While Bree Newsome sat in jail, the world learned her name. And gave her some new ones: “Hero.” “Badass.” “An Inspiration.”
After the hate-fueled killing of nine black churchgoers and a week of debate about the Confederate flag’s presence at the South Carolina statehouse grounds, this 30-year-old woman took matters into her own hands. She woke up before dawn, strapped on climbing equipment and scaled a 30-foot flagpole. By the time the flag was in her hands, she knew she would be arrested.
“We removed the flag today because we can’t wait any longer. We can’t continue like this another day,” Newsome said in an e-mail statement written before her arrest.
Although she was assisted by another activist from North Carolina, James Tyson, it was Newsome’s name that went viral.
She was referred to as an unidentified “woman” or “activist” only in headlines. Her established online presence as an artist and activist made her easily identifiable to hordes of supporters who wanted to give her Facebook shout-outs or contribute to her $3,000 bond. #FreeBree trended nationwide on Twitter.
Newsome has landed a misdemeanor charge that could end in a fine of up to $5,000 and/or up to five years in prison. With it came celebrity admirers, tens of thousands of Twitter followers, more than $100,000 in donations and at least one superhero cartoon.
Newsome grew up in Maryland, where she went by Brittany. At Oakland Mills High School in Columbia, she served as class president for three years, and was elected student body president her senior year, according to the Baltimore Sun.
She is the daughter of Clarence G. Newsome, the longtime dean of the religious School of Divinity at Howard University. He now serves as president of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, which exists to educate the public about slavery and human trafficking.
Before Bree Newsome identified as an activist, she was a filmmaker and musician. After she graduated from New York University, her first brush with national attention came in 2012, when she created a music video mocking Mitt Romney that was titled “Shake It Like an Etch-A-Sketch.” Along with mentions of her funk band, Powerhouse, Newsome’s Web site touts the creation of her first short film, a 20-minute horror flick set in North Carolina called “Wake.”
Newsome has explained how being a black woman working in the genre of horror and sci-fi entertainment led her to understand activism.
“For as long as I can remember, I just became aware that simply being myself was an act of defiance,” she said during a panel at Atlanta’s Spelman College in 2014. “The space that exists for many of us, as a young black girl, is so extremely limited so that you really can’t go very far without being an activist, without being in defiance of something.”
Her first activism arrest, in July 2013, was for staging a sit-in at the office of now-Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.). She demanded to speak to Tillis, who was supporting a bill that ended same-day voter registration and declared student-IDs an invalid form of voter identification.
The bill passed, and Newsome began calling herself an activist.
Now, she’s the face of the movement to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the South Carolina capitol. On Saturday, the flag was repositioned about 45 minutes after Newsome removed it. Its supporters staged a rally beneath it later that day, waving and wearing the flag, chanting “Heritage not hate.” One woman held a sign that read “Southern Lives Matter.”
Protected by law, the flag will stay, at least until South Carolina lawmakers make a decision on its future. They have agreed to re-open the discussion about the flag’s presence during the coming legislative session.
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