Bree Newsome: 'A Pretty Big Step Forward'
The Charlotte activist on civil disobedience, the response to her flag removal, and more
Newsome on Monday
Bree Newsome, the Charlotte community organizer and activist who scaled a flagpole June 27 and took down the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina State House grounds, sat for a series of interviews today with Charlotte media. The site was Little Rock A.M.E. Zion Church on East 7th Street uptown, one of Charlotte’s oldest and most prominent African-American churches. James Ian Tyson, a fellow Charlotte activist who helped her, was there as well. Authorities charged both with defacing a monument, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum sentence of three years in prison and a $5,000 fine.
Newsome has explained her justification for the act and how it came about in a number of interviews, including this detailed one on Democracy Now!, and in a long blog post she wrote for the liberal website Blue Nation Review. She and Tyson have appeared on CNN, Good Morning America, and Comedy Central’s The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore. I wanted to ask her more about her ties to Charlotte, her philosophical justification for civil disobedience, and what she means by “the front lines” of community activism.
She and I spoke for a little more than 10 minutes—her schedule was tight—as, in Columbia, the S.C. legislature debated whether to remove the flag from the grounds. A little more than an hour after we spoke, the S.C. Senate voted 37-3 to do just that, on the second of three bill readings.
The following is a transcript of our conversation, edited slightly for concision and clarity.
GL: So why here? Why Little Rock A.M.E.?
BN: Well, this is an important center for our community. It’s a place where we knew we could meet and do this in security and safety—which is also part of the reason why the black church has been a target for a long time, and why Dylann Roof targeted Mother Emanuel for the same exact reason. These are places of security for the black community.
GL: Yeah, the Afro-Am Center used to be right across the parking lot.
BN: Yes, I did summer camps there, actually, at the Afro-American Children’s Theater.
GL: You’re not from here originally. [She’s a Maryland native.] Why did you make this your home, and why do you continue to?
BN: Charlotte’s very near and dear to my heart. Both sides of my family have been here for a long time; my grandmother has been here since the ’40s, she was at Johnson C. Smith for 40 years. I grew up on Johnson C. Smith’s campus … I actually ended up in Charlotte just because I came here to take care of my grandmother. She always took care of me as I was growing up, and I wanted to make sure she was taken care of. My social justice work just goes with me wherever I go.
GL: How long have you been here?
BN: It’s been a year-and-a-half now, living here permanently.
GL: I wanted to talk to you specifically about how what you did in Columbia was an act of civil disobedience. You’ve framed it as such, saying on Twitter that, “Folks prefer the kind of civil disobedience that doesn't actually challenge the power structure.” Playing devil’s advocate a little bit, you’ve framed it as a violation of civil law at the service of a higher moral law, and not just in religious but in explicitly Christian terms. So, talking about the folks who, say, decline to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding, are they not operating under the same principle? Where do you draw the line?
BN: Well, one is done in the name of equality and anti-bigotry, and one is the opposite. That’s really the difference between the people who wanted segregated lunch counters and the people who sat down at them. It’s no different from the folks who said, “Well, it’s my right to not serve black people.” That is not and never will be the moral equivalent of people who sat at the lunch counter and refused to move.
GL: In coming back from New York, you talked about going back to “the front lines.” What are those? What are the battlefields, and what specifically are you doing on them?
BN: To me, the front lines are really in our interactions with other human beings. We did a large symbolic action to draw attention to the issue within a larger framework, but when I talk about “the front lines,” I’m really talking about the kind of daily work I do as an organizer, trying to build community with people and really trying to address the issues in our community as community members. That’s what I mean by “the front line,” as opposed to, you know, speaking engagements and media appearances and that kind of thing.
GL: Can you be a little more specific about what you’re doing right now?
BN: One thing I’m really excited about is Community Gardens. One of the things we’re really trying to do is find a community project that can bridge gaps between generations. Right now, the perception among some of our older members in the community is that the young people are not engaged and not doing anything, and we want to show them that we are, and that we can do this together. So the Community Garden project that we’re developing is a way for young people to get plugged in and to learn about things like food justice, nutrition, and agriculture, and at the same time show that we are trying to do positive things in the community.
GL: You had to know that some people would label what you did in Columbia as a “publicity stunt.” What is your response to people who might make that accusation?
BN: I’m not angry at anyone making that accusation. It’s kind of an obvious assumption to make, because I come from a background as a performer. [She’s worked as a filmmaker, artist, and musician.] I think the key thing to know is just that I’m actually an organizer day in and day out, and this is actually not the first time I’ve been arrested for civil disobedience. [She was arrested two years ago for staging a sit-in outside the office of then-N.C. House Speaker and now-U.S. Senator Thom Tillis over North Carolina’s voter ID law.] It’s just that this particular action drew the most attention. But I’m an organizer. This is just what I do.
GL: Did you expect the degree of response you’ve received?
BN: I honestly didn’t. I had assumed it would make national news, but when we were down in the jail and they told us that within 45 minutes, the flag had been raised, I wasn’t even sure it would make national news because it was down so briefly. So I was a little taken aback by how much and how deeply it impacted people. I definitely was not expecting people to view this as a moment on par with Rosa Parks. I think it’s amazing. I know that moment was cathartic for me personally … I think that people are just really tired of bigotry and hatred, and it’s a toxic element of our country. We can disagree about things without it having this element of hatred to it. That’s not necessary.
GL: Do you worry at all that the emphasis on fighting symbolic issues in any way detracts from the energy that should be devoted to more substantive, systemic problems?
BN: I think that’s a reasonable concern that a lot of us in the movement have. But I kind of just view that as our responsibility. If the focus becomes just about the flag and not doing the work, that’s our fault, because that’s the work that we’re supposed to be doing day in and day out. That’s why I’m doing the media interviews and things like that because obviously this was a big event and people want to find out about it, but I’m eager to get back to doing the real work, because if change doesn’t happen, that’s going to be on people like me.
GL: Now that you’ve highlighted this for people, what comes next?
BN: Well, part of my social media presence and how I use that platform is to foster these kinds of conversations, because there’s a lot that we need to talk about that we don’t really see getting discussed on TV. That’s the power, I think, of social media, that in the aftermath of something like that, we do have a space for average people to come together and talk more deeply about what this means.
GL: Why, in your view, are so many governments and other entities removing the battle flag, and in some cases monuments to the Confederacy, so quickly after what happened in Charleston? Are you concerned that their removal will make institutional white supremacy, as you’ve put it, harder to detect and combat?
BN: I don’t think it’s going to make it any harder to detect and combat than it is right now. I think it’s an important victory—yes, it’s symbolic, but we really should not downplay how powerful it is to have governors throughout the South openly repudiating the Confederacy and what it stood for. I mean, that’s a pretty big step forward. For Strom Thurmond’s son to come forward and say what he did, that’s a really big step forward, and it actually does give me a lot of hope that we can peaceably resolve a lot of these issues. I try not to be naive about things, but I do think there’s a lot of hope for us moving forward.