Demonstrators who tore down a Confederate monument in Durham Monday have the support of someone who knows a bit about taking on the symbols of white supremacy: Bree Newsome.
Newsome, who was born in Durham, famously removed a Confederate flag flying above the South Carolina state capitol two years ago. Images of Newsome scaling the flagpole with a climber’s harness spread like wildfire in the wake of the murder of nine people at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Via Twitter, Newsome has been sending messages of support to the activists who on Monday toppled the Main Street statue dedicated “to the boys who wore the gray,” including Takiyah Thompson, an N.C. Central student who was the first of eight (as of Thursday afternoon) to be charged in connection with the demonstration. Monday’s rally was held in response to a violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville over the weekend in which one person, Heather Heyer, was killed when a man linked to a hate group allegedly drove a car into a crowd.
“I think what is different about 2017 versus 2015 is that people are also reacting to Trump’s reaction, or nonreaction, to the events in Charlottesville,” Newsome told the INDY. “You have the events in Charlottesville and folks in Durham taking down a monument, and then by contrast you have Trump seemingly unbothered by the events in Charlottesville.”
Monday’s rally in Durham began with speeches by activists, some of whom had been in Charlottesville over the weekend protesting the Unite the Right rally. Sheriff’s Office personal filmed as demonstrators encircled the monument and Thompson, atop a ladder, secured a yellow rope around it that the crowd then used to pull the statue to the ground.
“I absolutely supported them in that action,” says Newsome, who knows some of the demonstrators from her time as an activist and organizer in Durham.
Like the Confederate flag Newsome lowered in 2015, the statue was protected from removal by a state law. The North Carolina law was signed by Governor Pat McCrory about a month after the Charleston massacre, when a renewed debate over Confederate symbols was still simmering across the country.
“The decision to engage in civil disobedience is challenging not just what the symbol represents but also the laws that are set up to protect it,” Newsome says. “Part of the reason I really support the action that was taken in Durham is because it’s a similar situation in North Carolina. In my view, that is exactly the kind of situation where civil disobedience is used because you can’t simply petition and ask for the monument to be removed.”
The action taken by Durham demonstrators on Monday must be understood in the context of when and why Confederate monuments were erected in America, Newsome says. Most were built at the height of the KKK and Jim Crow laws.
“It’s important to not just talk about, for instance, the Confederate monument being taken down as vandalism in that moment. Yes, literally it’s vandalism, but if you understand the historical context and the history of that monument being erected, then you understand morally why it’s necessary for the monument to come down,” she says.
The monument in Durham was erected in 1924 and dedicated “to the people of Durham County.” According to Fitz Brundage, chair of UNC’s department of history, it’s unique in that it was paid for with county funds, as opposed to money from a private group like United Daughters of the Confederacy. A 1922 Durham Herald story reported that Durham Confederate veterans had asked the state to allocate $5,000 in county tax revenue to purchase it from the McNeel Marble Company, which “mass-produced Confederate memorials,” Brundage says.
The marble pedestal that formed the base of the monument remains in front of a Durham County government building on Main Street that used to serve as the county courthouse.
“Having a monument to the Confederacy outside of the courthouse was intended to send a very clear message to everyone that this was still a white power structure, that the Confederacy may have lost the war, but that white supremacy was still the law of the land in the South,” Newsome says. “So for that reason the law itself is unjust, and that’s part of why we employ civil disobedience is to expose the injustice of the law. I think sometimes people forget Rosa Parks was breaking the law at the time that she refused to give up her seat. That wasn’t her simply making a moral statement, she was in violation of the law.”
Citing Martin Luther King Jr., Newsome says direct nonviolent action like the demonstration in Durham can “force a crisis” that demands a conversation about racism in America in a way that appealing to elected officials to take action can’t, although she says there is a place for both kinds of responses.
“When you really look at how social change has come about, it really is oftentimes people taking more radical direct action that then applies the pressure that is necessary to change the law. That’s why I say it’s kind of a ‘both and,’” she says. “Simply trying to make appeals and petitions, and simply asking for those in power to change an unjust law, that has never, ever resulted in change. It has always required using protest and direct action to apply pressure.”
“Horrifically” and “unfortunately,” adds Newsome, it took “neo-Nazis carrying torches and having these open clashes in the street for people to really acknowledge and have a conversation on a national level about the nature of racism in the country.”
“It’s kind of a similar thing with these Confederate monuments. You have to pull it down to, one, show how easy it is to pull it down and then, in the police response, to show and expose the injustice in the law,” she says. She points to the fact that demonstrators in Durham are facing felony charges for their roles in Monday’s rally, while no arrests have been made in the assault of DeAndre Harris, a twenty-year-old black man beaten by white supremacists in a Charlottesville parking garage over the weekend.
For anyone considering engaging in civil disobedience, Newsome has this advice: “It’s really important that’s its informed by all the possible laws you could be facing, the type of danger you might be putting yourself in, and you should really have an understanding of why you are making that choice.”
Newsome isn’t the only high-profile figure to express support for Durham demonstrators. Singer Solange Knowles called Thompson “my new hero” on Twitter before deleting her account.
From Chelsea Manning, who had been jailed for leaking US Army documents:
And, finally, a shoutout from the organizers of the Women’s March: