Even before Toya Graham, the Baltimore mother of six who was captured on video “disciplining” her son, began making the news rounds, she was already being hailed as a hero.
The video of her dragging her 16-year-old son, Michael, who was throwing rocks at police, from Baltimore’s melee and slapping him repeatedly in the face had gone viral. Commenters e-applauded her for “doing what any good mother would do.” Some called her “mother of the year.”
I’m part of the contingent that doesn’t think Graham was right. I was a kid who got hit, and I’m in the camp that striking another person—especially a child—in anything other than self-defense is wrong. Countless studies have concluded that hitting your children doesn’t make them better, responsible people. After seeing Graham’s reaction—admittedly one born out of anger and fear—I’m not surprised that her son has a similar reaction to anger and fear: violence. The lessons you get at home are the habits you take “abroad.”
I absolutely don’t think that she handled it the best way, but I think it was the best way she knew how in the moment. While I have the luxury of sitting at my laptop debating the moral quandary of it all a few days later, Graham didn’t have that same luxury when she spotted her son in a crowd of protesters. She wasn’t thinking philosophically or about what bystanders would say or whether there were cameras rolling or whether her actions would soon be viewed by an audience watching on their cellphones.
She was reacting as she thought about her son getting himself killed by police out in the streets of Baltimore. She told CBS News, “I didn’t want him to be a Freddie Gray,” referring to the 25-year-old man who died after he was seriously injured under suspicious circumstances while in police custody. Graham’s fear for her son if he was anywhere near the police, much less antagonizing them, has merit.
Graham was scared and she was admittedly angry. Her only son was putting himself in harm’s way, and undoubtedly she was desperate to protect him. Graham, as she describes it, “lost it.” I won’t condemn Graham’s reaction.
But I will point out the hypocrisy of people who applaud Graham and yet condemn Baltimore’s protesters, who have been called “thugs” and “animals” and everything but a child of God, when their reactions and Graham’s are one and the same.
Just like Graham, the people in the streets of Baltimore are also scared and fearful and desperate. Graham is using all her might to “discipline” her child, who is taller and, likely, physically stronger than she is. There are citizens throwing rocks at police officers with guns. These are means of last resort because they have all “lost it.”
It’s not a huge leap of logic to see that Graham’s anger and fear—along with the resulting violence—and the protesters’ anger and fear—and resulting violence—come from the same place. And if you can find the empathy to cheer for Graham’s methods of saving her son, also find some sympathy for the people of Baltimore who are trying to save themselves.
Demetria Lucas D’Oyley is a contributing editor at The Root, a life coach and the author of Don’t Waste Your Pretty: The Go-to Guide for Making Smarter Decisions in Life & Love as well as A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life. Follow her on Twitter.