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Goodbye, Columbus: Bree Newsome Bass on the Movement to Topple Racist Statues Across the Globe

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Image Credit: The Tribe CLT

As protesters worldwide continue to topple monuments to racists, colonizers and Confederates as part of the wave of demonstrations against racism and state violence, we speak to Bree Newsome Bass, artist and antiracist activist based in North Carolina, who five years ago was arrested at the state Capitol in South Carolina after scaling a 30-foot flagpole to remove the Confederate flag. She says the current backlash against racist symbols reflects “impatience with the pace of incremental progress” both in the United States and elsewhere. “People are tired of centuries of colonialism and white supremacist ideology.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we turn to look at how monuments to racists, colonizers and Confederates continue to fall across the United States and around the world.

AIM ACTIVISTS: [cheering]

AMY GOODMAN: That was St. Paul, Minnesota, last Wednesday, when activists with the American Indian Movement tied a rope around a statue of 15th century colonizer Christopher Columbus and pulled it from its pedestal on the state Capitol grounds. The AIM members then held a ceremony over the fallen monument.

This comes as workers in Frankfort, Kentucky, removed a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from the state Capitol building. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has joined other lawmakers demanding the removal of 11 Confederate statues from the National Statuary Hall in the Capitol.

President Trump said he will “not even consider” renaming U.S. Army bases named after Confederate military officers. There are 10 such bases, all of them in Southern states. Trump tweeted, quote, “These Monumental and very Powerful Bases have become part of a Great American Heritage, and a history of Winning, Victory, and Freedom,” unquote. Trump’s tweet contradicts Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair General Mark Milley, who suggested they’re open to a discussion about renaming the bases.

Meanwhile, NASCAR has banned displays of Confederate flags from its events, where the white supremacist symbol has long been a fixture.

All of this comes as police in Albuquerque, New Mexico, have detained several members of an armed right-wing militia after a protester was shot on Monday. The protester has been hospitalized in critical condition. The shooting occurred as protesters tried to topple a statue of Juan de Oñate, a Spanish conqueror who massacred Native Americans 400 years ago. Earlier in the day, another of his statues was removed in another part of New Mexico.

For more, we’re joined by someone who has inspired many of those who are taking action today. It was five years ago, in 2015, when the massacre of nine African American churchgoers by Dylann Roof, who embraced the Confederate flag, renewed protests to remove the flag from the state Capitol grounds in South Carolina. The state lawmakers there had agreed to debate removing the flag, but early on a Saturday morning, after the huge memorial service for the African Americans who were murdered, an African American woman named Bree Newsome, equipped with a helmet and climbing gear, scaled the 30-foot flagpole on the Capitol grounds, unhooked the Confederate flag and said, “You come against me with hatred and oppression and violence. I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today!” Take a listen.

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: When Bree Newsome reached the ground, she was arrested. That was South Carolina five years ago. And we go now to Raleigh, North Carolina, where we’re joined by Bree Newsome Bass now, an artist, an antiracist activist, housing rights advocate, in particular.

Bree, it’s great to have you back on Democracy Now! We were in your jail when you were arraigned with your fellow activists that day, when you pulled down that flag, the day after President Obama was there in Charleston singing “Amazing Grace” and thousands gathered to honor those killed at Mother Emanuel Church. Can you talk about your action then — you were arrested, the flag was put right back up — but now what has happened today?

BREE NEWSOME BASS: Yes, absolutely. And thank you so much for having me back. I so appreciate everything that you all do with this show.

Yes, so, for me, and I think for a lot of people at that time in 2015, not only was it obviously offensive and shocking and horrific to witness the events that happened in Charleston, but it was also offensive to see so much attention and focus be given to the Confederate flag, that had been there on display at the Capitol grounds in South Carolina since the '60s. It was like one of these symbols of the Confederacy that was placed during the civil rights movement to really send a message at the time that the state, that the powers that be in South Carolina, were opposed to the civil rights movement. In the year 2000, they reached a compromise where they moved the flag from the dome of the Capitol to the lawn, where it was at the time that I took it down. And at that point, they wrote into law that the flag couldn't be lowered for any reason unless there was a two-thirds approval in the Statehouse, I mean, making it virtually impossible.

So, then, when we got to that situation in 2015 and we’ve had this horrific, racially motivated killing in Charleston, we had this moment of the pastor of Emanuel AME, Clementa Pinckney — he had his casket processed through the streets of Columbia because he was also a state senator. And they lowered the United States flag, they lowered the state flag of South Carolina, but not the Confederate flag. And just the fact that there was a refusal to even show the slightest bit of regard for the Black lives that were lost there at Emanuel AME just illuminated everything that we had been saying up to that point about the valuing of property over Black life, the fact there’s like so little regard given to this history of violence and given to the realities of racism that we are experiencing today. And so, it was in that spirit that I committed this act of civil disobedience, this deliberately defying basically the white power structure and the powers that be that say that the status quo of racism is acceptable, to the point that we would just leave this symbol of terrorism on display even in the aftermath of what had happened.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Bree, could you have imagined five years ago what the — the movement that is now sweeping, really, not just the United States, but the world, in terms of challenging the existing of mythical figures? Of course, you mentioned that you were inspired by the Rhodes Must Fall campaign at the University of Cape Town, but also now we’re seeing throughout the industrialized world, whether it’s the campaign against Cecil Rhodes, King Leopold in Belgium, the symbols of the Confederacy and the forts, all the U.S. forts named after Confederate generals. Your response to what you’re seeing as this vast movement that has now developed in the last few weeks?

BREE NEWSOME BASS: Well, I just think it’s incredible. And I am certainly proud to be a part of it. I consider myself as stepping into a movement that existed long before I got here. And I wouldn’t be here, I wouldn’t have done what I did in 2015, if I didn’t believe, you know, if I didn’t believe in the power of the people to work together and transform the world.

So, the things that I’m seeing now, I mean, that’s what I fight for. I think that’s what everyone who participates and takes action in social justice movement, that is what we’re fighting for, and that’s what we believe. I think it reflects around the world an impatience with the pace of incremental progress. I think people want transformational change. I think people are tired of centuries of colonialism and white supremacist ideology.

As I mentioned before, I think the taking down of monuments and symbology, specifically, is also about challenging this idea that white property and state property is more valuable than our lives. I mean, that was really the ideology that informed colonialism, that it’s OK to exploit people and lands for profit because profit and property is worth more than lives and natural resources. And so, this groundswell that we’re seeing now around the world is really about rejecting that and about calling for a greater sense of humanity, a greater sense of human citizenship, a call for dignity and for a better future, and a rejection of that kind of ideology of the past.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you, following up on what Juan asked about, the renaming of the 10 Army installations that are named after commanders in the Confederate Army who fought against U.S. troops during the Civil War to preserve slavery.

The Washington Post writes, quote, “Fort Benning in Georgia, the home of Army infantry and airborne training, is named after Brig. Gen. Henry Benning, who led troops at Antietam and Gettysburg. In remarks in 1861 laying out slavery as the reason for secession, Benning that abolition would lead to 'black governors, black legislatures, black juries, black everything. Is it to be supposed that the white race will stand for that?'” he asked. In The Atlantic, retired general and former CIA Director David Petraeus called Benning, quote, “such an enthusiast for slavery that as early as 1849 he argued for the dissolution of the Union and the formation of a Southern slavocracy.”

Meanwhile, Fort Hood in Texas is named for the Confederate General John Bell Hood, who wrote a letter to Union General William Sherman in 1864 that described his conviction that, quote, “negroes” were an “inferior race.” He wrote, “You came into our country with your Army, avowedly for the purpose of subjugating free white men, women, and children, and not only intend to rule over them, but you make negroes your allies, and desire to place over us an inferior race, which we have raised from barbarism to its present position, which is the highest ever attained by that race, in any country, in all time.” Again, that’s General Hood. And it goes on from there.

These are the men that President Trump is now defending over his chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and defense secretary, who are saying we should have a discussion about this, and one general after another saying these names should be removed from these bases.

If you could respond to what they represent? Of course, President Trump started his business career, with his father, being sued by the U.S. government for not allowing African Americans into his housing developments in Queens.

BREE NEWSOME BASS: Yes. So, I think, one, it’s important to recognize and name the ideology of white supremacy, which is exactly what that quote that you read articulates, this idea that the, quote-unquote, “white race” is the superior race and that all other people have been elevated into civilization, you know, as a byproduct of colonialism and slavery, right?

And then, I think there also needs to be an acknowledgment of how mainstream white supremacist ideology is. So, if we’re going to really have this process of removing symbols, of renaming things, I want us to also be careful that we don’t just engage in a surface-level way of going about it — right? — where we just simply change the names, but we don’t address the ideology.

Military bases, for instance, of course, are a major part of United States imperialism. United States imperialism is very much informed by white supremacist ideology. So, when Trump is making this claim that he will never change the Confederate — the names of the bases that are named after Confederates, and people are saying, “Oh, that’s so outrageous,” I think, yes, of course, it is outrageous, but we also need to examine why was it named after a Confederate to begin with. I mean, that clearly indicates how mainstream the ideology of the Confederacy continued to be and continues to be in the United States of America, that we’re still having this debate in 2020.

And then, secondly, like I said, we need to make sure that we are also examining what exactly is white supremacist ideology, because the Confederacy was half of the United States. And I think there tends to be this narrative around the South being uniquely racist, it is only the South that benefited and profited from slavery, it is only the South that continues to uphold white supremacist ideology. This most recent spate of police killings and a lot of the uprisings, these are happening all over the nation. Many of these uprisings are happening in cities where the leadership is Black now, and we even have like Black police chiefs and Black mayors. So we have to dig deeper in really understanding what it means to uproot and root out white supremacist ideology as we go through this process of renaming things and changing symbols.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Bree Newsome, we’re heading, obviously, toward a presidential election in November. You’ve suggested that this year could be the most significant election since the Civil War. Could you explain why? And what are some of your concerns about the election?

BREE NEWSOME BASS: Absolutely. I do think that this is the most consequential election since the Civil War, because I think it’s really addressing the same issues, right? We had the election of the nation’s first Black president, followed by the election of an overt white supremacist, who pretty much ran on a platform of trying to undo the Black presidency and ran on a platform of catering to everyone who felt anxiety around the idea of the changing demographics of America, the idea that America could really be a multiracial democracy.

And that is essentially what not just this election, but this moment is about, because one of the concerns that I have is whether or not we can even have an election. Will we be able to have an election? Will it be free and fair and secure? Are we certain that the Trump administration will vacate office, vacate the White House, vacate these offices, if we vote them out?

Because what we see on the opposite side, what we see in terms of what Trump represents as a movement, is very much white supremacy, white nationalism, this belief that America was made for white people, should only be for white people, and they really see this as a do-or-die moment. And I think it’s important for everyone else to recognize that that is what is at stake. We’ve already seen armed white militiamen storming capitols in America, at the same time that we see the Trump administration sending people without clear insignia, troops that are armed and are not clearly designated, out to the streets in D.C. to face off with anti-police-brutality protesters. So we really need to recognize what is at stake in this moment in terms of facing off both authoritarianism, fascism and white nationalism.

AMY GOODMAN: And before we end, Juan, we just have 30 seconds, but I was wondering if you could comment on the taking down of the statue of Frank Rizzo, the former police chief and mayor of Philadelphia, after it was defaced by protesters.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yes, Amy. Well, that was a long time coming. Frank Rizzo was probably the most racist and most overtly fascist political leader in the modern history of the North of the United States. And I lived in Philadelphia during his period of time as mayor. He personally led police charges when he was commissioner, attacking Black citizens. And his police systematically terrorized the Black community. So, for the Rizzo statue to come down is a real step forward in rewriting the history of Philadelphia.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank Bree Newsome Bass for being with us, artist, antiracist activist and housing rights advocate. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks so much for joining us. Stay safe.

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60 Years After “I Have a Dream”: Gary Younge on MLK’s March on Washington & the Fight for Racial Justice

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