This time last year, I was curled up in a ball on my bed, in tears and feeling frustrated, angry and afraid. I was suffering from a condition I coined called “MOBB disorder,” the seemingly irrational fear of a mom of a black boy that he will be unfairly stopped, harassed, brutalized or killed by law enforcement or a person in authority and not make it back home safely.
Except it’s not irrational when you consider that one year later, the cases that initially triggered my MOBB=disorder symptoms—the graphic police killings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., and Philando Castile in St. Anthony, Minn.—both ended with no one being held accountable for their deaths. The Justice Department declined to charge Blane Salamoni, the officer who killed Sterling, and a jury found Jeronimo Yanez, the officer who killed Castile with his girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter in the car, not guilty of any criminal wrongdoing.
In addition, since last year, the list of unarmed black males killed in deadly encounters with law enforcement has grown. Terence Crutcher, Paul O’Neal, Kajuan Raye, Tyre King, Alfred Olango, Reginald Thomas and, most recently, three unarmed 15-year-olds—Jordan Edwards, Jayson Negron and Darius Smith—have all been killed since last July.
And it’s not just the cases that lead to death that trigger our fear and worry. Black males face daily misperceptions and harassment, which increases the likelihood of them one day having an unwarranted deadly encounter.
Just ask Michael McGill, a high-level professional who was traveling internationally for work when he was suddenly stopped outside the Kansas City, Mo., airport by an officer and told to freeze and put his hands against the wall. Or the five innocent, unarmed 12- to 14-year-olds in Grand Rapids, Mich., who, while walking home from playing basketball in their neighborhood, were unexpectedly stopped and held at gunpoint for more than 10 minutes because police officers believed that they “fit the description” of suspects. Or Charles Kinsey, a therapist for an autistic patient in North Miami, Fla., who, while trying to help his patient, was assumed to be a suspect and shot by police instead. Or the multiple black men who have called police to report a robbery or threat to their home, only to be shot themselves once police arrived. Although they all made it out alive, the trauma from those experiences will live with them and their families indefinitely.
Yet in the backdrop of all of this ugliness and collective stress, I’ve had one of the most amazing and unexpected experiences of my life. To try to deal with the trauma from seeing graphic images of brutality and death repeatedly, one year ago today (July 7, 2016), I started a Facebook group for moms of black boys and men—initially sending it to about 30 friends—that grew to more than 21,000 moms from all around the country the same day. I really had no idea what would happen after that.
I could not have imagined then that one year later, the group would have grown to more than 177,000 moms from around the country and world, and evolved into two nonprofit organizations that are completely fueled and run by volunteers made up of the dynamic women I met on Facebook last summer.
Moms of Black Boys United Inc. provides vital information and support to moms of black sons and promotes positive images of black boys and men. MOBB United for Social Change, Inc., our advocacy arm, aims to influence policy that impacts how black boys and men are treated and perceived by law enforcement and in society as whole. We’ve developed a multipronged approach that includes influencing policy, changing perception, demonstrating our political and economic power, promoting self-care, and partnering strategically with other organizations who are working to solve these problems for black males as well as for others who face similar injustices.
MOBB United has mobilized and empowered moms of black sons all around the country and world to stand up and take action. We’ve hosted virtual seminars with experts on topics like “Know Your Rights” and “How to Interact With Law Enforcement” to “Recognizing and Preventing Bullying” and “Discussing Racial Tensions in Schools.” We’ve provided support in various forms to moms who’ve since lost their sons in deadly encounters with law enforcement. We’ve lobbied for policy change at state capitols, in commission meetings and via phone, letter-writing, email and social media campaigns. These moms are fired up and committed to doing all we can to protect our sons. We don’t want anyone else to experience the pain and devastation that the women known as the “Mothers of the Movement” have experienced.
We don’t call ourselves activists. We are advocates for our sons who are simply doing what every parent is supposed to do: nurture and protect our children. But when you’re a mom of a black boy, that requires you to know and do some extra stuff.
It requires you to know that black boys are more likely to be disciplined in schools for the same behaviors that other children display but are not punished for. It requires you to know that they are less likely to be referred to gifted and talented programs, even when they meet the criteria, and are more likely to be referred to special education. It requires you to know that there is a prison bed on hold for them if they don’t know how to read by the third grade. It requires you to know that there is a trap set for them called the school-to-prison pipeline that is highly profitable, and that states often sign contracts with private prisons that guarantee 90 percent occupancy. It requires you to know that black males are three times more likely to be killed by police than other citizens.
MOBB United is equipping moms with information that empowers them to be better advocates for their sons in all the institutions that interact with and influence them. You see, the problem is that our sons always “fit the description” and are assumed to be the aggressor. They are viewed and treated like wild, irrational animals. Not a person with hopes and dreams. Not someone who loves others and is loved. Not someone’s father, husband, brother, uncle or nephew. Not someone’s beloved son.
MOBB United aims to change this perception. We are committed to doing all we can to raise our sons to be respectful, kind, productive and, when appropriate, yes, compliant. We are committed to providing them access to a wide variety of educational experiences and enrichment opportunities to give them the best-possible chance at success in life. We are committed to building strong families and creating support systems. We are committed to being engaged parents in our sons’ schools, and involved citizens in our communities and local, state and federal governments.
But when we do all of that, we need assurance that the system works for us, too. We need to have confidence that our sons will be treated equally under the law. We demand accountability on the other side. And when rogue or unqualified officers unjustly kill one of our sons, we need to see a conviction, not excuses about how the officers “feared for their lives” from someone who posed no obvious threat. We want all of our sons and all law-enforcement officers to make it home safely every night.
Our work is clearly a marathon, not a sprint. But these women have helped me to move from fear to fortitude. Now, instead of being balled up in a knot in tears on my bed, I stand in a global circle of moms who I know understand my perspective, have my back and are committed to working together to find solutions. We will not give up. We will not accept this as normal and just the way it is. And united, we will change the narrative and ensure that our sons survive, thrive and build strong legacies.
The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.
Depelsha McGruder is a happily married mom of two boys and an entertainment executive living in Brooklyn, N.Y. She is a graduate of Howard University and Harvard Business School.