Nita Colgate has been showing up for justice for a long time. In 1967, she volunteered to help with voter registration while visiting family in Mississippi. Back in New York City, Nita raised two children while her commitment to activism never waned – from poll watching to protesting the Vietnam War to helping disadvantaged kids learn to read. It was at a school in Harlem where she met a struggling 9-year-old Johnny Bradford, and began what would become a life-long friendship. Twenty blocks north of her home on the Upper East Side and a world apart, Johnny taught Nita a lot about empathy, she said. Some experiences with him over the years taught her a lot about racism too.
In the 1970s, Nita went to law school and spent several years as a criminal defense attorney. It was a stressful job that lasted only a few years but gave her a long-lasting, uneasy impression of the criminal justice system. “Not all cops are dishonest, but I heard outright lies. It was awful,” she said.
Nita showed up at the big Black Lives Matter protest on the green in Cornwall Bridge on June 7. Days later, another Black man, Rayshard Brooks, was killed in Atlanta. Nita realized it was no time to put her sign away. The next Sunday, she went down to the green and stood alone to protest (at 82 and with a bad back, she sits on a folding chair while she stands up for justice) “Because justice hasn’t come,” she says. She’s been there every Sunday since.
Where Nita goes, people follow. On any given Sunday about 6-10 people and an occasional llama sporting a BLM placard show up for the peaceful protests. “When Nita says march, my feet start marching all by themselves,” said Peter Demy. Peter said he was silent for many years, but his perspective has changed, thinking now “White silence equals white violence.” His niece Rebecca Hutcheon, visiting from Hoboken, New Jersey, added, “White people must be actively engaged in anti-racism otherwise nothing will change.”
The first time I joined this small and dedicated bunch in our tiny nearly entirely white New England town was on August 30. Besides the fact I wanted to keep leaning in in whatever way I could to fight systemic racism, it was also a beautiful day and I needed to get off my porch. The big protest in June left me awed and humbled by the next generation’s passionate voices. The smaller Sunday protest felt different; the intimacy of the crowd and the more direct interactions with those driving by made me long for the comfort in numbers.
There were varied responses to the Black Lives Matter signs, from happy honks and enthusiastic thank yous to thumbs down and profanities. I took it all in as I stood there with my own discomfort; aware of my identity as a middle-aged white woman looking perhaps too content to make a difference in the fight against the “other pandemic,” racism. My heart raced when one man stopped and taunted, “Look at you with your white privilege.” Later, I thought, yeah, look at me with my white privilege. That’s the point.
Several times we heard “All Lives Matter” shouted from car windows. I struggled to find a comeback in the seconds before the traffic moved on. Thanks to the more experienced protestors on the other side of the green, I learned my favorite response, “All Lives Matter WHEN Black Lives Matter.” That’s it! The simplest way to get people to understand why Black Lives Matter is not saying other lives don’t matter. Instead, we protest the deeply rooted systemic racism that makes people of color vulnerable, fearful and victimized.
I went back again on a glorious Sunday in mid-October. Nita was there with hand-painted signs with the names of Black people killed by police. One memorable moment was when a woman driving by held her hand to her face so she would not have to see us. I wished we could talk to her about why she felt so uncomfortable. “Hopefully people might learn,” Nita said.
Nita is an inspiration to continue, even when protesting might seem like a small action in the face of all that still needs to change. “It doesn’t take any bravery to do this other than facing the sun,” she said. “I am so upset. I just have to trust that something better will come along.” As for me, I feel more empowered, and for that I know there is power in showing up.
📸: Photos by Mohammed Mohammed Ahmed