see everyone move away and for us to take a step forward," she said, through tears. "We knew a lot of moms would run away. It's the first time, for a lot of them, and it's very scary, but it wasn't my first time. We held arms. We held the line. ... I pulled out wipes (to clean our eyes), and I thought that was so perfect, as a mom! I held the line, we were holding arms, and I was like, I have wipes! I reached into my purse and handed them to the girls on each side of me. We wiped down our faces and held the line."

Barnum said that the tear gas was like nothing she had ever experienced before.

"I thought it wasn't happening," she said. "I thought it wasn’t happening. I couldn’t believe that what I was experiencing was actually happening. When you get gassed, especially for someone like me who has never experienced that before, I lost my bodily functions. I peed my pants, I vomited, I couldn’t see, my ears were ringing, my eyeballs felt like they were on fire. It felt like chili peppers were sprayed all over me. It felt terrifying. I couldn’t believe it was happening, but at the same time I was terrified."

All of the women interviewed for this story emphasized that the protesters were generally peaceful.

"Those nights that we have been there, there is no looting, no rioting," Barnum said, describing Sunday night. "It felt like we moms were chaperoning a prom! We were lined up on a fence, making sure no kids climbed (it) or threw anything over, and we were chanting to keep the federal officers in the building ... When 10:45 rolled around and they didn't shoot us the way they did the night before, I thought we had accomplished something. Then, right before midnight, the shooting began."

Barnum said that approximately 200 moms were "gassed right in the face."

"I want to make this really clear. We weren’t throwing water bottles. We weren’t throwing bricks. We weren’t throwing anything," she said. "We weren’t yelling expletives. We were chanting 'Feds go home; leave our kids alone.'"

"Nobody was doing anything even close to rioting," said Pritchard. "We were putting our hands up, peacefully protesting and chanting."

Schardt said that the protesters themselves have been supportive of the Wall of Moms.

"They’re like, 'Here comes the moms! Here come the moms! The moms are here!'" she said. "We defer to any of the leaders of color who are down there, (asking), 'where do you want us?' People come by and thank us, they’re so respectful and so grateful, very supportive. It makes me feel like I can do it, because I have so much support."

Schardt, Pritchard, and Barnum all said that there had been no serious injuries to any of the women in the group over the weekend, but Pritchard told TODAY Parents on Tuesday morning that four moms had been arrested on Monday night as the violence continued to escalate.

"Four mamas were taken by the feds," she said, adding that she had been up all night after the arrests. "The NLG (National Lawyers Guild) and the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) know, and they help with police, but feds is like a black hole."

Pritchard also said that in addition to flash bangs and tear gas, the Wall of Moms had been met with rubber bullets, which have been criticized for being excessively dangerous.

"They then tear gassed with no warning and this time shot rubber bullets," she said. "People are bruised, gassed, lips blistered from pepper spray, I'm sure there are lots of tiny burns from the (flash bangs). One mom who was arrested was tackled."

Barnum told TODAY Parents on Monday that despite the risk, she would keep coming back. A recent post on the group's Twitter page called on participating moms to join them on Tuesday, July 21, and to bring protective gear.

"The Wall of Moms is a call to protect human rights, to use our bodies to shield those that are considered unwanted, unimportant," she said. "It’s not my group! This was a call to action to all moms. It doesn’t matter where someone lives in the world. If someone needs protecting you’ve got to do it."