Some version of the Confederate flag has flown atop or in front of the South Carolina statehouse in Columbia since 1961.
For a little while on Saturday, it came down.
The controversial Southern symbol was removed by a black woman identified as Bree Newsome, 30, a North Carolina educator and activist from Charlotte, who scaled a 30-foot flagpole in front of the statehouse at 6:15 Saturday morning and took down the flag by hand, according to a group of activists who traveled to the State Capitol Saturday.
Newsome worked with a man identified as Jimmy Tyson, 30, an activist from North Carolina.
“We removed the flag today because we can’t wait any longer,” Bree said in a statement. “We can’t continue like this another day. It’s time for a new chapter where we are sincere about dismantling white supremacy and building toward true racial justice and equality.”
Before she reached the top, Newsome — wearing a helmet and using tree-climbing equipment — was confronted by State Capitol police and told to come down, but she continued upward.
As she descended with the flag in tow, Newsome, the western organizer of a group called Ignite NC, she said a prayer, according to footage of the event.
“I’m prepared to be arrested,” Newsome told officers at the scene as supporters cheered.
Both Newsome and Tyson were arrested. The pair has been charged with defacing a monument, which is a misdemeanor, according to the South Carolina Department of Public Safety.
“As soon as she touched the ground, state police took her into custody,” said Tamika Lewis, 25, an educator, also from Charlotte, who witnessed the event. “We are not sure of the charges.”
Authorities returned the flag to the top of the pole, which is protected by state law, shortly after the pair’s arrest. As of 9:15 a.m. Saturday, calls left for the South Carolina state police spokesperson had not been returned.
The flag is not raised or lowered on a rope, as most flags are. It is attached to the pole by hooks, which Newsome unscrewed, Lewis said. She said the flag never touched the ground.
“They took it directly from her,” Lewis said. “She didn’t have an opportunity to fold it.”
On her website, Newsome describes herself as an artist and activist, as well as a graduate of New York University.
“Newsome was arrested last year during a sit-in at the North Carolina State Capitol where she spoke out against the state’s recent attack on voting rights,” the site says.
Her climb quickly inspired the hashtag #KeepItDown and #FreeBree, both of which were trending on Twitter within hours of her arrest. An Indiegogo campaign launched by supporters to raise money for Newsome’s legal fees raised more than $45,000 in four hours.
Her actions also caught the attention of several famous allies. The Rev. Jesse Jackson prasied Newsome on Twitter and filmmaker Michael Moore offered her financial support.
In a statement released to the media, Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II, President of the NC NAACP, called Newsome a “non-violent messenger of the truth.”
“The flag is vulgar,” the statement said. “Its removal is not only a small step, but an important symbolic one. Its vulgarity and representation of the racist, immoral defense of all slavery and Jim Crow not only should come down but should have never been put up. ”
A mission statement at Ignite NC’s website says it is a nonprofit:
“Solutions to the problems facing North Carolina and our global community lie within our ability to work together for the common good and to build the leadership and power of young people to create lasting change,” the site said. “In order to create the kind of future we all deserve, we must understand our past, defend the gains made by those who came before us, and ignite and empower everyday people to lead efforts to build a fair and just future. When those most affected by injustice are the leaders who find and implement solutions, we will create a better world.”
A spokesman for the Columbia Police Department said they did not have information about the flag’s removal.
“Someone just came in and said the flag was down,” a spokesman said about 6:52 a.m. Saturday.
Around 60 supporters of the flag held a rally several hours later in front of the Confederate monument on the Statehouse complex, chanting “Heritage not hate!” and demanding that state leaders hold a referendum on the flag’s future.
As they waved dozens of historical flags associated with the Confederacy, trucks and cars streamed by on Gervais Street and several honked in appreciation.
There were some heated moments under a searing sun early on, when an African American jogging by stopped to challenge the protesters.
“Do you have people coming up in your churches? Do you have police shooting down your people in the streets?” asked Jalalubin Abdul-Hamid,a 34-year-old electrician originally from New Jersey who now lives in the Columbia area.
He added of the flag: “It’s about hate. If it’s linked to an organization of hate then why should it still be flown?”
Protesters said that the flag represents state’s rights and their ancestors who died fighting for a cause — not racism.
“I’m not an idiot,” said Shannon Blume, a 36-year-old from Lexington County, who said has written emails to state leaders pushing them to put the issue to a statewide vote. “Slavery was part of the Civil War, everybody knows that. But they bash the South … when slavery was country-wide. This monument is to honor these (Confederate) men. I’m not a racist. I love all God’s children. Agree or disagree with me, let the majority decide.”
Long a source of bitter disagreement, the Confederate flag has faced renewed scrutiny and calls for removal from Statehouse grounds since the shooting deaths of nine parishioners in a historic African American church in Charleston, S.C., last week.
“I think it is blatantly disrespectful to all the victims of hate and racially charged crimes,” Lewis said. “We see this a lot from our government and police. They value property over human lives, especially black human lives.”
In Charleston, people gathered outside Emanuel AME church Saturday morning had mixed reactions. Lowell Collins, 59, thought it was an inevitable part of efforts to remove the banner.
“I’m surprised that it took this long,” said Collins, who lives in Falls Church, Va., and is visiting South Carolina. He didn’t think the act would have much effect on the debate.
But his friend Diane D. Gillie had concerns — that the act would disrupt momentum, and give flag supporters something to stand behind.
“I hope these kind of things don’t take away from the positive processes that are in place,” she said.Gillie, 58, works in Columbia, S.C., two blocks from the Confederate flag on the Statehouse grounds.
She tries to ignore it when she walks by.”I think there’s a place for it, and that’s a museum,” she said
(Dan Morse in Charleston, S.C. and Jeremy Borden in Columbia, S.C. contributed to this report. It has been updated multiple times)