This post is part of our Black Organizing Today Series. This series, edited by Ajamu Amiri Dillahunt, consists of interviews highlighting the work of contemporary Black activists and organizers to shape local, regional, national, and global politics.
In today’s piece, Ajamu Amiri Dillahunt interviews Bree Newsome Bass. She is an artist who drew national attention in 2015 when she climbed the flagpole in front of the South Carolina Capitol building and lowered the confederate battle flag. The flag was originally raised in 1961 as a statement of opposition to the Civil Rights Movement and lunch counter sit-ins occurring at the time. The massacre of nine Back parishioners by a white supremacist at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston reignited controversy over South Carolina’s flag. Bree’s act of defiance against a symbol of hate galvanized public opinion and led to the permanent removal of the flag. The iconic image of her on the flagpole, flag in hand, has been memorialized in photographs and artwork and has become a symbol of courage, resistance and the empowerment of women. As a recognized and celebrated voice on the topics of injustice and racial discrimination, Bree emphasizes the importance of leadership development in building and sustaining social movements. A graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Bree is also an accomplished filmmaker and musician who seamlessly blends her talents in pursuit of social and economic justice. Follow her on Twitter @BreeNewsome.
Ajamu Amiri Dillahunt: What experiences led to your involvement in social justice work?
Bree Newsome Bass: From an early age I was heavily influenced by my parents to develop an awareness of systemic injustice, particularly concerning race, poverty, and disparities in education. My parents were both educators whose work touched upon these issues. My father was Dean of Howard University Divinity School and my mother worked at the Howard County Board of Education in Maryland facilitating programs designed to address “the achievement gap” and the needs of students who were poor, Black and/or from immigrant homes where English wasn’t spoken as the primary language. Through my mother’s work in particular, I witnessed first hand how the school system was often used as a tool to further perpetuate racial disparity. My mother was often making trips to the schools advocating for my older sister, myself and other children who were being treated unfairly or otherwise having their educational needs neglected. My grandmother lived with us much of the time I was growing up. She was born in Greenville, SC in 1926 and would share with me stories of her experiences growing up there including the racism she and her family experienced. I was aware that I was the first generation in my family to attend integrated public schools and because of my grandmother and other older relatives I had a historical awareness of segregation and the era before the Civil Rights Movement. Overall, however, I’d say the primary message I received from the adults around me was that I had a responsibility to be my personal best and to make use of opportunities I had that previous generations were denied. Previous generations had fought the fight so I wouldn’t have to. I believed strongly in being an engaged citizen and had a certain level of social and political awareness, but my understanding that the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement and its accomplishments shifted during the course of the Obama administration and especially in 2013 when I witnessed the acquittal of George Zimmerman and the attack on voting rights in the state of North Carolina.
Dillahunt: Before removing the confederate flag from the South Carolina Statehouse, what did your organizing/activist work look like?
Newsome Bass: I would point to 2013 as the moment I began consciously identifying as an activist though there are examples in my life before then of me engaging in activism and organizing without recognizing it as such. Before organizing and participating in public demonstrations, I was among those who were labeled “hashtag activists” for our use of social media to raise awareness around various issues. In my case I often used social media to question and challenge government policy and the way events were reported–or not reported–in the media. I still do this today, but my move from hashtag activist to street protester occurred when I became involved in the Moral Monday movement which in the summer of 2013 was being led by Rev. Dr. William Barber, II and the North Carolina state chapter of the NAACP. I was shocked when the US Supreme Court stripped the Voting Rights Act of any teeth and then to witness North Carolina pass a massive voter suppression bill intent on denying as many Black, poor and students access to the ballot as possible. Prior, I had completed an artist residency in New York City and didn’t feel I could return to an office setting for my career pursuits in light of all that was happening.
Though North Carolina is in the spotlight now for its egregious voter suppression efforts, at that time North Carolina was largely flying under the national radar as Attorney General Eric Holder filed a suit against the state of Texas. People generally still held this image of North Carolina being the progressive state of the South and were not aware of the state legislature being taken over by neo-confederate Republicans in 2010. The Republicans first introduced a five page bill, the basic crux of which stated that students could no longer use their student IDs to vote. A day before the bill was set for a vote, Republicans tacked fifty or so more pages onto the bill filled with measures that more explicitly targeted Black voters. We felt the sit-in was necessary so we sat on the floor in the office of then-NC house speaker Thom Tillis and refused to leave until he agreed to meet with us and explain the justification for the bill. He never met with us and we were arrested, of course, but we succeeded in bringing attention to the Republican efforts in North Carolina. Our sit-in was also a show of solidarity with the Dream Defenders who were occupying the Florida statehouse at that time protesting the criminalization of Black and brown youth and Florida’s stand-your-ground gun laws. During this time I referred to myself as a “freelance freedom fighter” because I was mainly down to travel wherever the protest action was and help build statewide and regional movement. I ended up traveling down to Florida with the same folks I was arrested with during the sit-in to meet the Dream Defenders in person. We were encountering a lot of resistance from civil rights organizations who seemingly wanted youth to participate in the movement but not lead it. We felt it was important to build an independent youth and student-led organization for this reason and also because we were encountering resistance from older civil rights organizations when we demanded that police brutality and the criminalization of Black and brown youth be more forefront issues. During this time I was assisting in the organization of Ignite NC, a youth and student led organization in North Carolina.
Some of us connected to this effort traveled to Ohio to march with the Ohio Student Association who were demanding the release of surveillance footage in the case of John Crawford, a Black man who’d been gunned down by police in a Wal-Mart after picking up a BB gun that was sold in the store. We marched 11 miles from the Walmart in Beavercreek, OH where he was killed to the courthouse in Xenia, OH demanding the release of the tapes. Crawford’s death came shortly after Eric Garner was choked to death by NYPD on System Island and just days before Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson, MO, sparking the most significant urban Black uprising since the 1992 LA riots. In response to the events in Ferguson, I ended up joining with other young Black activists in Charlotte, NC to form The Tribe, an organic, grassroots organizing collective. We formed in the recognition that conditions in Missouri resembled the situation in Charlotte–we had our own list of local police brutality victims including Jonathan Ferrell who’d been killed by the cops the previous year–and we wanted to take steps to organize our community to prevent such a moment or to be prepared for such a moment.
Dillahunt: If you could give advice to a young person who wants to get involved but not sure how to, what would you tell them?
Newsome Bass: I often get the question, “how do I become an activist.” The simple answer is that an activist is one who acts, who takes action in furtherance of a cause. I was an activist before I consciously identified as such. I never had ambitions of being an activist, only an ambition to change things for the better. The labels only serve to describe what it is I do. It’s become very hip to identify as an activist–not necessarily a bad thing–but it’s important to not let this word become devoid of meaning. Many of the struggles and movements of the past have been Disney-fied and watered down to focus merely on the tactic of nonviolent protest and to portray the tactic as being the goal itself. That is, the reason for the protests, racial and economic oppression, are erased and glossed over to make it seem like the extent of being an activist is participating in a nonviolent protest. The white power structure continues to find new ways to dilute or subvert the central issue of racism in America. One of its most recent tactics is introducing the notion of “bothsideism” to activism. Every cause qualifies as “activism” and everyone is an “activist” with little time or examination given to what cause folks are actually being an activist for.
We frequently see messaging that nonviolence is about peacefully making space for all ideas to receive equal airtime; an activist for human rights and an activist for white supremacy are both “activists”. This is a deliberate effort to water down the nature and historical reality of Black protest. Nonviolence is not about giving equal airtime to human rights and genocide. It’s a specific position that stands actively–not passively–opposed to racism, militarism and economic exploitation. In response to Black Lives Matter protests penetrating the national consciousness, it became popular to label everyone an “activist”. I say all this to say that it’s important we not allow words to lose meaning which is only possible if we remain perfectly clear what we are advocating for and against. That said, anti-racism activism doesn’t look one way, either.
People seem to think that unless you are doing something as dramatic as scaling a flagpole in South Carolina or staring down police rifles and teargas, you aren’t engaging in activism. In many cases, I’m looking for everyone to do what they’re already doing but applying a new consciousness to their actions. We need teachers in the classrooms who understand the need to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline. We need physicians who are aware of how racism operates in medicine who can commit to dismantling racism in healthcare systems. We need legal minds who can help us mount challenges in the court systems and craft new revolutionary policy ideas. We need conscious social workers and city planners and yes, we need folks who are ready to protest, take to the streets and shut it down when needed. We need all hands on deck and we need everyone to recognize what is at stake in this moment. If you’re trying to find your entry point to the modern movement, I encourage you to identify what issue you’re most passionate about and what talents and skills you want to bring to the fold. Before starting, see if there’s anyone already doing similar work and consider joining up with them so as not to replicate work that’s already being done. If no one is doing what you feel needs to be done, then take it on yourself. Having a community of fellow activists around you is also key to having a network of support and for building collectively.