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Q&A with Charlotte activist Bree Newsome

Bree Newsome and James Tyson were thrown into the national spotlight after June 27 action in South Carolina

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Bree Newsome removes the flag from its pole on South Carolina state Capitol grounds on June 27. (Photo by Adam Anderson)
  • Bree Newsome removes the flag from its pole on South Carolina state Capitol grounds on June 27. (Photo by Adam Anderson)

Bree Newsome hoped releasing a statement would be enough.

When Newsome, a Charlottean, scaled a pole on South Carolina state Capitol grounds and snatched the Confederate flag from its clasps 30 feet above the ground, she thought she could melt back into the activist scene and let the discussion about white supremacy in America take the forefront. But she soon saw that wouldn't be the case.

Her Twitter following jumped from 2K to 80K within a week of the action, and it soon became clear that people wanted to hear her story. Selma director Ava Duvernay even tweeted her desire to make a feature film about Newsome and called her "a black superhero."

Creative Loafing met with Newsome on July 4 at a local coffee shop. She was 24 hours out of a national media tour in New York City that brought her to nine interviews in two days. On Independence Day, Newsome seemed rested and ready to begin on a local media blitz in Charlotte that would bring her to many more outlets in the coming days to tell her story and hopefully begin to push the discussion to the grander problems she sees facing the South and the country as a whole.

Newsome has repeatedly found that she has become the face of a movement, and that will follow her no matter what town she's in. As our interview ended, I saw a middle-aged white man who was sitting at a nearby table approach Newsome to speak. I didn't think much of it, but texted her from my car to make sure she wasn't being harassed by someone who doesn't appreciate what she did.

Turns out, my worries were misplaced, as she told me later the man was a preacher from Columbia, where Newsome gained all that attention for capturing the flag, and he wanted to thank her for what she did.

"Things like that give me hope. Most people are on the right side," she texted.

Creative Loafing: How long have you lived in Charlotte and participated in activism?

Bree Newsome: It's been about two years. As far as full-time activism and identifying as an activist it's been about two years as well. I've always ben passionate about politics and issues, but I was the kind of person who would show up every once in a while to a protest with my sign. It's really just been over the last two years that I've been the person helping plan those events.

There was a period of time where I was back and forth between Raleigh and Charlotte. The protest where I got arrested (for occupying Thom Thillis's office in Raleigh in 2013) was sort of my first foray into it. I just jumped right in.

Describe what led up to that in your life?

I don't think Occupy gets as much credit as it really should, to be honest. So many people I have linked up with were touched by Occupy, whether they were directly involved with it or people like me who were never out camping. I remember when Occupy happened, I had the same reaction people have had to seeing me up on the pole, I thought "Oh that's possible? We don't have to accept this?" What Occupy did is they changed the narrative. I remember distinctly, before Occupy, we were not talking about the 1 percent and the 99 percent. We were not talking about these fundamental inequalities. I think that part of what we are doing with Black Lives Matter and all these other things is giving names to all these everyday experiences of inequality. It's hard to understand something or dissect it if you don't have a name or label.

Climbing up and taking the flag down is forcing a discussion on white supremacy. James helping me is forcing the discussion about white alliance. These are things that really need to happen. I did not foresee this as being part of my life, not even 2 years ago. Being an organizer? Absolutely not, until somebody invited me out to a Moral Monday. A couple weeks before I got arrested I was on a beach with my sister saying, "You know, I don't think I want to be one of those political artists." Because of all the crazy, all the vitriol that comes with it. I don't like being a divisive person. I like people to come together. I like thoughtful exchange.

But when George Zimmerman got acquitted, that felt way too much like 1955. I saw what they were doing with the Voting Rights and I realized I didn't have a choice. I saw all these young people at a meeting who had already been getting arrested and I figured I had a social responsibility.

So to fast forward, following the flag action, what has the media blitz been like for you?

I was totally fine with doing absolutely no interviews. Maybe that was naiveté on my part. I thought I could just go up and take the flag down and we would just talk about the flag. But obviously people were curious about who this person was who climbed the pole, and then I put the statement out and I just wanted to put the statement out and not do any interviews. But when I saw the profound impact it seemed to have on a lot of people, I felt like I have to go and speak on this some more.

What are your thoughts on the media's portrayal of your message?

I come from a media background. I've been an artist in residence and was into film. So much of everything is about narrative and controlling narrative. The fact that they refused to acknowledge what happened in Charleston was a terrorist attack is important. It matters in terms of how we understand our present moments. Narrative goes into how we understand history. Part of the reason why we are still debating what the Confederate flag is about is because there's a clear narrative that is not coming across.

The whole thing with the media and the delicate balance you have to strike, a lot of things are driven by ratings, driven by whatever narrative they find more exciting to drive at that given time. Part of the reason it was important to have James there at interviews is because we wanted it to be known that this was a diverse action. The most exciting story is about the black girl who flew to the top of the pole.

There's kind of a balance I try to strike between, I don't want to poo-poo on how people found that inspiring, and if they're inspired that's cool, I really just want people to know why we did it was to be an empowerment of the people and the movement.

Has the national reaction been a surprise?

Yeah, I think so. I know that the Confederate flag is such a big point of contention for a lot of people. But what I was taken aback by is how many people had wanted that flag down, had wanted to do that themselves. And I think that's why it drew such a profound reaction from people. Not just the Confederate flag itself but how much that flag there at the state Capitol really represented intimidation and fear.

How about the local reaction?

The feeling of a lot of people is, "Man I'm glad that someone finally did it." Some people wish it had been someone from South Carolina. It's hard for me to see it that way. If someone had driven up from Florida to do that sit-in (at Thom Thillis's office) with us I would've been like, "Hell yeah!" I can see how someone could say that they wish it had been someone born and raised in South Carolina but...

How did you get involved with this specific group?

Months ago, before the Charleston massacre even happened, I have connections with activists in South Carolina and one of the things we talked about is, "Man, we should go take that flag down." To be fair, a lot of people have felt that way for a long time. We didn't know how it could be done, we were just like, "Man, this is something that I've always wanted to do." Then, of course, after the massacre happened and the flag moved to the forefront we moved forward.

What was the process then?

The first thing was to find out who would be able to do it, because obviously you would be arrested. Getting arrested to me was not the scary part, as much as being up there and being vulnerable to crazy people who might want to shoot me or something. That was my biggest fear really. Once we narrowed it down to the possible people who volunteered, we thought it would be most powerful to have a black woman do it. We talked about how it would be interpreted in all the various scenarios. We decided to have a black woman grab it and hand it down to a white man.

How critical was that symbolism between black woman and white man?

I think it's critical because dismantling white supremacy is going to take all of us together. There are certain issues, and I'm not shy at all about discussing certain things, where it has to be black space. There are certain things where it has to be black people discussing certain issues in the black community. But things like dismantling systemic white supremacy have got to take racial alliance. It's got to take cooperation among all of us. We wanted it to be known that the act of us taking the flag down was an act of anti-racism. If it was only a group of black people it could have easily been spun that it was an attack on white people and we wanted to be very clear that it wasn't. In that moment, there were black men, black women, white men, white women, gay, straight, Christian, all types of faiths represented in the people that planned that action. There would only be two we knew would have all the cameras on them, so we wanted to be representative of the group.

James Tyson was arrested alongside Newsome after the two worked together to take down the flag. (Photo by Adam Anderson)
  • James Tyson was arrested alongside Newsome after the two worked together to take down the flag. (Photo by Adam Anderson)

Did the nerves set in after you made the decision?

I knew that I made the right decision because at the time I felt a complete sense of peace. I come from a spiritual perspective and so, for me, that was kind of a similar feeling that I felt when I decided to get arrested for the first time for the Voting Rights situation, I just felt completely at peace with it because I know that it's the right thing. I know that morally I'm on the right side. But then that night when I really got to think about the actual dangers of it, yeah the nerves set in.

What was the experience like once you were arrested following the action?

I was surprised at the reaction we got in the jail. When we were in Raleigh, it was not a positive thing. I was kind of taken aback by that, how much the people who were working for the system supported what we did there in Columbia. I was way more concerned about the retaliation of a random person than the police. Also because I knew there was a camera there. When the cameras are present I don't expect the cops to do anything.

Have you been threatened? Do you feel like a target?

There have been some threats. I feel like the people around me are more concerned than I actually am. I'm sure I could be a target, but I think I would be more of a target if what I did was not getting so much support form everywhere. If you're going to be mad at me you've got to be mad at the legislature, you've got to be mad at Nikki Haley. There's a whole lot of other people you should probably mad at before you attack me.

Overall, what has the feedback been like for you, personally?

It's been overwhelmingly positive, way more than I thought it would be. I was really preparing more for an extreme amount of backlash and it's been way more positive. I've been surprised by the international response, too. I really didn't expect this to strike such a chord with people who are totally disconnected from the Confederate flag and the history of it, but it really seems to represent something for a lot of other people's struggles.

The one thing we had not anticipated is that people would be so interested in me personally. It's cool in that I now have this platform to draw attention to things I think are really important from the movement perspective I want to be careful that there's not too much of that because I strongly believe in the importance of having a multi-leader movement for the health of the movement. What basically happened in the '60s and '70s is we had these charismatic leaders that everyone got behind and as soon as they cut our leaders out the thing died. It's basically taken 30 years to get back and pick up where we left off.

Where does the dialogue go now, assuming the flag will come down?

I think we have to elevate the conversation and remind people this has not ever been just about the flag. The reason the flag has drawn so much attention is because it is the state endorsement of white supremacist ideology. That's what we're really tackling, what we're confronting. Whether it's Ferguson and Baltimore, police brutality, school to prison pipeline, mass incarceration — all these things, it's all about the devaluing of black life. Taking down the flag and people taking a stance against it is important because it's a visual way of saying we no longer endorse this, but the actual work of really dismantling those types of things in our system is just beginning.

How does Charlotte play a role?

Charlotte is second only to Baltimore County in terms of our wealth disparity and the difficulties faced by children in poverty. We have a lot of gentrification going on right now and one of the things that I'm working on locally is to make sure that the people in these neighborhoods don't get left behind. What basically happened in Charlotte is we had integration and they shut down the schools in the black neighborhoods and there hasn't been much in terms of resources coming to those areas. Now that it's become hot property again, it's become clear that the plan is to flood those areas with resources and move the people out. And so what are we going to do about these poor kids in these neighborhoods? The Confederate flag action was something I signed up for because I thought it was important to do, but that kind of work of addressing what's going on with my kids, that's what I'm doing day in and day out.

Do you hope to use this platform to inspire local people to take action on things they are passionate about?

Absolutely. It's not that I'm straying away from the leader role, but I'm telling people that you're not a follower, you can be a co-leader with me. I can use that as leverage now, hey I climbed that pole, and you said you think I'm cool, right? So I'll see you on Monday to serve free lunches to these kids, right? (laughs) I'm hoping that through that, the people who are inspired by me or want to be like me, they learn what it looks like day in and day out is getting out there and doing stuff.

What do you say to people who believe the flag is red herring and distracts from the real conversation of racism in America?

I think it's important to understand, the flag over the South Carolina Capitol is particularly egregious among all Confederate monuments and I think that kind of gets lost, because they generalize the Confederate flag. No, it's not just that. It's that the state is endorsing that by flying it on government property.

With all due respect, I don't think people really understand what that flag means to black America. That's our swastika. I think that because we don't always tell the full history and people don't always understand the black experience in America, it gets lost. It is the equivalent of the swastika for black people. Just as nobody would ever entertain the thought of flying a Nazi flag over a government building in Germany, there's absolutely no justification (for flying the Confederate flag). It becomes a red herring because they have allowed this debate to continue for 50 years and there's nothing to debate. It should've never been up there in the first place.

The same thing would've absolutely happened in Europe if there wasn't a concerted effort to make sure it didn't. Nazism was an ideology that needed to be stamped out and they're still fighting against it. The problem we have in America is that people are still sitting around asking, "Well is racism still a thing?" Yeah it's a thing, what are you even talking about? We never move forward because we haven't even agreed on what reality is.

How does Christianity play a role in your activism?

My faith is a very personal thing for me. I've also been on a very spiritual journey. My activism corresponds with my growing faith. I grew up in the church but then I traveled around and studied a lot of different faiths. I studied Buddhism for a while. I'm not a closed minded kind of spiritual person at all.

Part of my deep commitment to activism, part of the reason I am able to put myself in a position that might be a threat to my life, is because I do believe that it is not just a matter of opinion as to whether all men are created equal. I do think that part of what is so powerful about that notion that there are certain inalienable rights, certain rights that you are endowed with as a human being, which no law is allowed to take away from you, I believe that it is coming from our creator.

Do you ever have problems reconciling your faith with such a spiritually diverse group of local activists?

If you're not trying to attack me, do I care why you're not trying to attack me? No. There are people who are attacking other people and using the Bible to do so. Those people are the problem. If you are hoisting me up and you are a secular humanist, that's cool, I don't care. This is about respecting each other's humanity.

What are your thoughts on the legal battle now to come?

When we decided to do this action, we looked at the entire legal ramifications. I was surprised when they slapped us with the harshest charges they could because I think, tactically, that's a bad look for them. I don't know that you really want to put me in jail for three years and drag this #FreeBree thing out. When I agreed to do that, though, I had to do it with that possibility in mind.

If they lock me up for 3 years, then what it becomes is, I become the jailed activist and that can be an even stronger platform. Some people aren't completely familiar with the history of social justice and maybe don't understand that but I can totally see myself as continuing in that long tradition of all those people who went to jail. If that's the journey this takes me on then that's fine because I'm already making the commitment to put my body on the line for this.

Ideally, what do you hope people take from all this?

The Confederate Flag is just one issue. What I see is a complete brokenness of our system, that will only be solved by people coming together and working together. That was why we felt like we couldn't just sit back and let the legislature take the flag down. We don't even honor the process that says the legislature has to discuss taking this flag down. The law that was written that says they couldn't take the flag down when Rev. Pinckney's casket rode by was written by the same racist people who, if they had their way, we'd still be enslaved. So, no, I'm not going to respect that process at all.

Overall, are you happy with how it all turned out?

I think I accomplished what I wanted to. The only disheartening thing is, man, we still have a long way to go as far as political education in this country. That's one of those things that's very concerning. It's very hard for us to move forward and make progress when we're still discussing things like why this nation had a civil war in 1861.

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