Photo courtesy of James Tyson
James Tyson (left) and Bree Newsome (center) pose with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!
Bree Newsome thought 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 hoped 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, and it soon became clear that people wanted to hear her story. Selma
director Ava Duvernay 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.
The following is an excerpt from our discussion, which will run in the July 9 edition of Creative Loafing, alongside an interview with James Tyson, another Charlottean who helped her remove the flag on that Saturday morning.
Creative Loafing: 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, but 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.
Was the strong reaction 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.
What has the feedback been like, overall?
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.
Assuming that flag officially comes down soon, where does the dialogue go then?
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.