Critic's Notebook

Baltimore mom smacked some sense into her son -- and the rest of us too

#momoftheyear reminds us that every mob is made up of people

Toya Graham didn't just smack some sense into her son as he headed out to participate in the Baltimore rioting Tuesday morning; she smacked some sense into the rest of us too.

In a brief and jumpy video that began circulating on social media Tuesday morning, Graham is seen grabbing her son, who is dressed in black sweat pants, hoodie and mask. Smacking the sides of his hooded head while loudly dressing him down for thinking he would join in "this nonsense," Graham moves him away from the police line, presumably toward their home, directing him to "come here and take that [expletive] off" and smacking him when he does not appear to be listening.

With her bright yellow top and diminutive stature, Graham swoops and drives like an angry bird, an Easter chick gone wild. The son, to his credit, doesn't put up much of a fight, which makes the imagery instantly funny, like those old silent movies in which a tiny woman chases off a marauder with a broom. But in the video's final moments, the son's mask slips and it's not quite so funny any more because clearly he's just a kid.

A big, tall kid, 16 years old, who was about to make a mistake.

Suddenly, Graham's antic fury and profanity weren't funny any more. Suddenly, she was Every Mom calling on her last reserve to keep her teenage child from doing something from which no good could come, something that might prove fatal or otherwise irreversible. Suddenly, too, she was every outraged citizen of Baltimore who watched mobs burn already beleaguered neighborhoods and wondered, "What is wrong with you?"

More than that, though, she was a reminder, a huge and crucial reminder, that those mobs are not made of up of thugs, they're made up of people, many of whom feel perfectly justified in their anger. Just like the police force is made up of people, many of whom feel perfectly justified in their actions.

Some in each group may be criminal, others weak-willed, and all should be held responsible for their actions. But when we start thinking of any group in terms other than the distinct humanity of its members, we just make things worse.

Indeed, on Monday, many were calling out CNN reporters for characterizing the poor parts of Baltimore as being "like another world"; later that day, other outlets quoted people saying they had never seen people behave this way.

Which is simply absurd; for better or worse, most major cities have had their share of rioting over the years, and international news roils with it.

All "we are one" banners flying notwithstanding, whenever human behavior veers toward the unfortunate, we all seek solace in distance. What is wrong with "those" people, we wonder, watching the fires light up the night sky. Don't they realize they're just making things worse?

Then Graham flew into frame, to remind us that for every figure on either side of the riot gear, there was a parent, a person and a story.

She became an instant national heroine, and just in time for Mother's Day. Twitter went all #momoftheyear. Baltimore's mayor said she wished more moms were out on the lines Tuesday night. Headlines called for an army of like-minded moms.

CBS snagged the first interviews, first for the nightly news and then for the morning, and in both, Graham was clear in her reasoning and unapologetic: She did not want her son to become another Freddie Gray, who was fatally injured in police custody, nor did she want him to become a vandal, throwing rocks and bottles at the cops. In her Wednesday interview with "CBS This Morning," she said she understood the anger fueling the crowd.

"We can't talk to the cops," she said in answer to a question about the community's relationship with the police force. She would have been fine, she said, with her son going to Gray's funeral or engaging in protest, but that is not what he was preparing to do. When she saw him with a rock in his hand, she "just lost it."

And found a connection with millions of Americans, especially parents.

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

The world in a maternal smack-down. What parent wouldn't be horrified by the sight of their child about to engage in behavior that was not only at odds with their values but also potentially dangerous? For some, it might be drinking or using drugs, a less-than-responsible attitude toward sex, an acceptance of cheating or an infuriating sense of entitlement. For Graham, raising children of color in a city plagued by crime and what appears to be an oftentimes hostile police force, it was seeing her son's righteous anger give way to self-destructive vengeance. Destroying other people's property, she said, is not justice.

In one of the climactic scenes of "To Kill a Mockingbird," an oblivious Scout Finch steps into a group of white men who are planning to break Tom Robinson out of jail and lynch him, even if it means harming her father, Atticus, who is standing guard. "Hey Mr. Cunningham," she says, recognizing one of the men and speaking to him of his son Walter. As the moment hung in fatal balance, Mr. Cunningham finally stoops to answer her and then calls the men off. A mob, Atticus tells her later, is always made up of people, and Scout reminded those men of their basic humanity.

Now, Toya Graham and her son have done us the very same favor.

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