There’s a view that Nov. 8, 2016 represents a distinct cleavage in the American story. Even as the Obama administration carried out record deportations, and evidence of unjustified police violence against black bodies accumulated on social media, it was thought the system could be nudged towards the righteous path without a radical overhaul. The myth of continual progress remained intact. Then, on election night, for many, the picture went dark and absurd.
Those of us who held that view — looking in the mirror here — saw history unfold from positions of relative privilege. Certainly Trump is the first president to win election to the White House by exploiting a sense of white grievance. And he’s probably the most racist president since Woodrow Wilson. Yes, he said there “were some very fine people” among the white nationalists who rallied in Charlottesville last August. And, as the Anti-Defamation League and Council on American-Islamic Relations have documented, hate crimes have surged with Trump’s election. And yet it’s easy to forget that modern racial terror and battles over symbols of the Confederacy did not begin with the 2016 election. But back then we had the luxury of seeing them as anomalous, not as a feature.
For the activist and artist Bree Newsome, the inflection point came three years earlier.
“The past seemed to be rising in the summer of 2013, but not in good ways,” Newsome told an audience at the Enterprise Center in Winston-Salem for the Uniting for Our Future conference on July 14.
First, she noted, the Supreme Court gutted key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, with state lawmakers in North Carolina hastily passing legislation to make it more difficult for black and brown people, poor people, students and the elderly to vote.
Equally galvanizing for Newsome, a Florida jury returned a not-guilty verdict in the murder trial of George Zimmerman, who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old, unarmed black American walking in his own neighborhood.
“For many of us, the killing invoked images of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American teenager from Chicago who was lynched while visiting family in Mississippi and his racist killers were acquitted of their crimes,” Newsome said. “Like many, I was deeply disturbed by the facts and circumstances surrounding Trayvon’s death. The case sparked a new movement led by black and brown youth who saw themselves in Trayvon.”
What followed two years later looks like a dress rehearsal for the Trump era.
As Newsome noted, “The Travyon Martin case not only inspired a new generation of young freedom fighters, but also the man that would go on to massacre nine black parishioners at a prayer meeting at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, SC.” In a manifesto discovered after Roof’s arrest, he had written, “The event that truly awakened me was the Trayvon Martin case.”
Before traveling from Columbia to Charleston to murder black parishioners who welcomed him to their prayer meeting, Roof wrote that he read a Wikipedia page on Martin.
“It was obvious that Zimmerman was in the right,” Roof wrote. “But more importantly, this prompted me to type in the words ‘black on white crime’ into Google, and I have never been the same since that day. The first website I came to was the Council of Conservative Citizens. There were pages upon pages of these brutal black-on-white murders. I was in disbelief. At this moment I realized that something was very wrong.”
Of course, in the overwhelming majority of violent crimes, the victim and the perpetrator are of the same race.
Chillingly, the same year as the Charleston massacre, then-candidate Trump retweeted an info-graph depicting a thuggish young man covered in bandannas that falsely claimed 81 percent of white homicide victims were killed by black people. The actual percentage, according to the FBI, was 15 percent.
As Newsome reminded her audience in Winston-Salem on July 14, the Confederate flag first represented the Southern states’ willful continuation of slavery.
“And then after the Confederacy lost the war it became emblematic of the Jim Crow laws that would govern the South for the next 100 years — laws designed to control and limit the political and economic power of the free black population,” she said. Blacks were routinely murdered for failing to respect the parameters of white supremacy.
In the aftermath of the Charleston Massacre, as the South Carolina legislature dithered over whether to remove the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds, Newsome undertook one of the most audacious acts of civil disobedience in recent years. Supported by team comprised of Occupy Charlotte veterans and activists with the then-nascent Movement for Black Lives, she scaled the flagpole and removed the Confederate flag at dawn on June 27, 2015.
In the Trump era, it can be easy to succumb to the view that police violence against people of color and white nationalist violence to prevent the removal of Confederate symbols are distinct plagues competing for attention in a shell-shocked progressive movement besieged from all sides. Newsome’s activism should tell us otherwise.
“Really since the 1960s — the late ’60s after the passage of the Civil Rights Act — the Republican Party has become home to the neo-Confederate movement,” Newsome said. “And this is especially the case in recent years in North Carolina. The battle over Confederate monuments is really a proxy war for an ongoing struggle over policy and ideology. The monuments are representative of a particular social order. So we have to understand that we are not simply pushing for a policy change, right? We are pushing for a change in culture and values.”