She’s been called a cross between Rosa Parks and Spiderwoman. On June 27, 10 days after the massacre in Charleston and after days of debate about whether the confederate flag belonged at the South Carolina State Capitol, Bree Newsome decided it didn’t. She strapped on climbing gear, scaled a 30-foot flagpole on the capitol grounds, and took the flag down.
She was arrested as she came down, and charged with defacing monuments on state capitol grounds. She’s now out on $3,000 bond, awaiting trial. In the meantime, she became an instant online folk hero. But Newsome, who carefully planned her act of civil disobedience with a group of fellow activists–and calls it an act of “collective courage”–isn’t looking for credit. After the hate-fueled killing in Charleston, she just felt that something had to be done. And though people had been calling for the flag to come off state property since it went up in 1938, she couldn’t wait any longer. The time was right.
“The fact is people have been pushing for the flag to be taken down since the beginning,” she says. “But white supremacy is a part of our culture. It’s taken this long for the culture to progress in such a way that you have enough people who are on the side of taking it down to make it actually happen. And for a long time, these racist policies and cultural practices that we have have been undergirded by violence, by the type of violence that we saw at the Charleston massacre. And so people have been afraid to do it–I was afraid to do it, because we could face possible retaliation for something like this.”
Newsome spent two full days training for the climb with the help of fellow activists, driving from parking lot to parking lot looking for poles to practice on. It was her first foray into climbing anything.
“The most nerve-wracking part was getting 15 feet up the flagpole itself,” she says. “I knew that once I got about 15 feet up I was good to go, that’s about as high as I needed to get to be out of reach from someone grabbing my leg or pulling me down. Of course it was still a bit scary when I was up there because I was in such a vulnerable position. Getting arrested was actually a lot less of a concern to me than the possibility of a vigilante coming by with a gun or something like that.”
She took courage from thinking about civil rights activists of the past, like the Freedom Riders. “Obviously some people were killed,” she says. “That was a fact of the movement. But had they not been willing to put themselves on the line like that, we wouldn’t be where we are today. I just feel that it’s something that you kind of have to accept when you decide to step up to that role.”
As she reached the flag, she says she didn’t fully grasp the impact her action would have. “I really didn’t recognize the history of the moment in the moment, to be quite honest with you. It really felt like a big powerful achievement of people coming together to do this specific action. Then once I was down and I saw the reaction from so many people, it was really amazing.”
To any who still question whether the Confederate flag can simply be a symbol of “Southern pride,” Newsome says there’s no doubt about its history. “The flag is a symbol of hatred, racial intimidation,” she says. “It’s a symbol of the Confederacy which seceded from the United States because they opposed equal rights for black people. That’s the simple fact of it. And then in the aftermath of the Civil War, during the years of Jim Crow, it was a symbol of white power. You go back and you look at photos of people marching in the civil rights movement, the counter protesters, they’re holding up confederate flags.”
Now that so many have been galvanized by watching her scale the flagpole, Newsome hopes they’ll act themselves. “I’m really hoping that people take that inspiration and motivation and channel it into their local communities,” she says. “Because I really believe that in order for these changes to happen in our culture nationally, it’s going to require all of us kind of working locally to make changes in our own backyards.”