Bree Newsome: As SC Lawmakers Debate Removing Confederate Flag, Meet the Activist Who Took It Down

July 06, 2015
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Bree Newsome

arrested June 27 after she scaled the 30-foot flagpole at the South Carolina state Capitol and removed the Confederate flag. She faces three years in prison.

James Tyson

arrested on June 27 as he spotted Bree Newsome while she scaled the 30-foot flagpole at the South Carolina state Capitol and removed the Confederate flag. He and Newsome face three years in prison.

As South Carolina state lawmakers begin debate on whether to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state Capitol in Columbia, we are joined by Bree Newsome, the 30-year-old African-American woman who took down the flag herself. On June 27, 10 days after the Charleston massacre and one day after the funeral for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Newsome scaled the 30-foot flagpole at the state Capitol and took the flag in her hand. "I come against you in the name of God!" Newsome said. "This flag comes down today!" As soon as she reached the ground, she and fellow activist James Tyson were arrested. The protest went viral and was seen around the world. Newsome and Tyson join us to discuss their action in an extended interview.


TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We move south to South Carolina, where state lawmakers are set to begin debate today on whether to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state Capitol in Columbia. Following the massacre of nine African-American worshipers on June 17th in Charleston by suspect Dylann Roof, who embraced the Confederate flag, politicians, including the South Carolina governor, Nikki Haley, and President Obama, have called for the flag’s removal from the Capitol, where it’s flown since 1961.

Well, we spend the rest of the hour bringing you our extended interview with Bree Newsome, the 30-year-old African-American woman who took down the Confederate flag from the South Carolina state Capitol, and James Tyson, who helped her. It was June 27th, 10 days after the Charleston massacre. As funerals for the victims were underway, Newsome scaled the 30-foot flagpole on the state Capitol grounds. Equipped with a helmet and climbing gear, and with Tyson spotting her at the base of the pole, Newsome shimmied to the top and unhooked the Confederate flag.

BREE NEWSOME: You come against me with hatred and oppression and violence. I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today!

AMY GOODMAN: "I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today!" That’s what Bree Newsome said as she held the flag in her hand. As she reached the ground, she and Jimmy Tyson were arrested.

Bree Newsome’s action went viral, was seen around the world. Her bail fund has raised over $125,000. Ava DuVernay, director of the Oscar-nominated film Selma, was among the many to hail her, writing on Twitter, quote, "I hope I get the call to direct the motion picture about a black superhero I admire. Her name is @BreeNewsome."

But within about an hour, workers had raised a new Confederate flag on the Capitol grounds. Later that day, as Confederate flag supporters and antiracist counter-protesters gathered under the newly raised flag in Columbia, Bree Newsome and Jimmy Tyson faced a bond hearing at a nearby jail. They were charged with defacing state property, which can carry three years in prison and a $5,000 fine. About a dozen supporters waited in the lobby of the jail for their release. Democracy Now! was there. I asked Karil Parker and Tamika Lewis about their reaction to Bree Newsome’s protest.

TAMIKA LEWIS: As you can see my glee, it was one of the most liberating and beautiful moments that I have known in all my 25 years of life, besides my daughter being born. To see that flag actually come down and all of the things that it represents being taken down by a strong black woman was one of the greatest symbols—symbolic images that one person could ever witness, I feel, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Why don’t you tell us your name?

KARIL TINAE PARKER: Hi. I’m Karil Parker.

AMY GOODMAN: And you came out here on your own to the detention center?

KARIL TINAE PARKER: I did. I came out here to show my support for Bree, that this is just—this is not her battle alone, that we stand with her. She did what many people have not had the courage to do, and that we are proud of her, that we support her. Whatever she needs, we are here for her. And I wanted her to know that, and that’s why I came. But it doesn’t matter how you feel about whether she should or should not have done it. She did it. It’s done. And it needs to come down. And she has done what our governor hasn’t had the courage to do, what our General Assembly hasn’t had the courage to do. She went up there and did what had to be done, when it needed to be done.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Karil Parker and Tamika Lewis speaking outside the jail in Columbia, South Carolina, June 27th. Bree Newsome and Jimmy Tyson were both released that afternoon after supporters posted the requisite $300 each of their $3,000 bond each.

On Thursday, Bree Newsom and Jimmy Tyson joined me in our Democracy Now! studios here in New York. I started by asking Bree Newsome where she’s from and why she decided to do what she did.

BREE NEWSOME: I come from the South. Like a lot of people, especially a lot of African Americans, my ancestors came through Charleston, a slave market. And so, the Confederate flag is a symbol of, you know, folks trying to kind of hold us into the place of bondage that we had been before and our struggle the past 150 years of trying to come out of that place. And so, it was—I’m sure I was like a lot of people, sitting at home, looking at the flag flying, I mean, wished I could just take that down, you know, but had no idea if it was possible and how possible it would be. I had even contemplated just on my own just attempting to climb it, knowing full well that I wouldn’t make it up the pole, and just let them arrest me, just to make that statement. I mean, that’s how strongly I felt about it. And so, then, when I ended up connecting with other activists there in North Carolina and found out that, you know, there were people who actually did know how to plan for how we could possibly scale the pole—and, you know, there were many roles to fill in the plan, and one of course included needing someone to actually climb up. And, of course, that was a high risk of arrest, we knew. And so, after some prayer and really thinking about it, I decided to volunteer.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re from Charlotte, North Carolina?

BREE NEWSOME: Yes

AMY GOODMAN: So, I mean, it’s more than risking arrest.

BREE NEWSOME: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, there are these Confederate flag rallies—

BREE NEWSOME: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —a lot of guns in South Carolina. Were you fearful? Both people who are not law enforcement and people who are?

BREE NEWSOME: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, the retaliation piece was much scarier to me than arrest. You know, I was even thinking about the possibility of being up on the flagpole, and you never know who might walk by, quite frankly. You know, you could get shot. You just really don’t know, especially when you’re up there and harnessed to the pole. I mean, you’re in a highly vulnerable position. And so, I really did have to, you know, pray on it quite a bit.

But part of why it was so important to me to do that was because, to me, that flag also represents just fear. You know, it’s racial intimidation. It’s fear. These are the same things that they would fly when people were marching for integration. They would be flying that flag, because it’s a sign of intimidation, which is undergirded by violence, and has been undergirded by violence ever since the failure of Reconstruction. And so, you know, that’s part of what Tamika was speaking to: To have a black woman climb up there, whether it was me or someone else, to climb up there and take that down was a strong sign of, you know, we refuse to be ruled by this fear.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Jimmy Tyson, how did you get involved?

JAMES TYSON: Well, I guess I was approached about a week beforehand. And a friend came up to me, and he said, "Hey, I’ve got this scouting report. I think we’re going to do something big." And I was like, "Let me take a look at it." And I was like, "Oh, man." I realized real rapidly. I was like, "Oh, man, this is going to be—this is going to be trouble." You know. But I was like so—I was so game for it. I was like, "Yeah, let’s do this. This is ridiculous." I’m so—like Bree was talking to, like I’m so sick of not only the fear and intimidation that white supremacy brings to our culture, you know, but also just that they didn’t—they wouldn’t even take it down for the funeral. They wouldn’t even lower it to half-mast, you know? is my interpretation. So I was like, "That’s completely unacceptable."

And when given an unjust law like that, it’s really important that we stand up for what’s right, you know, especially being a white person, you know, that maybe has their eyes open. And like, I’m not going to—I’m not going to—I’m going to try to do everything I possibly can, you know, to make sure that justice and equality are served in our country, but also, you know, just in my locality. You know? It’s critically important. It’s critically important that white people actually put some skin in the game, you know, because racism—racism is unacceptable. White supremacy is unacceptable. Hate crimes are unacceptable. You know, we can’t live in this culture anymore.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you from North Carolina?

JAMES TYSON: I am. I’m from Charlotte, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: So, we’re going to talk more about where you come from, but I want to take us—you to take us to that morning. It’s Saturday morning. The funeral for Reverend and State Senator Clementa Pinckney had just taken place. Over 5,000 people were there in Charleston. Were you there, Bree?

BREE NEWSOME: No, I wasn’t. I wasn’t. I did watch the eulogy the night before. In fact, somebody, you know, who knew that I was about to do this, they’re like, "You have to watch this. You have to watch this and, you know, really think on it." And it was just—I was hoping that somehow they would have the dignity to take the flag down before, you know, his casket passed by. But that day just—all the events of that day just further confirmed for me that we had to do this.

AMY GOODMAN: The Alabama governor did, the Republican governor of Alabama—

BREE NEWSOME: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —without ceremony, without saying anything beforehand. The workers came and took the flags down off the Capitol grounds.

BREE NEWSOME: And I feel that’s how it should be done, quite frankly. I don’t think that that symbol deserves the dignity of debate. It doesn’t deserve that. It’s a flag of treason, and it’s a flag of hatred.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to President Obama delivering the eulogy for the Honorable Reverend Clementa Pinckney at the College of Charleston on Friday.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Removing the flag from this state’s Capitol would not be an act of political correctness. It would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers. It would simply be an acknowledgment that the cause for which they fought—the cause of slavery—was wrong. ... By taking down that flag, we express God’s grace.

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Obama on Friday giving the eulogy for Reverend Pinckney, who was the pastor of Mother Emanuel, of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, where nine parishioners, nine churchgoers, were gunned down on June 17th, as the alleged shooter, Dylann Roof, said he wanted to kill black people, according to survivors. And then we saw the manifesto—it’s believed it was written by him—online as he further explained. Bree Newsome, listening to President Obama there, your thoughts, and as you did on Friday before you started your climb?

BREE NEWSOME: Yeah, just absolutely spot on. And I think that’s why it was so moving to people. I mean, you know, one of the things that was so tough about the immediate aftermath of the massacre was not just the violence itself, but the apparent, like, obfuscation about what had actually just happened, that it was a terrorist attack. You know, there were a lot of things being thrown out. Yes, it’s an issue of gun violence. You know, yes, it’s an issue of, you know, the church being targeted. But it’s specifically a black church. And I think it’s important that we not remove it from the historical context, like really understand what that means. This exists in a long line of terrorist attacks against African Americans in this country. That’s what domestic terrorism looks like in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, there is much more of Bree Newsome and Jimmy Tyson when we come back.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Bree Newsome singing "#StayStrong: A Love Song to Freedom Fighters," which she’ll be singing live on Democracy Now! in a moment. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our conversation with Bree Newsome, who brought down the Confederate flag from the South Carolina state Capitol 10 days after the Charleston massacre. We also speak with Jimmy Tyson, who helped her. I asked Bree about her recent retweet of Talib Kweli’s quotation saying "CVS gets burned down. Every news outlet shows up. 7 black churches burned, 1 ... burning right now. Silence."

BREE NEWSOME: We’ve seen like when there was, you know, an uprising in Baltimore and a CVS burned, or a QuikTrip burned in Ferguson, I see tons of outrage of, you know, "How can you do this?" and "It’s horrible that they did that." But then we have like this series—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we see the building at every single angle as it burned.

BREE NEWSOME: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Yeah, every single angle, you know. But then all these black churches can burn, and it completely kind of goes under radar. Well, why is that? You know what I mean? But so often these events happen, and we remove them from any kind of context. And so, you know, if—maybe the CVS burning does look like a, you know, really horrible thing, but you’re not considering that this is a business that exists within an oppressed neighborhood where the people own nothing. They don’t really benefit a whole lot from this economic situation. They’ve been protesting for a long time, and they’ve gone unheard. And then you have all these black churches that are historically targeted because they are centers of black organization, and that’s important to understand.

AMY GOODMAN: So, President Obama says, "By taking down that flag, we express God’s grace." So, take us to Saturday, June 27th, about 15 hours after President Obama gave that eulogy.

BREE NEWSOME: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, so not everybody that came together to do this action is coming from that Christian perspective. But, for me personally, absolutely 100 percent, I mean, I do believe that all men are created equal, with inalienable rights endowed by our creator, absolutely. And that flag is an affront to that value. And for people who, you know, think that there’s some kind of confusion about that, you can go back and read what was written by the people who created the Confederacy. They make it very clear that they seceded because they disagreed with that precept behind the Constitution. They don’t believe that all people are created equal.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you come up on the Columbia state Capitol grounds. What time was it in the morning?

BREE NEWSOME: It was about 5:30 that we were ready to go. And then we had some folks—

AMY GOODMAN: Were there any guards around the flag?

BREE NEWSOME: Yes, there were guards—yeah, there were guards around in the morning, and so we had some people, you know, looking out to kind of give us the clear. And it was probably about 6:00 by the time we got the clear and we were able to deploy.

AMY GOODMAN: And there were no guards there.

BREE NEWSOME: No, not at the moment that we made it over.

AMY GOODMAN: You hopped the fence?

BREE NEWSOME: Yes, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you have to go inside the fence grounds also?

JAMES TYSON: Oh, yeah, yeah. I helped her over the fence, and then I climbed over. And then I helped her get her gear onto the pole.

BREE NEWSOME: Yeah.

JAMES TYSON: And, you know, basically what I was doing at that point, we knew that we needed to get her high enough above the ground before the guards would come out, that she wouldn’t be able to just be pulled right off. And so that was the primary focus at that point.

BREE NEWSOME: Yeah.

JAMES TYSON: And once she was up, I just started scanning and waiting for the cops, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: How long did it take, Bree?

BREE NEWSOME: To scale all the way to the top?

AMY GOODMAN: Yeah.

BREE NEWSOME: I think about 10 minutes.

AMY GOODMAN: And how long did the guard—take for the guards to notice?

BREE NEWSOME: Maybe within five minutes.

JAMES TYSON: Three to five.

BREE NEWSOME: Maybe less than that, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: So, had you ever climbed a flagpole before?

BREE NEWSOME: No, I had never climbed a flagpole until two days before.

AMY GOODMAN: Was it hard?

BREE NEWSOME: The very first attempt was hard. By the time I was going, and probably helped with adrenaline, it didn’t seem hard.

AMY GOODMAN: So you practiced two days before.

BREE NEWSOME: Yes, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: So this is 30 feet high, this flagpole.

BREE NEWSOME: Yes, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: You made your way to the top. And what did you do then?

BREE NEWSOME: First of all, I was just relieved at how simple it was to just unhook it, because our intention was not to cause property damage. We were really trying to do as little disturbance, beyond, you know, simply removing the flag, as possible, and so I was just so glad to see that all I had to do was just unhook it. From there, it was just, you know, amazing.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I’m going to play the clip, as you’re coming down.

BREE NEWSOME: Sure.

AMY GOODMAN: The police officers are telling you to get down. This is Bree Newsome on the flagpole, taking down the Confederate flag that has flown on the flagpole, either there, from 2000, or on the top of the state Capitol, from 1961, I think it was.

BREE NEWSOME: You come against me with hatred and oppression and violence. I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today!

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us what it is you were saying as you were holding the Confederate flag on your way down.

BREE NEWSOME: Well, I was kind of having a bit of a back-and-forth with the police officer, who was basically just scolding me for having broken the law and, you know, for having done the wrong thing. And, you know, in the long history of social justice, freedom fighters were always blamed for stirring the trouble up, because, you know, the problem’s not there until we acknowledge it. And, you know, I was just having the conversation with him that, yeah, you know, I came prepared to be arrested. I mainly just wanted to let them know that there wasn’t going to be any escalation. I didn’t want to escalate the situation at all.

AMY GOODMAN: Had they taken you by now?

JAMES TYSON: No, they actually—I told them—I told them that I was not—first, I said, "I’m not going to leave until Bree is safely off the pole. The safest way to get her off the pole is to allow her to descend via her own volition." And so, it wasn’t until after she was down that I was actually placed in cuffs. They had enough respect to allow me to help her.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did you say as you were coming down? What was the prayer that you cited?

BREE NEWSOME: Well, there was one point at which the officer told me that, you know, I was doing the wrong thing. And so, you know, I quoted from Isaiah: "What kind of fast have I chosen? Is it not to break the yoke of oppression?" So, I felt in no way that I was doing the wrong thing. Yes, I broke the law, but laws can also be unjust. And I feel that the law that protects that symbol of hate is an unjust law. The fact that, you know, the people who are elected in office who want to take it down are obligated by law to debate over whether or not they can take it down is unjust. And so, I was just being very clear about that. And I was also just praying a prayer of protection over myself. Fortunately, the police were very professional with me. But, you know, that was something else to consider, that there was some danger.

AMY GOODMAN: You said, as we try to make it out, as you came down, in the film, "You come against me with hatred"?

BREE NEWSOME: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you repeat what you said?

BREE NEWSOME: Yes. I said, "You come against me with hatred and oppression and violence. I come against you in the name of God." And that was—in one of those nights where I was pondering, "Have I completely lost my mind in doing this?" I read the story of David and Goliath. And David says to Goliath, you know, "You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, and I come against you in the name of the lord." And that, for me, as a black woman in America, I mean, that’s what that moment—that’s what that moment felt like, because I come from a historically completely disempowered place. And so, I think that’s why it was so powerful to a lot of people, especially to black women, to see me up there holding that flag in that way.

AMY GOODMAN: You said, "I come against you in the name of God."

BREE NEWSOME: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And then?

BREE NEWSOME: "This flag comes down today."

AMY GOODMAN: And how did that feel to say that?

BREE NEWSOME: Amazing. Just amazing on a personal level at that point, and then, just in the aftermath, to see what it meant to so many people, because I think a moment like that, it’s not just about that Confederate flag, it’s really about like every person who has been oppressed, you know, kind of like taking a stand against any kind of symbol of oppression.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, you came down. The police officers handcuffed you and arrested you. There were black and white officers, is that right?

BREE NEWSOME: Mm-hmm, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And it was a black officer who walked away with you.

BREE NEWSOME: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you have a conversation with him as you walked?

BREE NEWSOME: Well, I was praying as I walked away. And then he asked me, you know, "Why do you feel that the holy spirit led you to do this?" And I was quite frank with him. I mean, because that’s how I felt. I mean, people come from all different types of spiritual traditions and things that motivate them. But, for me, it’s a calling as a human being, it’s a calling as a child of God, to fight on behalf of the oppressed.

AMY GOODMAN: We got there a little while later, so I didn’t see the flag put back up, but within an hour, it was. And the reports are it was put up by African-American officers.

BREE NEWSOME: Mm-hmm, yeah. And, I mean, and that’s a powerful statement, as well, you know. And I’m not sure if—I don’t think they had to climb the pole to put it back up, did they?

JAMES TYSON: No.

BREE NEWSOME: The only image I’ve seen is of them on the ground, yeah. And so, again, it’s like this black person who works for the state is required to lift this flag up because of a law that was put in place by a racist Legislature in the 1960s to oppose integration. I mean, you can write a million think pieces on that.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to one of the people who rallied in support of the Confederate flag at the Capitol on Saturday while our guests, Bree Newsome and Jimmy Tyson, were in jail. This is William Wells.

WILLIAM WELLS: My name is William Wells. And I’m flying this flag for the people who died, all of the people who died, anybody who died for this flag, period. Period. It ain’t got nothing to do with black, white, love, hate, nothing.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you opposed to slavery?

WILLIAM WELLS: Hell yeah, I’m opposed to slavery. That wasn’t cool either.

AMY GOODMAN: So what does this flag means you?

WILLIAM WELLS: This means the 13 original colonies wanted to stay out of the United States government.

AMY GOODMAN: That was William Wells, holding—wrapped in the Confederate flag. He was standing next to, on the Confederate Monument, Brailey Johnson, who was holding up a sign that said "honk this flag down," a young Africa-American student from the University of South Carolina. Your response to William Wells?

BREE NEWSOME: I mean, quite frankly—and I said this in the statement that I released—so, like, one of the problems that we have in the United States is we’re not the best when it comes to educating our children on the history. You know, the Confederacy is a Southern thing, but white supremacy is not. And so, while the Confederacy was defeated in the Civil War, when Reconstruction fell apart and there was the imposition of Jim Crow, the North largely turned a blind eye to it, because the North has an issue of racism, as well. And so, I mean, you see that kind of playing out today, where here we are in 2015 and we’re debating what the Civil War was about. And it’s really pretty astounding, I mean, when you think about the United States went to war with itself over the issue of slavery, and more Americans have died in that war than any other, and we still have people who are not entirely clear on what the Confederate flag represents.

AMY GOODMAN: And your thoughts on people saying you should have waited for the debate? It looks like there are enough South Carolina legislators, though it was not clear on Saturday, not even clear right now, to have I think it’s the two-thirds majority needed to take down this flag. But you made a different decision.

BREE NEWSOME: Yeah, because, like I said, again, why is the debate required? The debate is required because of a law that was put in place by a racist, all-white Legislature in this '60s. And so, that's why I felt like it was a powerful statement to have the people go and take it down, because it’s—you know, we’re drawing that attention not just to the Confederate flag, not just to that symbol, but to the brokenness of the system itself. I mean, when we’re talking about white supremacy, it’s not just about a flag, and it’s not just about a symbol. It’s about how these things are ingrained in our institutions, as best exemplified by the fact that we have to have a debate over whether or not we can take a flag down. And the flag is flying over Reverend Clementa Pinckney’s casket as he’s, you know, being laid in state, a statesman, a civil rights person who was assassinated. I mean, it’s really—it’s really astounding when you take a step back and really look at it objectively. It’s really, really astounding.

AMY GOODMAN: Now take us to the detention center, just down the road, where you were held for a number of hours, and what happened there.

BREE NEWSOME: Well, we were pretty much heroes, to be quite frank with you. And, I mean, I think that was the other scenario that we had to consider, was not knowing what the reaction might be, you know, in jail or what the treatment might be. But quite frankly, the feeling I got from everybody was that everybody is ready for it to come down. I think that it’s really—

AMY GOODMAN: When you say "heroes," among who?

BREE NEWSOME: Among the guards, among other people who were in handcuffs for various reasons. One thing that we were all in agreement with is that the flag needed to come down, and they were glad that we had done that.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you came before an African-American woman judge.

BREE NEWSOME: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

AMY GOODMAN: You were in a caged-in area. A few of us reporters were allowed in, and we saw you through the cage. But there was an opening, almost like a bank teller’s area, for you to stand and directly look at the judge and state your name and address. Your feelings then, as she read the charge that you had defaced public property?

BREE NEWSOME: Yeah, I mean, you know, so this is not the first time that I’ve been arrested for protesting. And my feeling this time was the same as the first time. It’s like, you know, when you feel like you have really done nothing wrong, the bars and the handcuffs and all the other thing, I mean, it doesn’t faze me, because there’s no shame in what—there’s no shame in what I did. You know, I’m simply going through the motions that the system says I must go through. But seriously, like if you take a step back, what I did was I unhooked a flag from a post and brought it down and handed it to the police officers. So, I mean, everyone who I interacted with in jail was very professional, and it was fine. I mean, I wasn’t overly concerned.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, we did hear, when Dylann Roof was taken to jail, they went out and got him Burger King.

BREE NEWSOME: Mm-hmm.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you get anything like that—

JAMES TYSON: No.

AMY GOODMAN: —while you were held?

JAMES TYSON: No, we didn’t get any Burger King.

BREE NEWSOME: No. And I was—actually, somebody asked me about that on Twitter last night, and I was saying, you know, I didn’t know that peanut butter and jelly could be bad until I had jail peanut butter and jelly. And I was like pretty amazed. So, no, we just stuck through it for a while.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, the judge could have given—let you out on your own recognizance, but she didn’t. She set the bond at $3,000 each for you and said you had to pay up 10 percent. What were your thoughts about that? Even the solicitor had said you should get out on PR, personal recognizance.

BREE NEWSOME: Yeah, I don’t—everyone around us seemed to be surprised. I thought it could have been for a few reasons. It could have been because we were from Charlotte. You know, it could have been that they were probably like really trying to dissuade people from, you know, following in our footsteps. But yeah, I was assuming that we would be released on our own recognizance, as well.

JAMES TYSON: She was also a new judge.

BREE NEWSOME: Yeah.

JAMES TYSON: You know, so she can’t appear lenient, especially being an African-American female, that like lets the African-American woman who took down the Confederate flag go scot-free, in a certain way. You know, it’s like that could be really misconstrued for her personal career. So I understand it, and I actually don’t have a problem with it at all, especially being out of state. It’s reasonable to maybe assume that we could, you know, duck our charges. But we’re obviously not going to.

AMY GOODMAN: So, who paid the bond?

BREE NEWSOME: My lawyer did.

AMY GOODMAN: We heard a lot of people were saying they would pay that $300 for you each.

BREE NEWSOME: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: You tweeted—Bree, you’re a big tweeter, and you tweeted, "I’ve already spent more time in jail for unhooking a Confederate flag from its post than the cop who assaulted a girl in McKinney."

BREE NEWSOME: Yeah, fact, absolute fact. I mean, and that’s part of the thing, is like, so, we all saw me on camera unhook the Confederate flag. I was arrested immediately. We’ve also seen on camera a cop assault a child that a pool party. He has yet to be arrested. Why is that? I mean, I think that speaks to the larger issue of systemic racism, of bias, of all of those things, I mean, and, even on a more fundamental level, the tendency in our society to place more value on property than on the lives of people.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you have to go back to Columbia, South Carolina, July 27th. That was the date that was set. Is this a trial? Is this an arraignment?

JAMES TYSON: First appearance, that’s all.

AMY GOODMAN: And what are your plans?

JAMES TYSON: I actually am—in a certain way, I’m anticipating that these charges might disappear before then, because it’s quite possible the flag could come down, you know, could come down between now and then.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll come back to Jimmy Tyson and Bree Newsome in 30 seconds.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: "Strange Fruit," Nina Simone. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our conversation with Bree Newsome, who scaled the flagpole and took down the Confederate flag from the grounds of the South Carolina state Capitol, and Jimmy Tyson, who helped her. I asked Bree about the potential penalty they each face—$5,000 fine and three years in jail each.

BREE NEWSOME: You know, defacing state property, which I maintain my innocence of that, because, as I said, all I did was unhook a flag, and it was restored to its original condition in 45 minutes.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s my understanding that that heavy fine and sentence for that act came from 2000, the compromise to bring the flag, the Confederate flag, down from off the Capitol and next to the monument, that part of that compromise was to up the penalty against anyone who would deface the flag, if you want to call it "deface."

BREE NEWSOME: And again, I mean, it’s pretty amazing, when you look at it, how much more protection is placed around this flag of treason and this symbol of hate than even the United States, the flag of the United States of America. I mean, it’s really time—you know, I think it’s just a moment of us all to kind of do a value check.

JAMES TYSON: It’s a dull moment.

BREE NEWSOME: You know?

JAMES TYSON: It’s definitely a dull moment.

BREE NEWSOME: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Bree, you also tweeted, "Folks keep asking what I plan to do next. Same thing I was already doing: organizing my community toward self-sufficiency & empowerment."

BREE NEWSOME: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Which brings us to the movement you come out of and the groups that you’re a part of in North Carolina. Can you talk about what inspires you, the people you work with?

BREE NEWSOME: Yeah, certainly. So, in North Carolina, I got—well, even before North Carolina, I had marched with Occupy some. And then, in North Carolina, I got involved with the Moral Monday movement around voting rights. I’ve done some work with Ignite North Carolina, which is organizing student leaders on campus. I’ve been involved in the Raise Up campaign, helping fast-food workers unionize and raise wages. And then I’m also with a very grassroots, very organic group called The Tribe in Charlotte. And this is seriously just community members—a lot of people are teachers, some artists—just coming together and really trying to—when I say like, you know, develop self-sufficiency, helping our community to be in a place where we’re not so dependent on systems that don’t value our lives. You know, like how it is right now is like we’re so dependent on institutions and systems that were really not designed for us. And so, we’re really trying to work to empower people in their everyday lives and to address their immediate needs.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you come up with the name, The Tribe?

BREE NEWSOME: It just happened. Like we just kind of drew together—actually, right in the aftermath of Ferguson, we held a rally in Charlotte in solidarity with Ferguson. And after that, we felt like, you know, let’s get together, and let’s just talk. And we ended up calling ourselves The Tribe because so many of us had been in so many other kind of like activist spaces and doing types of things, and it was like, "Oh, we finally found each other. And who would have thought, you know, in this place of all places?"

AMY GOODMAN: Jimmy—

JAMES TYSON: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —what you’ve been involved with?

JAMES TYSON: Yeah, certainly. So, most recently, Moral Monday stuff in North Carolina. I mean, we have a radical Legislature right now, and it’s really running the state into the ground in a lot of ways, unfortunately.

AMY GOODMAN: That Reverend Barber is heading up.

JAMES TYSON: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. But mainly, I mean, what I’ve been doing is I’ve been working in the grassroots for about the last five years as an unpaid organizer, doing actions like this, you know? Most of them never get nearly as much media attention, but that would be the idea, you know? And we’ve been working specifically within our communities. I work with a group called Charlotte Environmental Action, and me and a handful of other people helped start it. And, you know, I’d like to think that it’s like—you know, it’s done good in our community, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: And, Bree, you’re also involved with—I interviewed the head of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg NAACP, and she talked about you being the chair of social media there?

BREE NEWSOME: Yes, yes. So I just joined up with the local NAACP chapter. Corine Mack is her name. And she’s really committed to doing more activism and like on-the-ground work, which I believe in, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: The response that you’ve gotten, I mean, the video went viral all over the world. What is it you think you’ve tapped into?

BREE NEWSOME: I think that a lot of people were really feeling disheartened. If they were like me, I know that there was just something that just like really punched me in the gut, especially specifically after the massacre, because it just felt like, "Oh, my gosh, like are we—we’re still back here relitigating the Civil War."

AMY GOODMAN: Where were you when you heard about the massacre?

BREE NEWSOME: I was there in Charlotte. I heard about it shortly after it was breaking news. And that was just like a really just awful sleepless night between me finding out about it and the morning, when I knew like most of America would find out about it.

AMY GOODMAN: And did you find yourself resolving something then?

BREE NEWSOME: Well, I mean, I had a crisis of faith, quite honestly. I mean, you know, I’ve been doing this, this work, for a few years now, and for the most part, especially things around like civil rights, a lot of things have felt commemorative. You know, like, yes, we’re still—we’re still fighting over things with voting rights, we’re still—but for the most part it felt like things like, you know, 16th Street Baptist Church, the assassination of our leaders. Those things felt like things in the past. But Wednesday night, it became very real. You know, that was a moment where I really had to think I could die, I could die for doing this work, and am I prepared to do that? And, you know, I called my sister at 3:00 in the morning and talked with her, talked with her about it. And I had to come back to a point of like, yeah, I’m willing to die if I have to.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve been called Rosa Parks, the new Rosa Parks, who also was a member of an AME church.

BREE NEWSOME: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

AMY GOODMAN: As was Frederick Douglass. What are your thoughts about that? In the case of Rosa Parks, so many people know her name and talked about that tired seamstress who sat down on the bus. But she was a longtime organizer, right? She was secretary of the local NAACP. How do you feel to be compared to Rosa Parks?

BREE NEWSOME: I mean, I think it’s amazing. I don’t know what else to say. I mean, I don’t feel like—but I don’t know if I ever could. You know what I mean? Rosa Parks probably didn’t feel like Rosa Parks. Rosa Parks was probably thinking, you know, "I’m an organizer doing what organizers do."

AMY GOODMAN: Now, I don’t know if she could sing like you, but how did you get involved with singing?

BREE NEWSOME: Well, that’s actually where I started out. I mean, I started out as an artist like from the time I was a child. I loved being an artist. I had not expected social justice to be a part—such a big part of my life, but it ended up being my calling.

AMY GOODMAN: Would you like to perform anything right here a cappella?

BREE NEWSOME: Sure.

JAMES TYSON: Let’s hear it. Let’s hear it.

BREE NEWSOME: [singing] We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes
Until the killing of a black man, a black mother’s son
Is as important as a white man, a white mother’s son
We who believe in freedom, we cannot rest until it comes.

AMY GOODMAN: Sweet Honey in the Rock.

BREE NEWSOME: Yes, yes, absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: Would you like to share something else with us?

BREE NEWSOME: I don’t know what else I have to share.

AMY GOODMAN: We have been playing—since this happened, we’ve been playing a kind of rap that you do.

BREE NEWSOME: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about that song.

BREE NEWSOME: Yeah, so that one—I wrote that right in the aftermath of Ferguson, which was another moment kind of like the Charleston massacre, where it was like, "Oh, wow!" You know, having been involved in the movement from the time of like Trayvon Martin and all of that, again, we had not faced tanks and tear gas or anything like that, so Ferguson was the first time that that kind of took it to another level in terms of what we might be facing as we continue down this road of challenging racism in our system. And so, I wanted to write something in response to that. And I decided to do "#StayStrong" as just kind of like a song of encouragement to all the other freedom fighters out there. And that was pretty much the motivation.

AMY GOODMAN: Could you perform it for us here?

BREE NEWSOME: Yeah. Like a cappella?

AMY GOODMAN: Yeah.

BREE NEWSOME: Sure.
Weighing heavy on my mind
Tryna find that word to define how I feel
Cause every time I recline
Something goes down to remind me the dream ain’t real
And it’s jolting to me
to realize all the lies
it’s insulting to me
But that’s the burden of the young, black and gifted
tryna stay lifted
in a world that keeps us stinted
just cause we pigmented
They say go be exceptional
and professional
but them khakis can’t fix
what is institutional
So we say bump it
Cause we ain’t got no time for no summit
They tryna wipe us out
cause they don’t want no real republic
and when we broach the subject
they try to deflect
Drag a name through the mud
they ain’t got no respect
and yet
you want me to respect authority
It don’t make you right just cause you majority
Y’all be quoting King while you pushing a button
to drop some bombs on some babies like you ain’t doing nothing
that’s why you aint got no jurisdiction with me
can’t handcuff knowledge, so Ms. Bree stay free
I went through college, in the hood I be
spreading love to my brothers and my sister I keep.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Bree Newsome, "#StayStrong: A Love Song to Freedom Fighters."

BREE NEWSOME: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about art in resistance.

BREE NEWSOME: Oh, yeah, strong history there. Like, I just—I love to be in that tradition, because artists are such a big part, and always have been, of times like this. And that’s why I love seeing the art that was inspired by the moment. Like it’s just been amazing, because, you know, things happen, and people react to it, and artists have the ability to really kind of like interpret that moment, you know, for the people in a way that we can then digest and discuss with each other. And it’s—yeah, absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: You said people quoting King and dropping bombs.

BREE NEWSOME: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Who are you referring to?

BREE NEWSOME: Well, especially in the aftermath of Ferguson, you know, there was a lot of "What would Dr. King have—how would Dr. King feel about you rabble-rousers in the street?" you know, specifically to like the young people who were out in the street after Ferguson. And I just find that so completely odious and offensive, because a lot of times what people—when people call for peace, what they’re really just calling for is order. What they’re really calling for is just for people to go back to business as usual, which is actually violence. You know, people think that violence is only when something is on fire, only when a gun is being fired. But, you know, Gandhi himself said poverty is the worst form of violence. Poverty is violence. Our kids being shuffled from schools into prison is violence. Kids being hungry is violence. These are all—we live with violence every single day. The violence doesn’t begin just when the CVS is burned.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s next for you, and for you, Jimmy?

BREE NEWSOME: Well, next, I plan to go right back to what I was doing, which is organizing in my community. I’m probably going to do a music video for this song now, since everybody’s noticed it. I would love to do something like that and really pull the kids in my community into that. But yeah, we’re just really—I think a lot of people have been activated. A lot of people want to get involved in the movement. And as an organizer, what I do is I see what skills and talents people have to offer, and I try to plug us all in, in a way that we can work together.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you consider yourself an active member of the Black Lives Matter movement?

BREE NEWSOME: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Jimmy, your plans now?

JAMES TYSON: Yeah, yeah. So, I mean, the first thing I need to do is go back home and take care of my animals. I’ve got a lot of them there, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: On your farm?

JAMES TYSON: Yeah. And, you know, just being a steward for the land, first and foremost, of my family land, is the most important thing to me. But beyond that, yes, absolutely, going back to the community, organizing, you know, putting boots on the ground, that’s probably the very next steps, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: But July 27th, you have a date in Columbia, South Carolina. Would you like to take us out with a song?

BREE NEWSOME: Oh, so much pressure. I’ll do the last verse. How about that? Does that work?

Brown as mahogany
Dreaming what he wanna be
hoping that he gonna be
surviving all this gunnery
So much of his time goes to dodging bullets
And half of the time it was a cop that pulled it
It’s real
It’s hard to know your country never loved you
living like occupied people in the gulf do
Black bodies used up and tossed aside
and when emancipation came, then they broke out the stripes
Now they tryna lock us up and lock us out for life
and they be tryna block us every time we demand rights
Cuz America be fronting as the land of the free
While it’s locking up reporters and suppressing our speech
But we gon keep on speaking,
we’re standing on the freedom side
the light we’re beaming
will shine a light on all the lies
and we ain’t leaving
til every child can sleep at night
and wake up in the dawn
feeling strong
in her human rights.

AMY GOODMAN: "#StayStrong: A Love Song to Freedom Fighters." Bree Newsome and Jimmy Tyson. Bree scaled the flagpole on the South Carolina state Capitol grounds and took down the Confederate flag, saying, "In the name of God, this flag comes down today." Well, today, nine days later, South Carolina lawmakers will begin debating whether to remove that flag.


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