Bree Newsome’s social justice fight continues two years after taking down the Confederate flag in South Carolina
‘Staying quiet is also like its own form of death’
It has been more than two years since Bree Newsome became a household name for climbing a 30-foot flagpole on the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse and removing the Confederate flag. She knew jail would follow. However, Newsome, now 32, knew it was a task she had to do.
The mood in South Carolina at the time was bleak after the evening of June 17, 2015, when Dylann Roof gunned down nine black members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The flag that Newsome removed was originally raised in 1961 as a statement of opposition to the civil rights movement. Many individuals have always hated what the flag represents.
Newsome became a hero in many communities, and her actions caused a domino effect. In August, two years after Newsome’s act, 22-year-old Takiya Thompson was arrested after helping to take down a Confederate statue in Durham, North Carolina. Thompson was charged with disorderly conduct by injury to a statue, damage to real property, participation in a riot with property damage in excess of $1,500 and inciting others to riot where there is property damage in excess of $1,500, according to the Durham County Sheriff’s Office. That followed a white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, that turned deadly and prompted a call to action by many people for the removal of Confederate statues.
“I just see this shifting in the consciousness, and people just kind of reaching a point where we just can’t be quiet anymore, because I think there has been, in some ways, this belief that we keep ourselves quiet in order to survive,” Newsome said. “But staying quiet is also like its own form of death. I think people are just tired of living that form of death.”
Newsome is now a local organizer in Charlotte, North Carolina, and focusing on housing.
“We have a real affordable housing crisis going on in our city, as many cities around the country are,” Newsome said. “We have communities that were redlined in the late 60’s; that’s kind of when the cities drew, basically, lines around areas that were predominantly black that had been segregated. So these are areas that were basically divested from by the city, and now they are prime real estate. So we have a lot of developers wanting to develop in this land, but the folks who have lived here for decades are not benefiting from it. So housing remains an ongoing justice issue.”
Newsome says housing is a human right.
“A lot of times people say, well, it’s just a byproduct of development. But it’s really important, again, to understand why,” Newsome said. “That’s obviously one of the basic things that we need in order to live. Then it’s a justice issue, because we’re still very segregated. Segregation is not forced upon us anymore, it’s not part of the law, but we are still largely racially and economically segregated. How are we addressing any of these issues with wealth and with race if folks are being pushed out of their homes?”
Newsome’s father, Clarence G. Newsome, served as dean of the Howard University School of Divinity and was the president of both Shaw University and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Her mother spent her career as an educator addressing the achievement gap. Newsome studied film at the New York University Tisch School of the Arts.
She spoke to The Undefeated about social justice, today’s battle for equality and her plans.
How do you feel about today’s racial climate?
What we are seeing today is kind of part of a pattern, I would say, in history. On one hand, I was born in ’85; in my lifetime it is maybe one of the most tense periods, racially, that I have experienced. But when I look back over the history of America, it’s kind of part of a pattern where racial tensions kind of ebb and flow.
We’re integrating certain institutions. We obviously had the election of the nation’s first black president. Now what we’re seeing is, again, this period of racist backlash to that. But there is, kind of, this pattern of like, we make this progress forward and then there is this racist backlash. No, it’s not as bad, and I think if you talk to most folks, like my grandmother, my grandmother is 91 years old. When she saw on TV the police in Ferguson tear-gassing folks in their yard, she said, ‘It reminds me of the Ku Klux Klan.’ So, on one hand, yes, we’ve gone far, but clearly we haven’t gone far enough at all.
When I look at what is going on today, the main thing it says to me is that we cannot rest on our laurels. And that’s part of what spurred me toward becoming an activist in the first place. It was after the Trayvon Martin case.
What do you think about the protests for Colin Kaepernick?
I think that’s amazing. I support that. Two histories in America that I find really fascinating is the treatment of black veterans and the treatment of black athletes. … Even at the college level, there’s a real justice issue around the treatment of black athletes. They are clearly the majority, especially when you are talking about a sport like football. The majority of athletes are black men. They generate billions of dollars for this industry, not just in pro football but also in college football. In many ways they are exploited. They are exploited physically. We see the kind of damage that is done physically to their bodies.
Part of what I think is really awesome about what is happening right now is there’s greater solidarity. In some ways, it’s bigger than the NFL. It’s about protesting for Colin Kaepernick to have a fair shot, but it’s also kind of bigger than that because it’s like, he has a right, as a human being, to speak. Especially to speak about a system that is killing us. When he’s out of uniform, and he’s off the field and he’s just driving down the street, he has just as much a chance of getting killed by the police as anybody else. I think that that is sometimes what people forget. They think just because a black man puts on a uniform and goes in to play football that he is supposed to disconnect from all the other realities of the nation in which he lives.
Do you recall the first thing you did as an activist?
I don’t know if you remember the Moral Monday movement that was happening here in North Carolina. That was organized by Reverend Barber and the North Carolina state chapter of NAACP. This was back in 2013. This was the same summer that George Zimmerman was acquitted. This is the same summer that the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. North Carolina just went H.A.M. on the voting issue. They hadn’t yet passed it, but they brought up this legislation, House Bill 589, and at first it was this five-page bill that focused on student voter ID. It said the students could no longer use their IDs to vote.
I go up to this Moral Monday protest about voting rights. At that time, I wasn’t considering myself an activist. I was very much aware of things that were going on. Literally overnight, between that Monday and the Tuesday, they sent the bill from the House to the Senate and they added almost 50 more pages to the bill. It was clear that they were targeting black people. They had things like ending Sunday voting.
That was the wake-up moment for me. I had always been socially and politically conscious, but I wasn’t the person out on the street protesting.
Why did you make the decision to fight for justice in North Carolina?
When I was about 2, my family moved up to Maryland. I grew up in Columbia, Maryland. I would spend all of my summers in Charlotte, North Carolina, where I live now. That’s where my grandmother is.
My grandmother would come stay with us during the school year, and then I would come stay with her during the summer. Then my dad’s family is from eastern North Carolina, so the Carolinas have always been kind of like home. In a way, it’s kind of like my family home. It really wasn’t until I got back in the Raleigh-Durham area and Moral Monday was going on and I kind of connected with the folks there and I was like, ‘Yeah, I can’t go back to work now, this is too crazy.’
What has been the hardest part of your journey?
I think it’s always finding the balance. I would say, you know, in 2013 when I’m walking to the protest and I was like, ‘I can’t go back to anything, I’ve got to stay in the street.’ And I pretty much did, for like the next two years. Just protesting. I went up to Ohio when John Crawford was killed. I marched with the Ohio Student Association. I went down to Florida. We were just out protesting, just trying to raise this awareness around what was happening.
I was getting to a point where I’m exhausted. It’s traumatic. … When you ask me what has been the greatest challenge or struggle, I think it has been finding out how to sustain in this work. … How do we continue to support ourselves and do this important work? How do we balance life, and all these other things, because we’re out here fighting for our lives and there really is nothing that’s more important. But I know I reached a point where I was like, you know, I have to live too.
Living is also resistance. If I’m out here killing myself, that’s not, at a certain point I’m no longer resisting. I have to thrive at the same time.
How would you describe your personal feelings after seeing what happened in Charlottesville?
The first word that’s coming to my mind is revelation. But I don’t know if that’s the right word. I’m trying to think of a word that is kind of revealing, because I feel like what happened with Charlottesville was, like, it was all there. All of that was there. But, it was kind of like Charlottesville was the moment that it could no longer be denied. … We’ve known for a while; we’ve known since 2008, at least. Because as soon as Obama was elected, you had a surge in white supremacist groups.
White supremacist groups have been out here organizing. They have been out here planning and connecting. And in a lot of ways folks are looking away.
So when I think about Charlottesville, to me it was kind of blatant. It was like that’s when America could no longer look away from what had been going on, cause here you had all of these white supremacist groups from around the nation organizing and converging on this city over this monument. And, the same way people kept saying, ‘Well, you know, does the monument really represent this, does the Confederate flag really represent that?’ People were really trying to still be kind of wishy-washy about it, and it was like Charlottesville was the moment that they could no longer deny what had already been there. It’s not that Charlottesville was new, it’s that Charlottesville made plain what was already there.
How do you see your work in social justice?
The way I look at the work is two ways. One, I think we have system-facing work. There’s work where we are trying to dismantle a racist system. We have a system of white supremacy, and that’s one of the main things I speak about all the time is trying to get people to understand. Racism is not just prejudice. It’s not just, ‘I don’t like somebody because of the color of their skin.’ It’s a system that was designed. It’s an economy. It’s a social caste system that is built based upon not just the color of a person’s skin, but African ancestry. It is built on the subjugation of people who are descended from Africans. So I think there is system-facing work, and then there is community-facing work. And I try to get people to see both ends. Because I think sometimes we think it’s either-or. Either we’re out here fighting white supremacy or we are doing work in the community. We’re trying to come out of 500 years of slavery.
My family was enslaved in South Carolina and North Carolina, so I know the personal story of my family trying to come out of slavery. But as a people … that’s the work that we’re trying to do. It’s about economic freedom, it’s about mental freedom. It’s about having agency over ourselves. It’s about how do we break free of oppressive dynamics that we have internalized from the people who have oppressed us. … Sometimes I’m speaking to the system, and then sometimes I’m just talking to my people.