Walter “Hawk” Newsome, a high-school-dropout turned Big Law firm project-manager who now helps lead the Black Lives Matter movement, says it helps to know more about the law than the police.
Newsome always knew he wanted to be a lawyer. But he set out on a different path in his last year at Touro law school in 2012 following the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
He ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the New York City Council from the Bronx with a platform that he says was “too radical,” and garnered roughly 3% of the vote. Then he worked for Black Lives Matter before it even had a name.
Eight years later, a lot more people started to listen after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
These days, Newsome is so busy, he can only find time to do a phone interview in minutes-long increments during a rally at One Police Plaza, the Manhattan headquarters of the New York City Police Department.
Newsome juggles phone calls, shout-outs from people on the street, and stage appearances at a rally campaigning for an elected civilian review board that would hold the police more accountable.
‘Changing Laws Is Better’
Protests are good; changing laws is better, Newsome says.
The lesson of the Civil Rights Movement of 1960s is that there’s power in protest but, “at the end of the day, change came through the stroke of the pen,” he says.
Activism comes naturally to Newsome, who says he “was brought up to have a revolutionary heart” by his parents, who met at a civil rights protest in the 1960s.
Newsome grew up arguing all the time at home with his parents and his younger sister, Chivona, about events they saw on the news. Their father became ill when the siblings were young, so Newsome was the one to pick Chivona up from school, help her with her homework, and defend her from bullies.
“He was always there to protect me and give me guidance,” Chivona says.
Newsome later dropped out of high school because he was bored and didn’t feel like he fit in. He eventually graduated from Concordia College and then channeled his interest in law by working as a paralegal for the Bronx District Attorney’s Office. He also worked as a project manager at Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker before going to law school.
After his city council run, Newsome co-founded the Greater New York chapter of Black Lives Matter with Chivona, who has stepped down to run for a U.S. House seat in the Bronx.
They still “argue every day,” but think alike when it comes to strategy, Chivona says.
Newsome says understanding the law is essential to his role as an activist.
He helped draft “The Black Act” model state and federal legislation designed to combat racism through reparations and changes to policing, education, and housing.
Newsome has two civil lawsuits pending in New York state court against the NYPD alleging that he was assaulted by police officers, and falsely arrested during separate protests in 2017 and 2018.
A video posted by the New York Daily News shows a police officer punching Newsome — who held a sign reading “Blue Klux Klan” — before several officers tackle him to the ground.
Thousands of Masks
Knowing the law helps Newsome protect participants during street protests. The pandemic means he’s also had to protect protesters in a different way.
His kitchen is full of thousands of masks that he distributes to protesters and children he sees while traveling through New York City. His organization has collected $12,000 for personal protective equipment to date, and has given out more than 6,000 masks.
Black Lives Matter of Greater New York relies on a group of 10 pro bono lawyers to counsel protesters who have been charged with obstruction of government administration, resisting an arrest, disorderly conduct, or inciting a riot.
Since George Floyd’s May 25 death in police custody in Minneapolis, Newsome has gotten additional offers of help from former law school classmates and activist lawyers. Alex Spiro, a partner at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan whose clients have included Jay-Z and Mick Jagger, has also offered Newsome pro bono services.
Events have shown the need for more black lawyers, Newsome says. “Most black victims in New York have white attorneys. And we need to change that.”
Prior to Floyd’s death, Newsome says people were getting desensitized to the racism and police violence.
“I was at a point where I was giving up hope for the world,” he says.
‘Everyone’s an Activist’
Newsome is now more optimistic. The organization had its biggest march yet in Times Square June 7, which he estimates attracted 25,000 participants.
“Everyone’s an activist now,” Newsome says.
Black Lives Matter NY has raised $32,000 on its GoFundMe page, drawing donations of a dollar or two “that touch your heart” and larger contributions from donors like singer Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty lingerie company and actor Nick Cannon, he says.
The goal is to create a society free of “impediment” based on the color of one’s skin, Newsome says. When asked how to get there, he replied, “organizing, organizing, organizing.”