When Black Lives Matter activist Bree Newsome climbed the pole on the South Carolina Statehouse grounds and took down the Confederate flag, I had one of two thoughts.
Thought No. 1: That was amazing.
Thought No. 2: I hope people wait at least a few hours before they start their backlash.
A few hours. That’s all I wanted. Just a little moment to enjoy this bit of black-girl greatness, climbing the Mount Everest of American issues—racism—and climbing back down relatively unscathed. Sure, she was arrested, as Newsome herself expected to be. But there were critics, clutching pearls, crying, “But oh my God, she broke the law,” almost instantly.
Oh, forget the law. She’s in good company for breaking the law, joining the likes of Rosa Parks and the students from the Greensboro, N.C., sit-ins and any group of protesters who were told their protest was illegal and they had to disperse. She didn’t go Boston Tea Party on that flag and destroy it after she took it down. She didn’t burn it and do the Nae Nae over the flames. She handed it over and went about being peacefully arrested.
Still, people routinely look at black activism with skepticism, as if Martin Luther King Jr. died a millionaire instead of broke with no will.
Backlashes are to be expected, though they happen a lot quicker now than they used to. Before Twitter and smartphones, there was a time you could be a hero/media darling for days, even weeks, before people started looking for ways to pick at your foundation. But even then, as now, it honestly doesn’t take much to set people off. Just be on TV “too much.”
Peaceful protesters get conflated with rioters and looters. #BlackLivesMatter gets watered down into #AllLivesMatter. Montel Williams tells DeRay Mckesson he’s “no MLK.” Fellow activists bristle at one another for not meeting their activism litmus tests. Popularity breeds contempt, and there’s nothing like getting on TV too much to make love go sour.
I would argue this has happened with every activist who became so big that TV producers would call that individual first, forgoing grassroots voices to go directly to the big names, Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. TV bookers are lazy, after all. They don’t want to go find the resident mouthpiece of Long Island, N.Y., if the family called Sharpton to be there.
Sharpton, who has endured his own respective backlashes and now occasionally faces the ire of other activists, told me in an interview that different tactics shouldn’t have to mean infighting.
“The challenge is the same challenge that we had before my time in the ’60s. We [must] find a way that if we don’t walk together, that we don’t collide,” Sharpton said, later adding: “Whether your slogan is ‘Black Lives Matter,’ which we [National Action Network] support and stand with, or ‘No Justice, No Peace,’ which we helped make famous coming from the ’80s until now, the argument is not with slogans. The argument is with what we’re fighting.”
But let’s face it. It’s easier to let the jaded cynicism of the backlash take over. The argument that those fighting for justice just want TV time is a slam that hits everyone—from Sharpton to Mckesson to, now, Newsome, who hasn’t nearly been as ubiquitous as the former two. The reason this particular burn (“You just want to be famous”) sticks is that to want to be on TV, you have to (and this is crucial) want to be on TV.
Activists who prefer to work silently behind the scenes don’t want to be gadflies. They don’t want to shoot the proverbial s—t and engage in inane conversations with Don Lemon, but someone has to want to.
Thank God for that poor someone.