On Saturday evening in Washington, activist Hawk Newsome stood defiantly with his fist in the air on the Mall in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and began to sweat, wondering if violence was about to break out at yet another political rally.
Surrounded by a few hundred supporters of President Trump at the Mother of All Rallies event, Newsome, the president of Black Lives Matter of Greater New York, had arrived with about half a dozen of his fellow activists to make their voices heard and prepared to spend the night engaging in tense exchanges with people he knew would not be receptive to his message.
Instead, something completely unexpected happened. For a brief interlude, Newsome was able to take the stage and speak to the Trump supporters, and at least some in the crowd actually listened.
After wading through the throng of mostly-white attendees, some of whom shouted hostile remarks, and past a speaker who told those gathered to ignore the Black Lives Matter activists, Newsome was invited up on the makeshift stage near the Washington Monument at the impromptu invitation of the event’s organizer, Tommy Hodges, who had to persuade some in the crowd to hear them out.
The result was an open dialogue between members of two seemingly opposing movements captured on video and shared by NowThis News and CNN. Within hours, a clip of Newsome’s speech posted on Facebook had garnered millions of views and thousands of comments applauding a rare instance of unity and civility in today’s toxic political climate.
“I expected hostility. I expected anger. I even expected the possibility of violence,” Newsome said Tuesday in a phone interview, “but the one thing I did not expect was an invitation to speak on that stage.”
Standing just a few feet away from a cardboard cutout of President Trump, Newsome was greeted with chants of “White lives matter!” as he spoke passionately about fighting for justice on behalf of African Americans killed by police officers and the need for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Newsome said he hoped that by being on stage, he could clearly express his side to those who normally might tune him out.
“Out of the hundreds of people there, if we got one person to see that black people are oppressed in America and acknowledge that, then we did our job,” he said.
But what happened next was much more than he had expected.
Newsome concluded his speech by saying, “If we really want to make America great, we do it together.” And then the crowd cheered.
Afterward, a few Trump supporters approached him and expressed their appreciation for his speech, including a Bikers for Trump member, who asked if Newsome would pose for a photo with his grandson.
Upon returning home to the Bronx, the 40-year-old said he received dozens of supportive messages on social media, several of which were from self-described conservatives.
Newsome’s approach and the unexpected footage of civil dialogue during a relatively peaceful rally just a month removed from the violence that occurred in Charlottesville had clearly resonated with millions of viewers.
“I love that he didn’t feed into the ridiculous comments from the crowd, he just kept stating calmly what he believed in. This is awesome,” a Facebook user, Sarah Nicole Wentling-Gould, commented on the NowThis News video that had 25 million views as of Wednesday morning.
April Goggans, a core organizer for Black Lives Matter DC, credited the video’s success to the moment being “palatable” but added that it made her cringe.
“Our work is tied to a belief that change is systemic, changes to whole systems and whole ideological beliefs of America that allow for injustice to continue,” Goggans said, “and so to equate the fact that some people listen to each other to real strides, it can be counterproductive sometimes.”
Kei Williams, who has organized with the Black Lives Matter NYC chapter, was quick to point out that Newsome’s group is not officially affiliated with the Black Lives Matter global network when contacted by The Washington Post.
Newsome was prepared for the backlash, saying he understands that “there’s a large portion on our side that believes [Trump supporters] have no moral codes that we can appeal to.”
The speeches at the rally throughout the day were also far more vitriolic and rarely matched the conciliatory and accepting tone that Hodges, the event’s organizer, attempted to set. And Newsome recalls that a few Trump supporters stood in his way in an effort to prevent him from speaking on the stage.
Still, Newsome said that he has no regrets about his decision and that the reaction to his speech has given him faith that the appearance of Black Lives Matter of Greater New York at the rally has made a positive difference.
“I don’t know about going to future Trump events, but I’m open to having a dialogue,” he said. “This is a beginning, but we have a long way to go. Centuries of racism can’t be healed in two minutes, but that two minutes can provide a spark, and we can use that energy and spark to do something that hasn’t been done before.”
This story has been updated.