What Can I Do—the Bree Model
She had a crisis of faith. But so much went before that. Her work, her reading, her awareness. Her travel, her commitment, her participation. Her use of her talent. Her love of God. In her statement following her direct nonviolent action of removing the Confederate flag from where it flew on the grounds of the South Carolina capitol, Ms. Brittany “Bree” Newsome gives us an outline of what we can do.
In her statement, Ms. Newsome, who is from Charlotte, North Carolina, pegs the start of her activism two years ago with Moral Mondays, the movement led by Rev. William Barber in Raleigh, NC. The Moral Mondays movement was birthed after the North Carolina legislature moved to cut early voting, end same-day voter registration, and require ID at the polls. The movement has spread to other Southern states, maybe one you live in.
As the killing of Trayvon Martin and the tear-gassing in Ferguson and the police lockdown in West Baltimore unfolded, Ms. Newsome linked these incidents with Emmett Till, Klan activity witnessed by her grandmother, and freedom papers required by slave-catchers. She put the events in historical context, using both personal family history and national history. Histories she knew well enough to provide needed context. Maybe you, too, know such a personal and national history.
Ms. Newsome is a community organizer—”I organize alongside other community members striving to create greater self-sufficiency and political empowerment in low-income neighborhoods”—whose background is in the arts. A graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, she’s done incredible work in film and music, won prestigious awards and recognition, sent amazing creativity into the world. You, too, might have an artistic expression that motivates you to engage with your part of the world.
The night of the Charleston Massacre, Ms. Newsome suffered “a crisis of faith.” She saw the members of Emmanuel AME Church doing simply what Christians are supposed to do: invite others to join their Bible Study. For that, they were murdered. Yet, Ms. Newsome refused to be ruled by fear. “How can America be free and be ruled by fear? How can anyone be?” You, too, might have experienced a spiritual crisis, followed by a resolve that even surprises you.
Her reaction was to meet with her community. She had in place a small group of concerned citizens, both black and white, who represented various walks of life, spiritual beliefs, gender identities and sexual orientations” to whom she could turn to discuss and discern the next step. As you, too, perhaps have such a diverse, thoughtful, supportive community.
Together, this group charted a course of action. The action would require people to take different roles. One—a black woman—to scale the pole at the South Carolina capitol. One—a white man—to stand in solidarity with her (and actively help her over the fence). Other roles, too. Including roles that you might find fit your comfort level.
While part of a group discernment, Ms. Newsome knew why she, personally, was taking action. Her reasons were not simple or limited. Her concerns might not have been shared by everyone in her community. But they were hers, and she knew them as clearly as the sun shining in the blue sky. Same way you might have concerns that motivate your life.
As Ms. Newsome climbed the pole, James Tyson helped her across the fence then stood guard as she climbed. He accepted the flag when she brought it down. This was entirely thought out. As Mr. Tyson has said, because white supremacy was created by white people, white people must step up and take a role in dismantling it. Ms. Newsome credited Mr. Tyson with “moral courage” as a white ally. Never, she said, should this be viewed as being about one woman. Maybe you also lean on and expect the support of others when you act.
At the bedrock of Ms. Newsome’s actions was her Christian faith. As she acted, she recited from the Bible. She recognizes not everyone comes at this fight from a faith perspective, but she does “100%.” Just as you might find that your concern, courage, and caring originates with your faith.
Lastly, Ms. Newsome explicitly encourages others. “I encourage everyone to understand the history, recognize the problems of the present and take action to show the world that the status quo is not acceptable.” National issue or local issue, she wants us to do what we know is right. She wants us to be “one of many.” To participate in this “multi-leader movement.” Same as the national or local issue you feel compelled to act on.
Did I say lastly? No. Lastly, she holds true to herself. “All honor and praise to God.” When I think of the symmetry of this—a white man murders nine African-Americans in church and an African-American woman takes down his symbol of hatred as she recites Psalm 27 (“‘The Lord is my light and my salvation — whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life — of whom shall I be afraid?'”), I want to weep. She exhibited what the Huffington Post called “staggering faith.” Can you imagine how exposed she felt high on that pole? And yet she climbed.
As Denise Oliver Velez at Daily Kos says, “Activism is a process. We need to learn from those people who make a decision to fight for change and justice and follow their examples.”
If so, Ms. Newsome’s teaching example is 1) know your history 2) use your passion/talent to act 3) stay in tune with your spiritual life 4) be part of a community you trust 5) discern your role 6) know your personal motivations 7) recognize your support team 8) encourage others to act in ways right for them 9) stay true to yourself.
So there. That’s what we can do. Easy, right?
anti-racism, Bree Newsome, Charleston Massacre, Daily Kos, Denise Oliver Velez, dismantling white supremacy, ending racism, James Tyson, Moral Mondays, one of many, Psalm 27, Rev. William Barber, What Can I Do?, white allies
I heard an interview with Bree Newsome and was struck by the planning and the way in which this was a group action, in which she chose to take the riskiest role. I realize this is the common organizing principle in civil disobedience action. Thank you for sharing her story with us. I plan to post the link on my blog.
Ellen Morris Prewitt
After I posted this I thought, yeah, that’s why it’s so hard to answer the question “What Can I Do?” Because it isn’t easy. The planning, the living into community, the risk. But the saving grace is the room for each of us to have a role. Our role. Thanks so much for your continuing support (and the link!)