Activist Bree Newsome on why gun control protests and Black Lives Matter are treated differently

Reality check...many Black youth face a Parkland in their lives every day.

Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, returned to classes today. It's been two weeks since suspected gunman Nikolas Cruz opened fire during the school day, killing 17 people...

Bree Newsome
Bree Newsome (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for NAACP Image Awards)

It’s been two weeks since suspected gunman Nikolas Cruz opened fire during the school day killing 17 people. Yesterday, students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, returned to classes.

In response to this and a growing list of mass school shootings, young people across the country are demanding answers and accountability from elected officials.

And they’ve been overwhelmingly supported on a national scale as many students prepare for the “March for Our Lives” rally in Washington D.C. on March 24, where an estimated 500,000 people are planning to attend.

However, for some activists and writers, this mostly positive reception poses some deeper questions: Where was this public display of support during the Black Lives Matter movement or the prolonged demonstrations in Ferguson? Is there a double standard when it comes to movements that involve mostly young people of color?

In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re celebrating dynamic Black women who tell it like it is with our #GrioHERStory series.

Activist and filmmaker Bree Newsome, best known as the sister who got arrested for removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina state house grounds in 2015, explains the difference between these two monumental, youth driven movements.

TheGrio: What’s been your immediate reaction to the protests and demonstrations we’re seeing from young students following the Parkland shooting?

Bree Newsome: There really is no democracy without protest and activism. That’s what it looks like. I completely support the student [protesters].

TheGrio: Are we having the right conversation about this issue of gun violence and access to guns?

Bree Newsome: We’re still in the early stages [with Parkland]. In terms of the debate over guns, that’s nothing new. And I feel like there’s alot of avoidance in terms of that conversation. There are basic things, basic actions that could be taken that everyone already knows about. Things like that the assault weapons ban that were in place before the [Bush administration] let it expire. That’s an old conversation. I think what is new is this momentum that is being driven by the high schoolers. I feel like [the students] are talking about the right things. They’re talking about their experience. They’re talking about what they feel needs to happen in order for them to feel safe in schools, for children around the nation to feel safe in schools.

What I’m critical of is the way that [this movement] is being framed as a ‘new thing’ – that these students in Parkland, Florida standing up marked a new kind of student movement or a rebirth of student movement that we haven’t seen in some time. That’s how some people were framing it and I take issue with that. Because we’ve been in a prolonged period of youth protest. It’s just that the majority of youth who have been actively protesting the last few years have been Black and brown. And they’re not as readily embraced by the power establishment because they were protesting racism – which is politically something that a lot of people are not eager to embrace. The Democrats are always in support of gun control laws, so they’re more ready to embrace a movement that is around that topic than they were around racism.

TheGrio: And this wasn’t the response we saw in Ferguson? What do you remember about that?

Bree Newsome: Police. Snipers. Rifles. Dogs. Everything that was turned on the youth in Birmingham and that’s why I’m thrown by people making these comparisons. It’s almost like they’re saying the Parkland protests are the new Birmingham. No, Birmingham is still going on in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charlotte….that’s what Birmingham looks like in 2018. I’m not discounting at all what these youth and student protesters are doing. There’s a lot of social justice movements. You can draw a direct parallel between the Parkland students today and Vietnam protests. There’s a lot of things that you can point to. I just find it very curious the continual pointing to the Black youth movement of the 60s. The modern Black youth movements are continually erased. It’s almost as if there’s an active historical erasure that’s happening as we move further into the Trump administration.

parkland protests

Students participate in a protest against gun violence February 21, 2018 outside the White House in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

TheGrio: So, what do you attribute this to?

Bree Newsome: Racism. It just seems there’s been this whole re-framing like tranquil people weren’t protesting in mass until Trump got into office, which is part of the reluctance to fully address racism as a central issue in America. If we start our historical memory in 2017 with all the protests just starting with Trump then that’s an easy way to erase everything that happened before him. It’s an easy way to overlook how Trump is there because of racism. He was elected in large part as a racist backlash to the first Black presidency and the Black Lives Matter protests. All of it is about overlooking the recent history for the sake of avoiding the conversation of racism.

Charlottesville protests

Police officers hold their line during protests on September 21, 2016 in Charlotte, NC. The North Carolina governor has declared a state of emergency in the city (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

TheGrio: Let’s be clear…Is your stance in opposition to what the [Parkland] students are doing?

Bree Newsome: I support the [Parkland] students and protests. People know where I stand on these issues. I’m never going to be in opposition to people organizing like this. I’m just constantly trying to lift up [Black led movements and issues.] It bothers me when older generations, particularly the older generations of the Black community and the Black political establishment criticize them and doesn’t embrace them. If you have an issue with how young Black people are doing something, then you should go to them and help them with what they’re trying to do.

Black youth are facing a Parkland every day in their lives from all sides. The response to Parkland just made it so blatant because you can see such a clear contrast [with how Black protesters were received.] And the language used in describing the Parkland students completely skips over all of the Black youth and student protests that have been happening in recent years. It really has nothing to do with the Parkland students. I try to make it clear that I support them, but I’m critical of the power establishment.

TheGrio: How do people get things changed in order to protect our friends and family from gun violence?

Bree Newsome: I think organizing on a local level is key. Applying pressure to your state representatives and your senators because our federal government is kind of dysfunctional right now. If you’re really trying to apply pressure [on gun control], you have to apply it locally. They have to feel it in terms of the phone calls being made to their office and the threat of being voted out of office.

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