A young black woman scaled a flagpole in front of the South Carolina Statehouse just after dawn Saturday and took down the Confederate battle flag that has become the focus of controversy since a gunman killed nine African Americans inside a historic Charleston church.
The woman, whom authorities identified as Brittany Ann Newsome, refused to descend until she had unhooked the flag.
“Ma'am, come down off the pole,” a police officer called when Newsome, who was wearing a helmet and climbing gear, was midway up the 30-foot flagpole.
“You come against me with hatred and oppression and bias,” she cried after she reached the top and unhooked the flag. “I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today.”
“I'm prepared to be arrested,” she told police as she neared the ground. A group of observers cheered.
She was handcuffed along with James Ian Tyson, 30, who allegedly accompanied her inside a prohibited area.
Newsome and Tyson were charged with defacing a monument, a misdemeanor, according to a statement from the South Carolina Department of Public Safety. They were taken to the Alvin S. Green Detention Center. If convicted, they could face fines of up to $5,000 and up to three years in prison.
Both were freed a few hours later after posting $300 bond.
The flag’s position is protected under state law, which legislators have agreed to revisit this summer. Officials put the flag back on the pole soon after Newsome brought it down.
Newsome, who goes by the nickname “Bree” and is from North Carolina, is identified on her Facebook page as a western organizer with Ignite NC, a nonprofit group challenging voting laws that it contends suppress voting and are discriminatory.
In a statement to the TV and radio news program “Democracy Now,” Newsome said she had decided with a group of “concerned citizens” to “do what the S.C. Legislature has thus far neglected to do.”
The social media response to Newsome’s arrest was swift and forceful.
Filmmaker Michael Moore offered to come to her aid. “I will pay her bail money or any legal fees she has. Please let her know this,” he said on Twitter, which lighted up with calls for police to release Newsome under the hashtag #FreeBree.
Supporters started an Indiegogo page dedicated to raising money to pay Newsome’s bail and hire a defense lawyer. Within nine hours, it had raised nearly $80,000.
The North Carolina chapter of the NAACP lauded Newsome’s protest as “an act of prayerful nonviolent civil disobedience.”
In a statement, Dr. William J. Barber II, the North Carolina NAACP president, likened her to Rosa Parks and urged that the Confederate flag be removed from state property.
The flag’s presence on the grounds of the Statehouse has been a subject of impassioned debate since the shooting attack at Emanuel AME Church on June 17, allegedly at the hands of a white gunman who posed for photos with the Confederate flag and wanted to ignite a race war.
Supporters defend the flag as a symbol of Southern history and culture. Critics decry it as a representation of racism and a reminder of slavery.
“The group took down the symbol of white supremacy that inspired the massacre, continued to fly at full mast in defiance of South Carolina’s grief, and flew in defiance of everyone working to actualize a more equitable Carolinian future,” Newsome said in her statement.
Later Saturday, arguments and scuffles broke out as scores of protesters descended on the Statehouse to applaud and protest Newsome’s feat.
“I’m standing for Bree,” said Bonita Jones, 28, a black activist from Columbia, as she stood below the flag at the base of the Confederate monument. “I’m standing for all the people who died in Charleston. I’m standing for all the people who can’t look after themselves.”
Frank Looper, 50, a white truck driver from Pickens County, drove 2 1/2 hours to the Statehouse to defend the flag after watching the news on CNN. He said he wanted to protect the legacy of his great-great-grandfather, who fought in the 3rd South Carolina Infantry Regiment, and another ancestor who rode in battle with Gen. Wade Hampton in the 2nd Regiment.
“We use the flag to honor our ancestors who died,” he said. “The way it was removed upset me. I don’t hate blacks. I’m not racist. Those poor people who died in Charleston, that’s terrible. … But then politics tried to make out that the flag pulled the trigger. It was a sick individual.”
Although the mood was tense, some demonstrators engaged opponents in friendly discussion on the symbolism of the flag, jobs and inequality.
“I'm just worried that the flag goes to the dust and is forgotten,” said James Green III, 65, a retired computer servicer who brought a large rebel flag to the Statehouse.
“Why not fight for it to be in a museum then?” asked Kimberly Conyers, 25, an insurance representative from Columbia.
Passing cars honked as protesters waved signs saying, “Take it down,” “I can’t believe” and “Evil prevails when good people do nothing!”
A row of pickup trucks and SUVs circled the block, flying Confederate flags on their trailer hitches.
“It's embarrassing to me as a Southerner,” said Tom Clements, 64, director of the environmental group Savannah River Site Watch. His great-great-grandfather fought in the Civil War, he says.
“It's part of my heritage, but I think [the flag] should come down,” he said. “It was all about slavery, and it's a symbol of divisiveness and white supremacy.”
Special correspondent Jarvie reported from Columbia and Times staff writer Shepherd from Los Angeles.