Five years ago today, 30-year-old activist Bree Newsome Bass shocked the world by climbing a 30-foot flag pole and taking down the Confederate battle flag at the South Carolina State Capitol Building — a flag that state leaders had first raised in 1961 to tell the budding civil rights movement to “stay out!”
Almost 55 years later, Newsome put her boots, courage and backpack on, and defied those racist warnings in the most daring and audacious way possible, head-on. After taking the flag down with her bare hands, Newsome was quickly arrested and jailed, and she eventually posted bail. Her defiant act of Black resistance had a worldwide impact that can still be felt today.
That was half a decade ago now. Five years later she’s still organizing, still showing up for her community, and even more radical now than she was then. In this exclusive Truthout interview, Newsome discusses her personal journey and political evolution, Black womanhood, the recent mass protests and the continued road forward for the Black Freedom Struggle.
Lamont Lilly: Bree, so good to talk with you. How have you been doing?
Bree Newsome Bass: I’ve been doing just about as well as I feel anyone can be doing in these current circumstances. I think the concept of safety is largely an illusion, especially for Black folk here in the U.S. I’m not even sure what it means to be safe anymore. In terms of am I fed? Do I have stable housing? Is my family good? I’m doing OK. I’m blessed, but the key is to make sure everyone has those things.
I know you’re an organizer, Bree. Do you work with an organization?
For the last few years, the work has been mostly independent. That’s a choice I’ve made since about 2015. After taking down the Confederate flag, I decided to move more independently, not only for my livelihood, but also in regards to my political work. It also worked out that facilitating workshops and public speaking afforded me the freedom to organize politically however I wanted, for free. I do a lot of advising and consulting. With the housing coalition we built in Charlotte, we’re now transitioning that leadership into a different model. I was a facilitator helping us as a community to think through this process. The goal was to have a functioning and independent Black housing coalition. My work is revolution, one step at a time.
You got married in late 2018. You’re Bree Newsome Bass now. How has the other side of the broom been for you?
[Laughing] Very good! I met my husband in the movement. We met at a vigil for Jonathan Ferrell. This isn’t just organizing for me. This is how I exist in the world. We understand that about each other and we support that. When we got married in October 2018, my husband was in full swing, working on electoral organizing here in North Carolina. Two grassroots activists, getting married during the midst of election season in North Carolina can be very intense. We’re very active people and involved in our community. While we’re doing the work, we’re also in love.
In the summer of 2015, you climbed a 30-foot flag pole to take down the confederate flag at the South Carolina State Capital Building in Columbia. Does it feel like it’s been five years?
Yes, and no. I view all of that period as just a prelude to what we are in right now. I do commemorate that moment, as I have every year. But the issues of our people have not been resolved. The Black Freedom Struggle is still unfolding.
You were on the front lines of Movement for Black Lives organizing during the 2013-2018 period. What was it like living the movement from day-to-day?
The early years almost felt like a constant cycle of rapid response. We were just responding to cases as they unfolded, mostly because of these new devices called camera phones. In 2013, I was involved in Moral Mondays and was arrested at the North Carolina General Assembly. The next week after getting arrested at Moral Mondays, several of us drove down to Florida and met with the Dream Defenders, who were protesting and organizing around Trayvon Martin. We come back home and then there was the police killing of Jonathan Ferrell. There was also a group of us who went up to Ohio and did an 11-mile march for John Crawford who was murdered by the police at a Walmart in Beavercreek.
There was this new energy, particularly among young people, pushing for our own movement. It was young people who were being disproportionately impacted by this police violence. Young people were having their clothing criminalized. Hoodies were being profiled as a threat to the police. These topics have become more mainstream now, as well as the overall resistance. But seven years ago, we had to fight just to have an honest conversation, not only with the state but with traditional Black leadership.
For the Black community, the disparities in health care and proper medical attention during the COVID-19 pandemic have been dreadfully glaring. How do we organize as a community to keep ourselves safe?
We have to be willing to pool resources, from the churches to the community groups. It’s about developing mutual aid components — from fresh food to protective face cover. This individualistic mindset is so antithetical to African societies and Black culture. We know how to check on our elders. We should be checking on each other and taking care of each other. Do our elders have the groceries they need? Does Ms. Jefferies have her needed gloves and face masks? Does Ms. Brown have transportation to the clinic? Are we helping our community stay informed? It’s about having a spirit of collectivism and communalism. Many folks are already doing this.
This is what the work looks like, but I do think we’re missing that internalized philosophy of Black self-reliance. We do have to meet needs but we also have to politicize folks. Helping to provide basic needs right now is certainly what’s most pressing.
The George Floyd and Breonna Taylor protests…. What does this moment really mean?
This moment is definitely a little different from 2014 and 2015. This moment is building on everything that came before it. The last several years have been critical. Ferguson was the seed. A lot of us had seen this before. So no, folks were not going to be so patient this time. We’re also seeing that same wave consciousness from six, seven years ago take hold of a new generation now. For those who may have been too young to understand the significance of Freddie Gray and Sandra Bland, now it’s George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
What’s different in this particular moment is the compounded effects of the collapse of capitalism. Not only did folks witness a public lynching for eight minutes and 46 seconds, almost half the country is underemployed or unemployed. Resources are being allocated to more policing and militarization, yet during the coronavirus outbreak, we had doctors and nurses who couldn’t get protective gear to do their jobs. Police have tanks and rubber bullets, but hospitals can’t even get ventilators and enough beds. What sense does that make? That’s capitalism.
The billionaires made more billions. We got a one-time check for $1,200 — that is, if you qualified. This contradiction of capitalism and humanity was really made clear to a lot of people. This is the empire crumbling and I think people can really see this for themselves now. We’re also at the point where people are like, “Man, what do I have to lose? I might as well get involved.” It almost feels like the early stages of a revolution and the true toppling of the old systems.
This is a very sensitive topic, Bree, but a critical one indeed. When I hear names like Oluwatoyin Salau, Amber Evans or even Erica Garner, I just don’t feel like they were properly cared for and protected. These women were all activists fighting for us. I’m also reminded of something: There can be no Black Liberation without the liberation of Black women. Any thoughts on this?
Modern American society is best understood first by studying the social dynamics of the plantation, and the economics of the plantation. That’s what built U.S. capitalism. On the plantation, there was a hierarchy and an intersection of that hierarchy. The white male patriarch was always at the very top — the owner, the slave master. When he wasn’t there, the white woman would step into that role. She was number two in this hierarchy. Then came Black men and Black women, but we were at the bottom of this hierarchy — the most disposable.
The question was always whose labor and body is most disposable in the production of the cash crop. Not only did Black women cut sugar cane and pick cotton, we also produced more slaves by giving birth. Our bodies were units of capital, used and exploited at anyone’s disposal. This was the social order of the slavocracy.
Many of us as descendants of the enslaved, internalized this slavocracy. We internalized white supremacy. We internalized white male patriarchy. They became a byproduct of colonization. What we’re really talking about is a kind of ingrained and accepted hostility toward Black women in general, or anyone that is considered Black and feminine. Are Black men guilty of patriarchy? Of course, as are most men. But let’s not forget to discuss the root of this problem, its historical origin. White male patriarchy was the root of this then and it’s still the root today, along with racial capitalism.
This system is still alive because we’ve all been ingrained with it. I’m still unlearning things myself. But let’s be clear about something, Black women did not create this system and neither did Black men. We were the victims of this system. This history is still playing out.
Even when we look at the essential workers and who is being hit by COVID-19 and the most vulnerable at their places of employment. In large-part, it’s Black women, nurses, caretakers, cashiers. A lot of these workers are Black mothers — underpaid, undervalued, under the same system of capitalism, patriarchy and the slavocracy.
When I think of the story of Oluwatoyin Salau, if you’re asking was she cared for, the answer is no, on several levels! She was failed by the system from every angle — racism, poverty, homelessness, patriarchy, sexism, misogyny, and most of all, a lack of resources, support and safety. This general violence, though, against Black and African girls must be named. Truth is, this system doesn’t provide Black women with any safety. That’s why when Black women and girls show up dead, it’s not as much of a shock to the nation’s conscience. Violence against white women will stop the world, though. We have to process all of these nuances.
While folks are taking up the conversation around defunding and abolishing the police, we should also be having this conversation as well. We know there’s love and care in our communities because some of us are helping to create that love and care. There are also people who take great pride in being protectors of our community.
I say this to say, we can do more. We can do better. I do believe our very lives depend on it, as a people. You got that right, brother. There’s no Black Liberation without Black women!
Movements leave behind history and hard-earned lessons. What were some of the lessons you learned?
The massive amounts of untapped power we have. Whenever we do get worked up to the point where we all converge in the street, it can be very powerful. From Minneapolis, Minnesota, protests have sparked all over the world. What that shows is the power that we have in numbers when we organize. It also shows is that these kinds of short-term reactionary mobilizations are not enough to take on a highly organized system of mass oppression. We can riot for days. We can mount a rebellion even for a couple of weeks. Mass marches and protests are great, but eventually, they’ll just wait you out. That, in and of itself, is not enough to combat the system. I think all of us from several ago realized that.
We have to answer the question of what does it mean to have independent Black political power? That’s easier to say than do, but I do believe we can get there, collectively. That’s the work going forward. Some of us have to imagine first and know that we can. Some of us are already laying the foundation and doing the work. Some of that is happening right now. We’re living it!