Rallies and marches for racial justice have drawn thousands to the streets of New Mexico’s largest city this summer, but protest looked different for one 67-year-old Black resident of an Albuquerque suburb. Every weekday for a month, Elizabeth Ward stood – and sometimes sat – with a Black Lives Matter sign on a dusty street corner in Rio Rancho. The sprawling city’s population is whiter and more conservative than Albuquerque’s, with an all-Republican governing body.
The corner Ward held her sign on was a dirt lot on a street lined with homes a few minutes from her house. “It leads down to the county courthouse, and it also leads down to the Sandoval County offices,” Ward said of the street she chose to protest on. “So, I decided to come either 5-6 p.m. or 8-9 a.m. to catch the people going to work or coming home from work,” Ward said. “And this spot has really good parking,” she added.
She’d watched as protests against racial injustice and police brutality erupted across the country and in nearby Albuquerque. “In Rio Rancho, I know it’s conservative, but, nothing was happening,” she said. “It was like people were walking around pretending that the nation wasn’t under strife.”
There have been a few Rio Rancho demonstrations, but they weren’t hugely visible. A group of about 100 gathered in front of City Hall in early June calling for racial justice.
Ward was also motivated to act after finding out a friend of hers' son, a Black man with mental health challenges, was shot and killed by police in Michigan in 2012. “I met her playing cards at the senior citizen center,” she said. “We were just kind of talking and then she was telling me about her son. And I thought, ‘OK, Black lives matter. I got to get out here and do something.' And she’s 88, so she can’t.”
The large demonstrations happening in Albuquerque didn’t feel accessible to Ward because of the risk of contracting COVID-19. So, she decided instead to put on a mask and head to the dirt lot for an hour every weekday to let commuters know that Black lives matter. And she wasn’t protesting solo for long. “I would say like the third day... they looked like they were in their twenties – two girls. And they said that their father drove by and said, ‘there’s this little old lady out there with her sign. You need to go out there and help her’.”
Then more joined: other passersby, people who’d worked with her husband, and some of her sorority sisters. Ward went to college in Maryland in the 1970s where she joined Zeta Phi Beta, a historically Black sorority, which continues to be a network for her in New Mexico. She said one of her sorority’s values is “to support our community and to stand up for social action and social justice.”
Eventually, Ward says, her daily protests were about 10-15 people deep, and the group stayed put as a neighbor counter protested a few yards away with pro-Trump and pro-police flags.
At the end of the second week, she says a group of about 30 showed up to support him. Some were armed. “When the folks showed up with the rifles, that was kind of scary,” she said. “So, after that day, then it was just me and one other person.”
The Rio Rancho Police began to patrol the area, too. According to Ward’s husband’s notes, officers came by on eight separate occasions. “The first time when they came they said, ‘well, we got a call. We’re here to make sure you’re safe’,” she said. “And they did.”
For the last two weeks, it was just Ward and her husband on the corner. They ended their month-long action on July 24. And not because of the counter protesters, but “because I was getting more people who were giving me thumbs-up. People were stopping, handing me water. In the morning, they’d give me coffee. So, I felt like I got my point across,” she said. “I’m out here. You know that you didn’t run me away and I’m still saying Black Lives Matter.”
While her street side sign-waving days are over for now, Ward says she’s concerned about Operation Legend, a program that’s deployed federal agents to Albuquerque, and will be watching to see how it rolls out. “If it gets bad, I’ll be down there,” she told KUNM. “My husband said, ‘oh Lord, we’re going to be driving down to Albuquerque so she can be protesting down there!’” she said with a giggle.
Ward says in the long term, achieving social and racial equity will require a cultural shift that comes from asking tough questions and having what she calls “courageous conversations.”