Since Donald Trump stunned media and political pundits with his presidential election victory last week, protests have picked up across the country.
In New York, police have arrested dozens of protesters marching on Trump Tower in New York and elsewhere around the Big Apple. Among those offering assistance to individuals taken into custody is Walter “Hawk” Newsome Jr., the 39-year-old president of Black Lives Matter of Greater New York and a former Big Law staffer.
Armed with a law degree and a bullhorn, Newsome’s career as a civil activist began in 2004 when he started working as a paralegal in the Office of the Bronx District Attorney. While working in that office just north of Manhattan, Newsome witnessed what he was as unfair and racist practices directed towards members of his community.
“I was part of an office where people were prosecuting [other] people for the same crimes they were committing,” Newsome said. “I just couldn’t be a part of that.”
If Newsome was going to “sell out,” he thought he might as well make more money. In May 2006, Newsome left the district attorney’s office and became a program administrator at Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker, an Am Law 100 firm based in the New York suburb of Westchester County. Newsome said he enjoyed his time at the firm, where he “worked with an amazing group of people,” conducting internal audits on Wilson Elser’s work for insurance giants like ACE Ltd. and Prudential Financial Inc.
Aside from his daily responsibilities at the firm, Newsome began volunteering with The Minutemen Athletic Club, an organization founded by Wilson Elser senior partner and alternative dispute resolution chair Stephen Marcellino in White Plains, New York. The Minutemen run basketball and soccer leagues for kids. Newsome would often transport groups of young teenagers in his sedan from the Bronx to their practices and games in Westchester.
In 2007, a Minutemen basketball team coached by Newsome made it to the AAU National Championship in Florida. “For a few of the kids, it was their first time on a plane,” Newsome recalled.
After four years at Wilson Elser, Newsome chose to enroll in law school, graduating in 2012 from the Touro College Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center in Central Islip, New York. He then turned his eye toward politics, launching an ultimately unsuccessful campaign for city council in the Bronx in 2013. Many of the ideas that arose on the campaign trail formed the platform of Newsome’s current work with the Black Lives Matter movement, which began after the 2014 shooting death of an unarmed teenager in suburban St. Louis.
“I was telling people the harsh truths,” Newsome said. “We talked about gentrification, about how the Democrats in the Bronx were exploiting the people by giving away free turkeys for votes and taking advantage of them in the voting booth.”
Newsome spent three years as a vice president at investment banking consulting firm Chapman, Spira & Carson and now does community engagement work for an electronic device and sensor company. But his passion is managing a grassroots campaign that pushes voting front and center for African Americans.
“Black people need to open themselves up to Republicans, independents, the Green Party or to any candidate that will address their issues,” Newsome said.
The Democratic Party’s defeat in the recent U.S. presidential election—despite winning the popular vote—stems from its failure to adopt more comprehensive criminal justice reforms, said Newsome, adding that it led to an “I ain’t voting” initiative by Black Lives Matter of Greater New York.
Early voting among African Americans in Florida decreased to 15 percent this election, compared to 25 percent four years ago, according to The New York Times. African American turnout was also down 16 percent in North Carolina, a state where the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit struck down a voter identification law this summer, ruling that its provisions deliberately “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision.”
“We showed that the community leaders, politicians, all the people who they thought controlled black people did not have the control,” Newsome said. “The power is the people.”
A day after the election, Black Lives Matter of Greater New York announced the start of a new grassroots campaign, Black Lives Caucus (BLC). Modeled after the Tea Party movement within the Republican Party, BLC focuses on educating and engaging African American voters and electing local politicians that mirror the community’s concerns.
“We’re giving the people power and the means to evaluate all candidates and the conclusion that they’ll arrive at is the one that’s best for them,” Newsome said. “You empower people to think for themselves.”
Despite the documented incidents of racism that have occurred in the week following Trump’s victory, Newsome has no doubts that advocating staying away from the polls this election cycle was the right choice. Asked whether his group could have worked with a President Hillary Clinton, Newsome is convinced that her administration would have been more of an obstacle than an ally.
“If she would’ve won, black people would have fallen under the illusion that they were safe again until another one of us got killed and then we would be right back where we started,” Newsome said. “Right now there’s no disillusion, it’s clear, America is a racist country.”
Nonetheless, Newsome, who has spent the past week making appearances on cable networks like CNN, is confident that his community will persevere through the next four years.
“I know it’s going to be rough but I believe in the strength of my people,” he said. “We survived a lot in America and I believe we can get through this.”
Now is the time, Newsome said, to get back to work and push for real change.