'We're Warriors, But It Hurts': What It's Like to Be a Black Lives Matter Activist Right Now

As Told To Madison Feller
Photo credit: Linda Cheriyan
Photo credit: Linda Cheriyan

From ELLE

People tell Chivona Newsome that protesting is in her blood. The 35-year-old congressional candidate was born and raised in the Bronx, the daughter of high school sweethearts who met protesting so that Black history could be taught by Black teachers in their school. As an adult, Newsome co-founded Black Lives Matter of Greater New York along with her brother, Hawk, an organization that counts Nick Cannon as a member and recently received a donation from Rihanna's Savage X Fenty. (BLMNY is an unofficial chapter that's independent of the national organization.)

This past week, she's been on the frontlines, protesting the unjust death of George Floyd and police brutality. "We're in the middle of a revolution," she told ELLE.com over the phone, shortly after she returned from Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed. Now in New York, she's still protesting while also working on the food delivery program BLMNY helped start during the COVID-19 crisis and gearing up for New York's primary on June 23rd.

So what does it really look like to be organizing on the ground? Below, in her own words, Newsome walks us through a few days in the life of a Black Lives Matter activist.

Finding Out About the Killing of George Floyd

Photo credit: Linda Cheriyan
Photo credit: Linda Cheriyan

I pride myself on being a tough woman, but I just cried. I was sitting at my desk in my apartment, and I cried. To watch a strong man—he was a large man, he projected strength—cry for his mother, it was so triggering. It was so reminiscent of Eric Garner. We fought for Eric Garner for five years. With George Floyd, I think it hurt more than Eric Garner because if the government would've done its job, if New York State would've set a precedent, I feel as though George Floyd could have been saved. It was that horrible man who placed his knee on his neck and ended his life directly, but I feel like the whole system led to the death of George Floyd.

More than 200 Black people were killed by law enforcement in America in 2019. We're tired of hashtags. We share a person's name, we advocate, but nothing concrete comes from it. There's no legislation. If we don't make any sound changes and draft real, tangible, concrete things, all of these protests—people have lost their lives, people have marched and [been] pepper sprayed—it will be in vain. I refuse to let that happen.

Deciding to Protest in Minneapolis

Photo credit: Stephen Maturen - Getty Images
Photo credit: Stephen Maturen - Getty Images

Black Lives Matter Minnesota reached out and asked if we could co-host a virtual rally, meaning they would be on the ground live-streaming. They made us the co-host of the event page. It probably took about 16 hours, and [we decided] we have to go to Minneapolis. We knew we had to be there.

May 28th, Thursday Night: Preparing to Leave

Photo credit: Linda Cheriyan
Photo credit: Linda Cheriyan

My brother and I did the last round of groceries [for the food program]. That ended at about 8:30. Then we had to go pick up our signs, which are very provocative. Our Blue Klux Klan [signs], that's what we call the NYPD. We also had FTP signs, which stands for Fuck the Police, and some Black Lives Matter signs. The printer delivered 400 I Can't Breathe and Black Lives Matter shirts at 10 P.M. And of course, PPE. These are all things we're traveling with. It made no sense to sleep when you have to be at the airport by 5:30 A.M. so I stayed up and packed. I packed up my sneakers—you can't protest without sneakers. I packed up a pair of Air Jordan 1s, a pair of Yeezys, and a pair of red high tops. I brought an extra wig with me. I packed one pair of army fatigues, one pair of black jeans. I packed my Chivona Newsome for Congress hoodie and one Express blazer.

May 29th, Friday Morning: Arriving in Minneapolis

We did a brief press conference. We got on a plane all together and arrived in Minneapolis. I got off the plane, and I had a congressional debate call in a few minutes. While the team is getting a rental truck and at baggage claim, I'm in a I Can't Breathe T-shirt, the blazer, my Air Jordan 1s, pearls, and a BLM face mask and doing a debate with career politicians. I spent about an hour and a half on the debate; I stayed in the truck while we went to the hotel to drop off our luggage. I wrapped up right before we arrived at the site where George Floyd lost his life.

May 29th, Friday: Praying at a Memorial for George Floyd

Photo credit: Linda Cheriyan
Photo credit: Linda Cheriyan

We saw the memorial. Community members had created a safe space because they didn't want traffic going through where people were grieving and mourning. There were pictures of him and personal messages and flowers. I stopped for a minute to pray there and prayed that God had accepted him in and that he was resting in the arms of the Lord. There was a huge circle happening, people from Minneapolis were giving speeches. We approached that circle, and the person who was speaking had a bullhorn, and he asked if anybody wanted to speak. I was the first person from the team to do so. I wanted Minneapolis to know we were there in solidarity, we were grateful to be in their space and grateful to stand with them in the liberation of Black people and demand justice. There was so much love. There were people out there with granola bars and water, people asking if you needed a face mask. There was just so much community. An older Black woman was talking to the crowd and began to break down and cry, and I just held her and began to pray for her. Then a reverend came over and we prayed over her and then everyone touched shoulders. We're warriors, but it hurts to watch someone die. It hurts to know that he may not receive the justice that we deserve and want.

Finding Out About the First Arrest

Photo credit: Linda Cheriyan
Photo credit: Linda Cheriyan

Government officials, elected officials, usually don't do things unless they are shamed into doing so, unless the public outcry is so large. With George Floyd, I was literally standing on the spot where he lost his life, with the makeshift memorial, when I heard that the officer who murdered him was indicted. You think we would've celebrated, but we know how rare it is for an officer to actually be convicted, and the whole crowd began to chant, "One down, three to go." [Editor's note: The three other officers involved have since been charged.]

May 29th, Friday Night: Going Out to Protest

We stayed out there, we did some press, we talked to the community. We went back to the hotel to change and regroup, and we went out that night. We saw and felt the heat of Wells Fargo burning. You could smell it. You hear glass. You hear a boom. You'll be looking at Wells Fargo, and you turn around and another building is on fire.

We had turned a corner, and we were met by law enforcement. They were like, "Don't move, don't move, we'll shoot." Then they said, "Get on the ground." We knew if we got on the ground that would be the end of us. So we ran. I sat down in this random office chair; I was tired from running, sat down, and watched as the city burned.

We were out from about 8 P.M. and didn't get back until 3 A.M. It's weird being a leader. I saw the looks on everyone's faces. Everyone was distraught, people were shaken up. We had a 19-year-old with us, 24-year-olds, 27-year-olds. You think about these young people's lives being in your hands. I don't think I have completely processed all that's happened.

May 30th, Saturday: Deciding to Leave Early

Photo credit: LINDA CHERIYAN
Photo credit: LINDA CHERIYAN

I slept for a few hours. I woke up, and state officials were calling for the National Guard to come in. Donald Trump put out a call that tonight is "MAGA night." The governor of Minnesota was talking about curfews being imposed, and we just weren't sure how safe it would be and if we should go. We saw on the news that someone had spray-painted BLMNY on a wall. We had handed out a lot of shirts, a lot of flyers, but no one from my team did it. They kept showing on the news BLMNY and then the fires burning. My brother was in the New York Times, associating the chaos with his picture. It just wasn't a safe place. Our legal team is based in New York; it's different when you get arrested protesting at home. We actually planned to host another protest, another rally, but we were able to change our flights to leave 6:45 the next morning, and we drove to a different town. We got to the airport, and we prayed. We were very thankful. Then we got back to New York and protested again.

Looking to the Future

The work of an activist, it doesn't end. I can only speak for myself, but I carry guilt around being an organizer and an activist because so many people reach out. It's hard to help everyone.

We always pray before every protest. If you actually spent time thinking about the dangers of what you're doing, you probably wouldn't accomplish your mission and goal. I've been nudged by cops. I'll be walking in a protest and have my Black power fist up, and they'll try to knock my arm. I've been shoved in the stomach. But if I think about those things, how far would I go? What I like to think about is the people who came before me. When you think about Rosa Parks, when you think about Angela Davis, you think about these great women and men, I have to do it if I want things to be better for generations to come.

It is draining. I haven't slept much since I found out about George Floyd's death. No matter how exhausted I am, no matter how many times they bump me or push me around, I know my power. I understand my power. I choose not to quit because I'm exhausted or because I'm afraid. I am part of a team. I know I possess the power to change the outcome of many lives.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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