Last Wednesday, freedom fighter Bree Newsome visited the UW campus to lead a workshop and keynote speech to UW students.
Newsome’s workshop and speech both centered around the idea of direct action: use of strikes, demonstrations or other public forms of protest rather than negotiation to achieve one’s demands.
While Newsome began work with the movement for black lives in 2013 following the death of unarmed Black teen Trayvon Martin, she is best known for her daunting act in June of 2015 of climbing a 30-foot pole to seize the Confederate flag that waved in the wind, despite the mass killing of nine Black people by a white supremacist in the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina days prior.
“I had no intention or plan for getting arrested at that time, but I determined that the action to take down the flag was a cause that I definitely would risk being arrested again. A sense of shock and demoralization had overtaken the movement. As photos surfaced of Dylan Roof burning the American flag while waving the Confederate flag, there was renewed sense of outrage over the state’s continued endorsement of this hate symbol,” said Newsome.
Newsome entered the workshop room casually, engaging in conversation so fluidly with students that if you didn’t know who she was, you would’ve mistaken her for another attendee: wearing an afro, black Africa-shaped earrings, blue jeans, black nikes and a black sweater. Yet, upon coming to the front of the room, there was no mistaking the amount of power she had claimed for herself, nor her humbleness.
“I’ve been praised a lot for my courage, but I want to point out courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the belief in something greater than that fear and the determination to fight for it. I faced tremendous fear when I climbed the flagpole in South Carolina,” said Newsome.
Now a little over a year since the Charleston Massacre, Newsome travels to different universities to further expand her passion and skill for organizing, especially in assisting younger people in finding their own way to organize and create change.
“There’s usually a moment in a person’s life that shifts their awareness or sparks them towards activism whether it’s becoming aware of an injustice, or just a moment where something you thought was true was challenged and you realized your perception was incorrect,” said Newsome.
Over a year since the Charleston Massacre and Newsome has used her newly expanded platform to continue in the fight for black lives, traveling, organizing and protesting. Yet, even she admits falling victim to the exhaustion and mental fatigue that comes with fighting for black liberation.
“When I talk about staying grounded a lot of that is reminding myself I’m not the first person to join this struggle; I’m not the only person doing this,and that keeps me going too, staying mindful that there are hundreds, millions of people doing this work. You’re not in it by yourself,” Newsome said. “The only thing that will sustain us is the proactive work of dismantling the current system of oppression and exploitation in favor of systems, laws and ways of being that both affirm human rights and respect the living earth.”