Sabrina Sheehy, a Central Catholic alumna and a member of St. Andrew Parish in Portland, is geared up to take part in the nonviolent protective Wall of Moms at Portland protests. (Courtesy Sabrina Sheehy)
Sabrina Sheehy, a Central Catholic alumna and a member of St. Andrew Parish in Portland, is geared up to take part in the nonviolent protective Wall of Moms at Portland protests. (Courtesy Sabrina Sheehy)
" We follow Christ, and Christ calls upon us to stand up for those who are the most marginalized. " Sabrina Sheehy Member of St. Andrew Parish and Portland’s Wall of Moms
“Hands up! Don't shoot!”

Sabrina Sheehy and scores of other mothers sent the chant toward federal officers in downtown Portland July 23. The yellow-clad women, known as Portland’s Wall of Moms, hope their firm maternal presence will curb violence during nightly protests over racial injustice.

“People ask why it’s helpful for a bunch of white moms to be out there,” said Sheehy, a mental health therapist who graduated from Central Catholic High School in 1997, got a graduate degree at Jesuit-run Boston College and now attends St. Andrew Parish in Northeast Portland. “We have a privilege afforded us with our white skin, and I think we should use that to lift up and amplify Black voices. When we see injustice and see people mistreated we should not stay silent.”

‘I had to stand in the way’

Sheehy, the mom of daughters ages 6 and 8, is part of a dozen or more members of St. Andrew who have attended downtown Portland protests for racial justice since the death of George Floyd in Minnesota May 25. Demonstrations, mostly peaceful, have continued nightly for more than two months. But the numbers and violence surged in early July after the Trump administration sent U.S. marshals to protect the federal courthouse.

“I thought it was important to take a stand against racism and the way people of color are treated,” said Sheehy. “I saw people getting hurt by federal officers and I felt I had to stand in the way of that.”

The moms don bright jackets, bike helmets and gas masks. They link arms to protect protesters behind them. The movement, begun by a woman of color and now led by Black women, draws many white moms of middle age. When a federal marshal broke the skull of a 26-year-old man with a plastic bullet July 11, the protective zeal of moms hit high gear. The women also recall that as Floyd was being suffocated to death by a Minneapolis policeman, he called for his mother. That was a summons for all moms, members of the wall often say.

A Portland-born Catholic

Sheehy grew up in North and Northeast Portland and was baptized at St. Charles Church. In that middle- and lower-income Northeast Portland district, she had many Black neighbors. Her babysitter and teachers were Black.

“They were nurturing and kind,” Sheehy said. “That showed me they were human beings like my own family.”

She had many Black friends and was a racial minority at Harriet Tubman Middle School.

“I learned a lot about what it feels like to be different,” she said, admitting that her experience was nothing like facing centuries-old racism.

Violent protesters a minority

Portland protesters convene at dusk on the waterfront and hear talks by Black leaders. Cheering fills the air. In a resolute but friendly atmosphere, there are people of many ages and professions. On one evening, many health care workers showed up and Sheehy rejoiced to see colleagues.

Then the wall of moms locks arms and leads the march to the federal courthouse, where the entry is blocked by fencing.

The speeches continue, calling for change and for some money to be diverted from policing to social services, mental health workers and other health care.

“For two or three hours it’s really great,” said Sheehy.

The protests are largely peaceful. As midnight approaches, the atmosphere changes. A few demonstrators hurl water bottles at federal officers and send insults through the chain-link fence. Sheehy tells them to cut it out. She’s a mom, after all.

“They don’t listen to me,” she said ruefully. “They are the minority down there. They make things hard for the rest of us.”

She rejects violence from police and protesters.

“I thought I’d be more scared,” Sheehy said. “But I had some courage in me knowing that is exactly where I was supposed to be and that God was going to protect us. It is nerve-racking but I have a sense I am doing the right thing.”

‘Good trouble’

As the nights wear on, police charged with protecting the courthouse emerge and tell protesters to leave. When no one budges, and when some protesters act to breach the protective fencing, federal marshals send teargas into the crowd. Demonstrators without protection gag and choke. That’s when the moms spring into action again, pulling out bottles of saline solution to wash out their compatriots’ burning eyes.

Sheehy said kindness comes from all quarters in the crowd. Someone barbecues. Others hand out ear plugs and water. Lawyers offer pro-bono services for those who are arrested. Medics wander around with bandages and ice packs.

When the teargas is thick, a team of men with leaf blowers comes and pushes the noxious haze away.

“There is a perception that it is all these angry protesters,” Sheehy said. “But there is this reality of all these people helping each other.”

One regular protester speaks amiably with federal officers, trying with humor to get them to rethink violent tactics.

Asked why she stays after police order protesters to leave, Sheehy said she has wrestled with that decision.

“I believe change will only happen with some level of civil disobedience,” she said, citing Martin Luther King who said that some disobedience may be necessary to be heard.

Quoting the late civil rights leader and congressman John Lewis, she calls her actions “good trouble.”

Teaching justice

She and her husband spoke to their daughters early on about racial injustice. The girls, who have many Black friends, teared up when they asked why anyone would hurt their playmates just over skin color.

“We try to teach them to stand up for friends who are treated poorly,” Sheehy said.

The couple have taken their daughters to family-friendly racial justice protests, including a drive-through demonstration.

Not all of Sheehy’s relatives approve of her actions. Part of her commitment, she said, is to explain why it’s so important.

“People of color are asking us, sure, to show up to the marches but also the work is very heavily involved in speaking to other white people who are not fully on board.”

Among Sheehy’s heroes are Mother Teresa of Kolkata, who served those on the margins with great love, and Mahatma Gandhi, an apostle of nonviolence. She also admires Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. who brought nonviolence to the U.S. civil rights movement.

“As Catholics we are called to be involved in social justice issues,” said Sheehy. “We follow Christ, and Christ calls upon us to stand up for those who are the most marginalized.”