On the evening of September 16, Black Lives Matter Greater New York's leader Walter "Hawk" Newsome and his crew of activists found themselves stuck in hostile territory—trapped in a sea of more than 1,000 Trump supporters on the National Mall in Washington, DC.
The day had gone awry in so many ways. Somehow the BLMGNY members had ended up in an entirely different city at an entirely different rally than they had initially planned. They were on their way back to Manhattan after protesting a rally in Richmond, Virginia, hosted by some Confederate monument supporters. But after taking a wrong turn, they found themselves about a mile away from a massive pro-Trump rally in DC billed as the Mother of All Rallies (MOAR), where the group faced off against a cadre of security guards, militiamen, and MAGA moms who shouted shit like "All Lives Matter" and "If you don't like America, you can leave!" The activists had no way of knowing that they were on the precipice of making a choice that would endear them to millions of Americans and ostracize them from many of their progressive comrades in the Black Lives Matter movement.
On the main stage at the front of the rally, event organizer Tommy Gunn and conservative black Facebook personality Henry Davis took notice of Newsome and his group in their red, black, and green pan-African garb amid all the red, white, and blue. "Ignore them! They don't exist!" Gunn said to cheers from the crowd. At first, Newsome and his crew were unsure how to respond. But then all of them started chanting, "Black Lives Matter!" over and over again with raised right fists.
Then, the last thing any of them expected happened. A security guard leaned over and spoke into Newsome's ear. Apparently Gunn, a conservative internet personality who goes by the name Pissed Off American online, had changed his mind. Instead of ignoring the activists, he decided he wanted his security team to escort them onto the stage.
When BLMGNY finally reached the platform, Gunn addressed the crowd. "You guys know the Mother of All Rallies was to end the political violence. It's about freedom of speech. It's about celebration." Then he looked back at Newsome and the BLM members.
"We're going to give you two minutes of our platform to get your message out. Whether [the audience disagrees or agrees] with your message is irrelevant. It's the fact that you have the right to have the message."
It was then that Newsome took hold of the mic and delivered a speech. The six-foot-four, 250-pound New Yorker started off by introducing himself to the audience, first as an American, then as a Christian. Amid a lot of jeers and a few cheers, he explained why there was a Black Lives Matter movement in the first place: "Because you can watch a black man die and be choked to death on television. And nothing! Happens!" He went on. "The reason why we fight is to draw attention to issues and to fix it. We are not anti-cop! We are anti-BAD-cop!"
Finally, Newsome related that stance to something the people of the rally could understand. "If a cop is bad, he needs to get fired. Like a bad plumber. Like a bad lawyer. Like a bad fuckin' politician!" The crowd roared in approval. "If we really want to make America great, we do it together!" After he finished, a woman handed Newsome a miniature American flag, which he waved back and forth through the air. As BLMGNY stepped off the stage, hundreds of Trump supporters chanted "USA! USA!"
Newsome's September 16 speech went viral, earning him praise from across the political spectrum, international media attention, and more than 46 million Facebook views. But in the weeks since, the 40-year-old has also faced rebuke and scorn, mainly from his fellow black activists. They think Newsome's actions were self-serving, giving him a bigger personal platform, while undermining the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement by helping legitimize the Trump supporters who oppose it.
"What Hawk and BLMGNY did in one photo-op was dismantle a lot of the work that our groups have been doing for fucking years," activist Kimberly Ortiz of NYC Shut It Down declared on September 26, the night of an invitation-only tribunal in the third-floor office space of a Third Avenue building in the South Bronx. The gathering was organized by leaders from some of the five boroughs' most active pro-black, anti-police brutality organizations to hash out what to do about Newsome and his rogue remarks.
"He has done a lot of work with us," Hoods 4 Justice activist Chris Valencia said to me at the tribunal. "It's unfortunate that somebody who is very well educated [and] could represent the community from a more radical perspective had to stoop to being tokenized by white supremacists."
What's made matters even more complicated for Newsome is that BLMGNY is not part of the official 38-chapter Black Lives Matter global network, which was launched four years ago by BLM founders Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors. That fact has also sparked a debate as to whether he and his group even had the right to represent the Black Lives Matter movement in the first place.
In many ways, this controversy surrounding Newsome represents a big question facing the broader BLM movement: Is appealing to the opposition an effective means for achieving black and brown liberation or a quick way to water down the cause?
Newsome grew up on "sheisty-ass" Sheridan Avenue in the South Bronx, not far from Yankee Stadium. He started participating in New York Black Lives Matter protests after the July 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. But it was Eric Garner's July 2014 death at the hands of the NYPD that compelled him to become a full-time activist.
"That was the one case that I just knew the government would give us justice on," Newsome recalled. "How can this country watch a man get choked to death while pleading for air and not do anything to give his family or our people justice?"
Newsome founded BLMGNY in July 2016, in part because he didn't feel the official Black Lives Matter New York City chapter was doing enough grassroots organizing. Since then BLMGNY has become one of the most prominent activist groups in the city, demonstrating on behalf of Deborah Danner, a mentally ill women who was killed by a cop; speaking about social justice issues at local high schools; and participating in events organized by other groups.
But despite his record in the activist community, Newsome's personal life has been deeply troubled. Most notable is his romantic relationship with another New York activist that erupted in multiple violent incidents, which he apologized for via social media in January.
"For years, I abused women, and I abused alcohol," Newsome said in an Instagram video that he also posted on Facebook. "I'm sorry to everybody who believes in me. I'm sorry to everybody in my family for this embarrassment."
After their relationship ended, Newsome entered treatment for anger management and alcohol abuse. He married his wife in April and celebrated the birth of his infant daughter earlier this year. "I haven't touched any alcohol or anyone for almost a year," he said. (The woman who Newsome abused did not want to be identified and declined to comment.)
Today, Newsome and his BLMGNY acolytes are easy to spot at demonstrations, rocking their colorful Black Lives Matter gear. Newsome says news cameras are drawn to his group. But his critics argue that it's the other way around. However, Newsome believes attracting media attention is part of an activist's job.
"That's where the work is done," he told me.
On September 16, it looked as though the work was in Richmond, Virginia, where a Tennessee-based southern heritage group called the New Confederate States of America was scheduled to host a rally in support of preserving the city's Robert E. Lee statue. BLMGNY was set to protest the rally, and I tagged along as a reporter. The diverse group of activists in BLMGNY included students, artists, a postal worker, a Belgian, and the wife of a man who had died in police custody.
This wasn't their first time confronting Confederate sympathizers. Some of them were on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12 during the infamous white supremacist rally, where they were maced, punched, and stoned by shield and baton-wielding racists.
"One man spit on me and called me a nigger, but I spit right back," Nupol Kiazolu recalled to me while standing outside the van. The 17-year-old high school senior, who leads BLMGNY's youth coalition, lifted up her shirt to show me the still-visible bruises she received on her back after she says she was pummeled by a middle-aged white man twice her size. "But an injury is not going to stop the movement."
Charlottesville had an impact on the pro-Trump movement as well. Originally, more than 6,000 people had expressed interest on Facebook in attending Tommy Gunn's Mother of All Rallies. But after Charlottesville, the MOAR organizer told his followers that overt displays of racism like the Confederate flag would not be permitted. Gunn's decision made the rally in Richmond, Virginia, where organizers planned to proceed with their pro-Confederate event despite having their permit revoked, a more attractive target for confronting white supremacy.
"I don't agree with conservatives, but I don't necessarily want to drive hours to go protest against them," BLMGNY activist Bobby McCullough explained while driving on the road to Richmond that day.
But the Richmond rally was a bust. Only seven pro-Confederate demonstrators showed up, and none of them ever really interacted with the BLMGNY crew or the horde of counter demonstrators that appeared to outnumber them almost 100 to one.
Instead of clashing with the opposition, some of the left-wing activists began fighting among themselves. There were intense debates about who had the right to represent Black Lives Matter and what the movement's ideals meant. It all culminated with one local Richmond BLM supporter engaging in a shouting match with a woman who was later arrested.
"We're going home," Newsome declared.
At 3:30 PM, we made our way to the van and started heading back to Manhattan. Everyone was exhausted. We'd spent so many hours baking in the hot sun that the van smelled like musty corn chips.
But while driving through DC, the group took a wrong turn and ended up quite close to the MOAR gathering site on the National Mall.
"Maybe we were meant to be here," postal worker Angelique Negroni-Kearse told Newsome as he and the rest of the crew woke up from their brief slumber to realize where they were. Deciding not to waste the opportunity, everyone pulled out their BLM picket signs, donned their gear, and prepared to face the Trump supporters. Twenty-three-year-old Glenn Cantave adorned his neck and wrists with the costume chains and shackles he routinely wears at protests, harkening back to slavery.
As they saw the BLMGNY crew approaching, eyebrows raised, fingers pointed, and tension built. I whipped out my iPhone and started filming, putting distance between myself and the activists.
A scraggly old white man crossed the BLMers' path and flashed a toothless grin. "You're just in time!" he said with a maniacal chuckle.
It all felt a bit otherworldly, especially when I saw the group make its way to the stage at the behest of rally organizer Tommy Gunn. When Gunn handed Newsome the microphone, I wasn't quite sure what he'd do—or what he should do. I, like Newsome and the activists, was in disbelief. But when Newsome told the crowd that "the beauty of America is that when you see something broke in your country, you can mobilize to fix it!" it was clear he'd tapped into something that resonated with them. By the time he was waving the American flag in the air to chants of "USA! USA!" it was obvious to everyone that we'd just seen something that was going to touch and infuriate a lot of people.
Immediately after the speech, the BLMGNY crew was swarmed by reporters, news cameras, and a few tearful Trump supporters. Kenny Johnson, who said he was one of the leaders of Bikers for Trump's Northwest Florida chapter, even asked Newsome to pose for pictures with him and his five-year-old son.
"I feel what he said came from his heart when he got on the stage," Johnson told me later. "I probably agree with 90 percent of what he said. I listened to him with much love, respect, and honor, and I got that back, so as far as I'm concerned he's my brother now."
Despite his confidence on stage, Newsome seemed shell-shocked as he walked toward me.
"What the fuck just happened?" he said.
A few days later, his face was plastered on news websites and cable news outlets around the globe. He was interviewed by the Washington Post , CNN, and BBC Radio, where he spoke about the Black Lives Matter cause.
"Right now in America black lives matter the absolute least when it comes to the American justice system," Newsome told CNN's Carol Costello. When black lives are lost, there is no recourse. There is no compassion. When a black person dies, they are vilified… What we chant is, 'All Lives will matter, when Black Lives Matter.'"
Many of the people who watched the video saw his speech as a positive affirmation for the often-criticized BLM movement's ability to reach across the aisle and get work done. But many of Newsome's comrades in the local and national Black Lives Matter activist community were enraged.
"If we're at war, he just committed treason," activist Soraya Soi Free of the South Bronx community group Why Accountability said at the September 26 meeting of local pro-BLM activists. "This is Black Lives Matter. [Trump supporters] declared war on us… and you're going to go and shake hands, normalize white supremacy?"
Semahj El, a self-described pan-Africanist member of the New York group Black Souljahz, felt Newsome had co-opted the pan-African flag and BLM cause to promote himself. "It seems the brother has an ambition problem," said El. "He wants to be on CNN and see his face on the media. It's good to be ambitious if your ambition is to free the people, but how are you moving as a pan-Africanist at a Trump rally shaking hands, picking up white babies?"
Others believed Newsome had betrayed the "no platform" anti-fascist ideals embraced by many in the Black Lives Matter movement and helped Trump supporters who'd been marginalized as bigots appear less bigoted by allowing Black Lives Matter to speak at their event.
"If he's going to take the platform, then he should have destroyed it," NYC Shut It Down member Mike Bento said. "You can't take their platform because you're legitimizing their platform. He legitimized the right wing and let them say, 'We're not fascists. We'll allow you to speak.'"
Many labeled Newsome as an outright fraud because his Black Lives Matter Greater New York group is one of dozens across the US that uses the BLM mantra in its title even though it's not a part of the official network. Because of this, the official DC and New York City chapters quickly distanced themselves from Newsome's remarks on Twitter.
"FYI @BLMGreaterNY is NOT part of @Blklivesmatter and does NOT share our principles, politics, or values. #BlackLivesMatter," the DC chapter tweeted on September 17.
But Newsome stands by his choice to speak at the Mother of All Rallies. He believes that reaching across the aisle is the only way to win back the Trump supporters who also voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and create real change.
"I'm not going to just give those people over to Trump without a fight," Newsome told me. "I'm truly sorry that I let people down. But this isn't the first idea that I've had that was a break from the norm where people didn't see the vision initially, but then were able to understand what I was doing later."
Of course, this line of thinking doesn't jive with those who believe that finding common ground with Trump followers actually erodes the moral fabric of the Black Lives Matter movement.
"There is a right and a wrong when it comes to people's dignity, people's humanity, and their right to life," BLM co-founder Alicia Garza told Mother Jones in a September interview about the state of the nation after Charlottesville. "There are still many on the left who need to do some real soul-searching to decide how they'll be known in this moment," she added.
Garza's perspective is a position shared by most of New York's activist community that I've spoken to in the wake of Newsome's notorious speech. Even some members of BLMGN are critical of what happened.
"I don't regret standing with my team because we're a family," said Nupol Kiazolu, who has received phone calls from activists across the country who told her how disappointed they were with her for appearing on stage at MOAR. "Hawk's message wasn't bad. The rally just wasn't a good look. I just wish it could have been done a better way."
Retired activist Donald Whitehead has seen this movie before.
The 72-year-old Queens native who participated in anti-segregation protests organized by Martin Luther King in the 1960s often counsels New York activists on how to confront the problems they face today. Whitehead says what Newsome and BLMGNY are going through now reminds him of ideological spats during the civil rights movement, when black nationalists in the Nation of Islam and black Christian followers of King and other leaders couldn't coalesce on one strategy.
During a recent phone interview, Whitehead told me he felt Newsome's primary failure was not consulting his group before the impromptu speech. "As a leader, you must always keep the door of communication open," Whitehead said. "You're not speaking as an individual. You're speaking as a spokesperson for a group."
But Whitehead also noted that black activists should back each other up and focus more on where they agree. "When people are fighting to protect black life, you need to help and support them in some way," he said. "Too many people are sitting on the sidelines. We have a greater number of supporters in the country, but we have fewer participants. Newsome is a participant and we need to be supportive of him."
Unfortunately, the contention among activists is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.
Members of the antifascist People's Power Assembly threw some thinly veiled shade at Newsome and BLMGNY when the two groups participated in an October 10 protest at Columbia University, where UK white nationalist Tommy Robinson was giving a livestream address to the school's College Republicans.
"We don't try to find common ground with fascists," PPA leader Richard Kossally shouted through a bullhorn during his address to dozens of protesters near the corner of 125th and Broadway in West Harlem. "We don't need allies. We need comrades."
Organizers handed Newsome the megaphone next.
"You don't have to believe in me, but believe in my message," Newsome told the crowd. "If I gotta give a speech at a patriot rally to get them on our side, I will," he continued. "The rest of them, I'll fight hand-to-hand like I did in Charlottesville."
Follow Chauncey Alcorn on Twitter.