Confederate flags contrasted the clear blue sky over Charleston this weekend, raised to protest the upcoming visit of activist Bree Newsome. Newsome, who gained fame in 2015 for removing the Confederate flag in front of the statehouse, will speak at the College on Wednesday. Her lecture Tearing Hatred From the Sky will start at 7 p.m. in Sottile Theatre. Last week, CisternYard News spoke with Newsome and discussed some of the issues that have shaped her life as an activist and icon.
Note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity.
CYN: You were charged with a misdemeanor for your actions in 2015. Would you speak a bit about the criminalization of protest, particularly Black protest? Is there a double standard?
BN: I think there definitely is a double standard with protest, and that’s something that’s existed for a long time. And it really has to do with the double standard around the subject and the nature of the protest and the fact that there is (and historically has been) a more violent overreaction to protests around issues of racial injustice and Black liberation. In that context, it’s not surprising that we would be arrested. The charge that we were given was defacing a monument, for removing the flag. We had been talked through different scenarios about how we might remove the flag, we made the deliberate decision to unhook it and in that way, it wasn’t really property destruction. That strong reaction, I mean obviously that goes back to the images of water hoses and dogs being turned on children who were protesting nonviolently. And the violent reaction is not really about the protest itself, it’s about what is being protested, a challenge to the racist status quo. That’s really what evokes so much emotion, it’s not really just about the flag or that particular flag on that particular pole, it’s about what it symbolizes. And with the removal, what that symbolizes in turn, the power structure there in South Carolina, that flag was raised in 1961 right when students were doing the sit-ins there in Rock Hill. The state was starting to feel pressure to abide by federal desegregation laws. And so the removal of it is basically representing the removal of that system and that order. That’s what draws the violent reaction.
CYN: Would you speak a little bit about the physicality of your experience? Obviously, you had to scale 30 feet up into the air, it’s an act of physical toil.
BN: Certainly, so the decision to scale the pole, that really was first and foremost a logistical thing because we couldn’t figure out any other way, practical way, to get up there and remove it. There was no pulley system, or way to access it. I didn’t have climbing experience, not in that way. There was a Greenpeace activist who trained me physically, on how to get up the pole and it was so exhausting. It was so exhausting. I really questioned whether I would be able to do it. But she really helped me with my technique. I think apart from the practical need to scale the pole in that way, it really came to symbolize that struggle, the struggle of Black people to deconstruct the white supremacist system. And so in that way, I think that’s part of what made the visuals so powerful. It was the physicality of the climb, the struggle that was represented. And also James [Tyson] standing at the bottom, supporting me.
CYN: After the election of President Obama there was a lot of talk about living in a post-racial society, and today it seems to be somewhat the opposite. Most current events stories have some racial dimension to them. From your perspective, how big of a role does race play in American society right now?
BN: Oh, it’s fundamental and I think it always has been. I think that if anything, the role that race plays in American society is understated. I think what’s happening now is we’re talking about it more. I think we had a period of time, we had the Civil Rights movement of the ’60s, this time that brought in sweeping legislation, then we had a period of time when we were living under those new policies and practices. This led to some gains, which I think is represented by things like the election of Barack Obama. And now we’re seeing the racist reaction to that. The dynamics of race are present through all periods of time but I think the tensions of it ebb and flow. The reason things are so particularly tense right now has to do with the racist reaction to the Obama presidency, the several incidents, racially-charged incidents that happened during the Obama presidency, such as the Trayvon Martin case — and then the 2016 election where Donald Trump was campaigning so explicitly on this white nationalist, racist platform.
CYN: Where do you see direct nonviolent action succeeding in the current social justice landscape, and are there any causes or areas where you’ve seen it and thought “That didn’t work”?
BN: It’s so easy for me to point to the flag action because that was such a direct, one-to-one correlation between a protest action and a result. Through nonviolent direct action, and really in the spirit of what nonviolence is about philosophically, we were doing this action in the wake of this terrorist incident in Charleston — trying to draw that contrast between Dylann Roof going into a church and killing people and sneaking away, we were doing this in broad daylight, very peaceful, nonviolent direct action demonstration. But also putting myself in this very vulnerable position, very much in the tradition of the sit-ins of the ’60s. In times where it’s not as effective, I feel that’s a somewhat difficult question to answer. I don’t feel like the measure of success for protest is always a direct result afterwards. Sometimes what comes out of protests is people coming together and building and organizing and getting a better sense of what they want to accomplish. That said though, the way nonviolent direct action was used was a little more clear-cut in the era of segregation. If the thing you’re saying I can’t do is sit at the lunch counter, then I go physically sit there. It’s very directly protesting the thing that you’re saying I can’t do. The flag action was very similar in that way. When people are doing things like shutting down the traffic or blocking highways, that’s not quite the same. It doesn’t correlate in quite the same way, because you’re not protesting for your right to block the street. It may be effective in terms of raising awareness, but it’s not quite the same as a nonviolent direct action campaign where we are using our bodies to protest the very thing that we’re being denied.
CYN: Would you speak a bit about the role of faith in your social justice work?
BN: My faith is very fundamental to my activism and why I choose to do what I do. I am a Christian, I believe that we’re all children of God, I believe in the teachings of Christ. He says that the greatest commandment is to love God with all of your heart and the second is like it, to love your neighbor as yourself. Which means we show our love for God, through the love that we show for others. Those are the teachings of Christ that I try to adhere to. Standing up for the oppressed, clothing those who are without, feeding the hungry, that is the belief system that grounds my activism. For me it’s not solely political, it’s also a spiritual calling.
CYN: You’re also a filmmaker and a musician – what’s the relationship between that aspect of your life and your work in the public eye as an activist?
BN: I really see myself as a creative, that’s just how I see myself. I’m a creative person. I’ve always been creating, whether it’s music or art, and as an organizer and an activist I really transfer that kind of creative thinking to my work. How do we bring people together? What are creative ways we can do this? So there is a lot of overlap for me. The past year especially I’ve done much more in terms of the activism front. Traveling and speaking, educating, organizing, but it’s kind of a balance that I strive for between art and activism. Being an artist who is politically active. That’s something I’ve grown into an understanding of, the artist as activist. I really look at models like a Nina Simone, a Henry Belafonte, a Ruby Dee. They’re artists but the political work is part of what they do. I think there’s a strong history of that with artists because art is the study of life, it’s the study and observation of life.
CYN: What do you expect from allies?
BN: I think allyship is really showing up and helping provide what resources and bodily support you can. It’s sort of dying to your privilege, but at the same time recognizing your privilege and using it how you can. For instance James [Tyson], standing at the base of the pole while I was climbing, there was a point when the supervising officer directed the officers at the bottom to taze me. And James at the bottom said if you electrocute her you’ll have to electrocute me too. Just recognizing had James been a black man, I don’t know that that would have played out the same way. In that moment, he’s showing up and supporting me.