As Toya Graham, the ‘Hero Mom’ of Baltimore’s Riots Struggles, She Still Has a Story to Tell

Toya Graham confronts her son during protests in Baltimore Monday evening.
Toya Graham confronts her son during protests in Baltimore Monday evening.

The most famous mom in Baltimore is uneasy. It is noon on a Wednesday, and she is six hours into her shift driving addicts from a halfway house to a treatment center. She has only made $60 so far today, which is not nearly enough. She withdraws an eviction notice from her purse. It says she owes $1,381.50. Ten bucks an hour is not going to cut it.

If you do not know Toya Graham by name, you know her by what she did. At the apex of the Baltimore riots, as the city buckled under the weight of Freddie Gray’s controversial death, Graham strode into the maelstrom clad in a blazing yellow shirt to find her rebellious son. And when she did, she clobbered the youth, meting out the discipline that millions of Americans, watching it unfold on television, thought he deserved.

Toya Graham, who until that moment was just another struggling mother in a city full of them, became the hero of a Baltimore story without one. She was the avenging mother, determined to save her boy from social forces ravaging her community. A YouTube video of her striking her son shot past 6 million views, then 7 million, then 8 million. There was a parade of interviews — with Anderson, with Whoopi, with Gayle. Oprah called. The media crowned Graham “Baltimore’s Hero Mom” and the “Mother of the Year.”

People told her she was going to be a star. They told her she was going to get a job. She was going to anchor a reality TV show. She was going to write a book. She was going to meet Michelle Obama. And Graham believed it. Her life of struggle was over. She was Baltimore’s Mom.

Graham now sits alone at the wheel of a Ford van. She just dropped off 12 addicts at a treatment center on Broadway. She feels unmoored. So much has happened in her life, but so little has changed. She still can’t pay her bills. She still can’t escape the circumstances into which she was born.

But she can still try. She calls a Houston woman named Schuwan Dorsey, who refers to herself as Graham’s “promoter/manager/advisor” and sometimes talks as though she and Graham are the same person. The two met in July, and tension had been building between them for weeks.

“It’s too much,” Graham yells into the phone. “I don’t want to do it anymore. . . . It was all a waste of time.”

“I don’t know why you think this is a waste of time,” hollers Dorsey, who said she could score a lucrative interview with “Inside Edition.” “I gave you what I thought you wanted.”

“Toya, the Baltimore Mom, all of that is over,” Graham says. “You had some big ideas that I just swallowed up and went along with, but none of that is coming true. And the reality of it is, it’s over. I will do this story with ‘Inside Edition’ because I do need the money. And that is the only reason why I’m doing it.”

A flash of yellow in the riots

Manny Locke Jr. has worked the cameras for ABC’s Baltimore television affiliate since 1986. He has captured inaugurations, homicides and the chaos of the DC sniper attacks. So on April 27, the day he would unwittingly catapult Toya Graham into stardom, he readied his lens for more bedlam.

Locke spotted a flash of yellow in a sea of kids wearing black, throwing rocks at police outside Mondawmin Mall. It was Graham. She looked panicked and terrified. Locke immediately recognized that she was looking for her son. “Something just told me to stay with her,” he recalled. “She was getting closer and closer and closer, and then I thought, ‘Wow, she found him.’ ”

Locke trained his camera on her for two minutes — capturing the curse words, the slaps, the shame that streaked across Michael Singleton’s face after Graham ripped off his ski mask. “Other parents were trying to get their children,” he said, explaining the serendipitous nature of the moment. “But she happened in front of my camera.”

Away from the lens, Graham’s daughter, Tericka Tate, was seething inside her silver Jeep as she waited for her mom and brother to return. Tate, who had brought her mother to the mall, couldn’t believe her brother was throwing rocks at the police. She had been trying to get on the force herself — unsuccessfully, so far. When her brother finally climbed into the car, she let him have it.

“I said, ‘It could have been me that’s standing out there,’ ” she recalls saying. “ ‘You wouldn’t want someone throwing rocks at your sister. They are human beings going home to their families.’ ”

It was silent in the Jeep as the family made their way to Graham’s townhouse on a row of abandoned homes in West Baltimore. Graham was exhausted, but relieved. Her son was safe. That night, she saw herself on television, felt a pang of embarrassment at the language she had used, then padded off to bed, thinking little of it. Everything, she thought, would return to normal by morning.

But inside ABC’s newsroom, a sense of astonishment rippled. Brian Troutman, the director of new media at WMAR (Channel 2), had never seen anything like it in his three years at the station. The video Locke had shot of Graham was taking off on YouTube, collecting hundreds of thousands of views. “It’s always hard to tell how people are going to react to something, so we didn’t know what we had until a couple of hours later,” he said.

But when he did, he said he had one reaction: “Whoa.”

A life turned upside down

The next morning, Graham’s daughter, Termeka Brown, awoke at 7 a.m. in her Northeast Baltimore apartment and checked her phone. It practically leaped out of her hand. A CNN producer had gotten in touch. So had someone from “Good Morning America.” Friends said reporters were coming to their houses looking for her mom.

“Before I knew it, my mom and brother was leaving to go to New York, and people were calling me and telling me they had all different offers and scholarships for [my brother] and they wanted to sponsor [him] and some billionaire guy from New York who owns some bank or something like that had scholarships for all us for any college that we choose,” she said. “I didn’t know how they got my number.”

Graham couldn’t explain it either. “I didn’t know anything about viral or this YouTube,” she said.

She grew up hard. The youngest of four children raised in a tenement in Northwest Baltimore, she spun out of control when her mom died in 1996, developed a drug addiction and picked up a 2002 assault charge that was later dismissed. She never graduated high school, though she did receive her GED. Money and jobs never came easy.

Then, suddenly, both did. She got more than $10,000 through a campaign. Oprah Winfrey wrote her a check for $15,000, which she used to get out of debt and buy a car. She said BET, Under Armour and St. Joseph’s Hospital all offered her jobs. “I’m doing all of this thinking, ‘I was going to get a job and get better out of this.’ ”

Graham represents a new twist in the long evolution of instant celebrity. In another age, she might have warranted an aside in an article or fleeting clip in a newscast. But social media amplifies the significance of bit characters in larger dramas, so Graham’s smaller drama soon rivaled the larger one of the riots.

She became a vehicle for others to advance their own social agendas. Conservatives rallied to her cause. Pundit Ben Stein dubbed her the “Rosa Parks for 2015.” The New York Post lionized her on its front page. Progressives, meanwhile, criticized her outburst as substantiating stereotypes that black mothers are angry and violent.

“And why was she able to be with him at 3 o’clock in the afternoon?” activist and writer Michaela Angela Davis said on CNN on April 30. “She’s unemployed. She’s lonely, she’s poor, she’s out of options. That’s what that looks like.” She added: “She is a symbol and not a hero. She symbolizes . . . incessant brutality, violence, desperation and systematic violence.”

Graham was outraged. She was just trying to protect her son. How could that mean anything but what it was? “She’s not thinking about the larger context,” Davis says about Graham now. “And I get that.”

The comments came at a time when, as Graham recalls, “everything started getting real.” Her brother, Robert Graham, was furious that she hadn’t given family members the recognition he claimed they deserved in her interviews. The same day Davis called Graham lonely and out of options, the Daily Mail published an article in which Robert Graham divulged personal details about Toya Graham’s depression following her mother’s death. The Graham family splintered.

“It’s some bulls—,” the brother said in an interview. “She ain’t no hero mom. . . . We don’t talk. I haven’t talked to her since this thing happened. One of the reasons why is I gave an interview to someone who wanted a history of the family, and it was unrelated to her supposed heroism.”

Graham felt confused and used. “Everybody had a motive, and the motive was they wanted the story,” she said. “My trust factor has gotten a lot lesser. I’m not trusting what people say.”

Then, just as quickly as they started, the calls stopped as the national focus swiveled away from Baltimore. The media requests slowed to a trickle. The promised scholarships never materialized. None of the job offers Graham said she fielded led to employment. Under Armour and St. Joseph’s Hospital didn’t return requests for comment. A BET spokesperson said, “We do not have a relationship with her.”

Graham had begun to wonder whether fame was worth the drama it had caused when Dorsey approached her on a hot day in July and told her she could change everything. She could make her a star.

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Source: The Washington Post | Terrence McCoy