Send in the moms to stop Freddie Gray rioting

Her son was about to assault police. This was not the time to talk about technique.

I must admit, I am uncomfortable with the praise being heaped on Baltimore's "Mom of the Year," Toya Graham, for repeatedly slugging her 16-year-old son after she caught him with a rock in his hand at Monday's confrontation between police and high school kids near Mondawmin Mall.

Video of this little woman in a bright yellow blouse screaming obscenities and delivering a forearm to the boy's head has gone viral, collecting nearly 4 million views the last time I looked. She appeared on the CBS Evening News Tuesday night and on the network's morning news show the next day, saying she "just lost it" and admitting that she was going to be in trouble with her pastor.

The unemployed mother of six said she didn't want her only son to end up like Freddie Gray, the young man whose unexplained death in police custody ignited the violence in the city.

She said she would have allowed the 16-year-old to attend Gray's wake or his funeral and even the peaceful protests that followed his death. But when she saw that he was ready to hurl a rock at police "that was unacceptable."

The judgment of the public seems to be that we need more mothers like Toya Graham, mothers who are ferocious about keeping their children in line. Especially young black men from the city's blighted neighborhoods.

But the fact is, she was shrieking obscenities and clubbing her son, and if we'd seen her do that in the grocery store or in a park our reaction would have been much different. We might have called police to intervene for the protection of the boy.

On the other hand, any woman who has tried to shepherd a son safely through the treacherous years of adolescence knows that isn't often done with quiet conversation. Tempers flare and things can get physical. My husband used to say that the only reason he didn't beat our son was because the boy would never give him a reason to stop.

But I am concerned that we watched Toya Graham's version of discipline and said to ourselves, with some self-satisfaction, that she was dealing with her son the only way you can deal with young black men and boys — with fists.

"I am a zero-tolerant mother," she told CBS. "He knew that, he knew he was in trouble."

She saw herself snatching that boy to safety from the tracks of a speeding train. This is no time to have a conversation about technique. This wasn't "parenting," a word we like to use to describe how thoughtfully we do this job. This was a rescue.

If she and her daughter hadn't obeyed their instincts and gone to look for him, the result might have been horrible. It wasn't like he was sneaking a beer in a friend's family room. It appeared he was about to assault police, who were numerous and armed.

If we put her technique aside for a moment, we can see clearly why Toya Graham deserves our praise. She is determined to be a force in her children's lives. This is no powerless parent watching from the sidelines. He was wearing a hoodie and a mask, but she knew him in an instant, and she flew at him like an angry blue jay. "How dare you?" she demanded, screaming and swearing and tearing the hood and the mask away.

No parent would want their worst moments caught on camera and replayed millions of times for all the world to see. But we saw something else in this mother, and it wasn't just her determination to keep her boy safe.

We saw how terrified she was that she might fail.

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at sreimer@baltsun.com and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com.

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