A Conversation with Bree Newsome: Reflecting on her historic action, one year later
June 27, 2016 at 7:30 am
The assassination of Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Tywanza Sanders, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Myra Thompson, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Daniel Simmons, Ethel Lee Lance, and Clementa C. Pinckney brought to the forefront discussions surrounding gun control, white supremacist activity, and the use of the confederate flag on state grounds. Although masses of groups advocated for the flag to remain (citing Southern pride as the "real" meaning behind it) and refused to see the shooting as an act of domestic terror, others pointed to the racist history of the flag and demanded for it to be removed
These debates were interrupted when one woman did the unthinkable.Filmmaker and activist Bree Newsome (with assistance from James Ian Tyson) scaled a flagpole at the South Carolina state capital to remove the confederate battle flag on June 27, 2015
Every single time I watch this video, I cry. Newsome's spirit and respect for her ancestors elicits intense emotions from me. Her fortitude and courage emboldened and reignited the passion I’d long had for justice, a passion I thought was ruined when a 19-year-old white male walked into a church and murdered nine people in cold blood
This past March, Newsome gave a compelling public lecture at my university in Nashville. For more than an hour, she talked about her action and other movements (such as #FreePalestine) that coincide with it. Newsome also revealed to the audience that during the action, a police officer threatened to electrocute the metal pole while she was attached to it. The officer refrained from doing so after Tyson wrapped his arm around the pole, linking his demise to hers
Before her lecture in Benton Chapel, I spoke with Newsome about politics, faith and self-care
Erin Logan: Something that makes you stand out from other prominent activists is your faith. Black Lives Matter (BLM) is very different from the Civil Rights Movement partly because of the lagging presence of the black church. What is your opinion on the absence of church leadership in the movement today? BN: "Honestly, I’m not entirely sure. I question how accurate our perception is of the 1960s. Dr. King had a lot of pushback from the preacher community. He was not typical. It’s not like every black preacher was out there pushing for civil rights. So I am not completely sure how different today is from then. Obviously today, there are some ministers involved. I will say that I do feel like the Black church is not as involved in issues of social justice today as it once was. I think that has a lot to do with the effects of integration. At one point, the black church was the only place we had to go to meet. If you wanted to have meetings, put on a play, or are pushing for civil rights, the church was one of the only places we had to go and have those kinds of meetings
"So, I think it was maybe a little more required than it is now. Also, generally speaking, this movement that’s happening right now is really pushing for an all-inclusive fight for black life. Which means trans, queer…lots of groups that in a lot of ways wouldn’t qualify under respectability politics. And that’s something that existed in the 1960s as well. There were all of these groups participating prominently in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s but they were denied leadership roles. They were pushed to the shadows because they didn’t fit this respectable image of the 'black male charismatic leader preacher.' I think that one of the most dramatic images today is overrepresentation and the fact that people today are consciously making sure that the folks who are doing the leg work are getting credit for it and that people are not being pushed to the margins because they don’t fit some kind of respectability model." EL: Have you had to confront boundaries that black women in the movement have to engage with? BN: "Yes and no. I haven’t encountered as much of that. It’s hard for me to speak on that with my personal experience. I feel blessed and fortunate in a way. I work with a lot of black men and there was never this sense that I couldn’t be in a leadership role because I was a woman. But, I know there is a lot of that in the movement. I have definitely encountered other organizing spaces where they have some very real issues of patriarchy and making spaces for non-cis hetero male leadership
"At the same time, I understand the frustration that black men feel. A lot of the cases that have been most prominent in this movement were about the murder of black men. Now, granted, there have been a lot of murders of black women, especially black trans women that don’t get coverage. So the fact that the cases involving black men have been more prominent has to do some with the sexism and focus on black men over other groups. I was at a gathering of some of the founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Chicago. One of the elders said to me, “We need unity without uniformity.” And I think that’s what people are trying to work out and find right now. Yes, you have groups that have been traditionally barred from leadership and casted to the shadows. It’s important that they have a voice and can take the platform now. But it doesn’t need to be at the exclusion of anyone else. "So it’s kind of like ‘how do we really come together around an understanding that all black lives matter?’ That this is an inclusive liberation. " -- (NOTE: When this interview occurred, Clinton and Trump were not the presumptive nominees of their respective parties.) EL: Do you have plans to endorse a political candidate? BN: "I do not plan to endorse any political candidate because I don’t really endorse the system nor this process. But I do encourage everyone to vote because this is the system in process that’s going to be in place in November, and it does matter who is going to be in office. There is the short-term issue, and then there is the long-term issue. Long-term, this whole system has to be redone. Short term, these are the choices that we have." EL: Since the South Carolina legislature passed the bill to remove the confederate flag, a narrative has arisen that erases your act of bravery. Hillary Clinton perpetuated this narrative in a speech in South Carolina but briefly made mention of your name. Do you have any thoughts on HRC's comments? BN: "What Hillary said is not surprising at all. She’s a politician. I did see where she made mention of me when she was campaigning in South Carolina because she needs to win black voters in South Carolina, and I was like ‘okay that’s cool.’ And it doesn’t really disappoint me because that’s how it is. I think that it’s imperative on myself and all of us who know the history to make sure that things don’t get re-written and watered down. We’ve seen this happen before in the same way that Lyndon Johnson gets credit for passing the Voting Rights Act. We know that came about because of sustained protest over a long period of time. People shutting things down and getting killed...all the things that went into it before legislators pulled out their pens
"South Carolina was no different. There had been a boycott for decades. I was not even the first person to touch the flag. There was another protester who went up there and burned the flag, and then there was the massacre. All of these things had to happen before Nikki Haley felt that it was time to take the flag down. Yes, the massacre brought the issue to the forefront again. But lets not forget they were still quibbling about whether or not to take the flag down. I am really not convinced that the flag would have come down if we did not do the action. Part of what we did with that action was to show how easy it was to take the flag down. They said that they couldn’t do it because of the law on the books about when the confederate flag can and cannot be lowered. They did not even lower to half staff when they buried the victims. The US flag was lowered; the state flag was lowered, but not the confederate flag. I think that what we did (was) force their hands. And shamed them in a way. By taking the flag down, we forced the state to make the decision if they were going to keep the flag down or put it back up. And you saw how they sent a black worker down there to raise the flag back up." "History is always told from the point of view of the colonizer, of the victor and of the power structurer. But the truth is that all the rights we have today in this country did not come about because of the Declaration of Independence. This is because of sustained protest from many movements over the years. The 40-hour work week and the existence of the weekend came from people rising up and protesting. It did not start because the people in power felt they needed to do something right on the behalf of the oppressed. I always try to drive home the point that people need to vote but recognize that we did not vote our way into voting rights. Voting has never been and will never be all that it requires to secure your freedom." EL: What were your thoughts, feelings and emotions in the weeks leading up to the action? BN: "When I agreed to climb the pole Tuesday night before we did the action, I felt very calm and confident. When I got home and over the next few days, I would have these waves of fear. I knew it was going to radically change my life. I leaned on my faith, and I believed God would bring me down safely. But I also had to dig into a very deep part of my faith where I can say that even if I did it, I was still prepared to go up there
"There was a KKK rally planned for later that day, and it a was very hot topic at the time. Police were there guarding the flag because they anticipated somebody doing something. We talked about the possibility of somebody coming by with a gun and what we would do? We agreed that everybody would scatter but obviously I would be in a very vulnerable position on the pole. So, I had to make peace with all of that. I had to make peace with the possibility of my death." EL: What do you do for self-care? BN: "For self-care, in addition to my faith, one of the most simple things I do is just unplug sometimes. I take a break from social media because it can be so much. I have to remind myself that I am stepping into a struggle that existed long before me and that can very well continue long after me. And that I’m not the only person out here doing it. So if I need to take the day off, the movement will still be going when I get back. That is something I really emphasize to other people. You can feel so passionate and you want to take on everything but that's really not possible. Not in your own strength." EL: What is the current state of your case? BN: "The charges have been dismissed. It took a while. The solicitor said early on that he did not plan to prosecute. But, I think because of the politics in South Carolina, they wanted it to be dismissed quietly." EL: Who do you look to for support? BN: "I have a great community of support in Charlotte where I organize. I don’t think I could do the work I do without that. Before I was in Charlotte, I was in the Raleigh-Durham area and I had a small group of folks I was trying to build with. But, when that did not materialize, I scaled back in terms of what I could do. Going back to self-care, you cannot sustain what you do on your own. So I really lean on the community of organizers that surround me. My family is also very important to me." EL: What writers do you read for inspiration? BN: "Ta-Nehisi Coates...I view him as the Baldwin of our era. I realize those are big shoes to step into. With every major thing that happens I’m like 'please drop that essay,' and then he would and I would be like 'yes, thank you for saying what was in my soul that I couldn't articulate.'" Photos were taken by Laurel-Ann Hattix.
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