Courtney Jones calls herself a country girl. She was raised in Sterling and she prefers open spaces to cities. She loves classic rock, grew up saving money for the Logan County fair every year, and she voted for Donald Trump in 2016 because he seemed like the honest candidate.
She’s the daughter of a Black dad and a white mom, and was one of just a handful of students of color in her graduating class. The title of the yearbook the year she graduated from Sterling High School was “Identity.” It was 2013, and hers was inscribed by some of her classmates with swastikas and “white power,” she told me.
A lot has happened in her life since then, but before this summer, she had never been an activist, and she did not expect to become the leader of this summer’s fraught anti-racism demonstrations in rural Sterling.
Two women with deep Logan County roots
I met Jones this summer after leaving New York due to the pandemic. Like Jones, I have deep family roots in northeastern Colorado, though I grew up in Englewood. My grandparents grew up there, on land settled by my great-grandparents that was once home to the Cheyenne, Arapaho and Pawnee people.
Sterling, the Logan County seat of about 14,000 people, is surrounded by corn, grain and sugar beet fields irrigated with water from the South Platte River.
According to the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 1.3% of residents are Black. Another 6.3% are of mixed race, and more than 90% are white. In Sterling, 15.5% of residents identify as Hispanic or Latino.
Sterling has what Jones calls “typical small-town, American charm” — lots of politeness and parks. Almost everyone does their grocery shopping at the single Walmart. At night, an orange glow from the Sterling Correctional Facility, the largest prison in the state and one of the town’s major employers, lights up the sky to the east. The prison was the site of one of the largest coronavirus outbreaks in the state; at least 566 inmates were sickened, and three died.
About one in five people in Sterling live in poverty. It’s one of the most conservative regions of the state; in 2016, about three quarters of the vote in Logan County went to Donald Trump.
The Black Lives Matter demonstrations that took place in thousands of cities and towns over the summer, like the people they represented, were diverse. Sterling and its residents don’t look like those in Brooklyn, where I usually live, or Portland, Minneapolis or Denver.
In Sterling, there weren’t calls for the abolition of police or specific resignations. The people who took the lead were not experienced organizers. For many there, the movement was much more personal: It was the first time they talked publicly about what they have faced as members of a small minority in a small town, an act that demanded tremendous courage.
“This town isn’t technically racist … They make a mockery of it, like it’s a big joke.”
In Sterling, the conversation began on Facebook.
It was the end of May, two months into the national pandemic crisis and about a week after police killed George Floyd in Minneapolis. As demonstrations against unjust policing and racism grew across the country, Michelle King noticed Sterling had been quiet.
King is white and lives in Sterling with her husband, Rashod, who is Black, and their daughter. When Rashod walked through their neighborhood, he told her, he often heard the sound of car doors locking.
King wrote a post on one of the town’s many community Facebook groups, all named some variation of “I Care Sterling.” She noted the community’s silence and suggested a gathering to honor Floyd and support people of color in Sterling. She also described what she had observed in her own family since they moved to Sterling three years ago from Sacramento, California: the prying questions she is asked about her biracial daughter and the suspicious looks Rashod gets in Walmart.
She has since removed the post due to the large number of negative responses. “It was just so many people saying not to bring that ‘bullshit’ here,” King said.
Jones was following the post from Fort Collins, where she had lived for several months. After high school, she went to Northeastern Junior College in Sterling for a while, then went through a difficult period when she became estranged from her mother, had a few run-ins with law enforcement and lost her housing. She moved away to start over.
Before the pandemic, Jones worked in a call center, providing customer service for a cosmetics company. She and her coworker, Nakylee Taj Levine, a Black woman from Louisiana, began having long conversations about race and identity. Between those conversations and the perspective she had gotten from moving away, Jones started to feel differently about her upbringing. All the times she had been followed through Walmart or asked to show her receipts, all the crude things older male customers had said to her when she was a waitress, the community’s reactions to Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest and the slurs and hurtful jokes she had been hearing her whole life suddenly seemed connected.
“Once I moved, it all just kind of fell apart because the ideals that I held and thought that were, weren’t,” Jones said.
After she saw King’s post, Jones decided to create another Facebook group, one that would be dedicated to the conversation about George Floyd and planning a gathering of some sort. She named it, simply, “Equal Peace For Sterling.” She thought maybe a few people would join.
“It kind of caught a big, huge wildfire. It took me by such a huge surprise,” Jones said. “I was calling my friend, flipping out at 40. … It’s like, that’s 40 people who might come!”
Soon, hundreds had added themselves to the group. Membership is now near 400.
One of those early members of Equal Peace For Sterling was Julia Ssessanga, who graduated from Sterling High School in 2018 and is now training to be a pilot at Metropolitan State University in Denver.
Her last name means “ivory of the elephants” in Luganda, a language spoken in her father’s native Uganda. Her mother’s family has lived in Sterling for close to 90 years. When Julia was in middle school, she and her mother moved from a diverse international community in Alaska to live in Sterling to be with Julia’s great-grandmother.
Despite her family history in Sterling, like Jones, she says she was constantly told she didn’t belong. She went to friends’ houses and then wasn’t invited back after she met their parents. She was called the n-word. She got so many comments about her hair in middle school that she permed it to make it straight. By the time she got to high school, her hair was so damaged she had to cut it off.
“This town isn’t technically racist,” she told me. “They mock it. Does that make sense? They make a mockery of it, like it’s a big joke. Right? Like, ‘Oh, it doesn’t affect anybody. Oh, it doesn’t harm anyone.’”
I could not find any organized information about the history of Black people in Sterling, but I found something else with the help of the archivist at the Overland Trail Museum, a history museum in town.
Sterling, like the rest of Colorado, was home to an enthusiastic KKK presence in the early 20th century. A cheery 1925 newspaper article in the Sterling Democrat described a massive Klan celebration, complete with a parade, fireworks and wedding at the town fairgrounds, saying “it was the largest crowd ever gathered for an evening of any kind in this county.”
When Ssessanga was in middle school, a young biracial woman in the high school gave her a piece of advice she never forgot: Get out of Sterling. “She just said, ‘Whatever you do, stick up for yourself and just push through. Because once you’re out, you’re out.’ That’s stuck with me like my whole time staying here,” she said. After she graduated, she counted down the days until she could move to Denver for college, and she passed that advice on to younger girls of color: “There’s two girls in the high school right now that I tell, ‘Once you get out of this town, the world is your oyster.’”
I interviewed her outdoors, under an overpass to avoid an oncoming thunderstorm. Over the sound of loud passing trucks, she described the early sessions of her pilot training. She began with a private instructor based at the Sterling Municipal Airport. The first time she flew over Sterling, watching it become a tiny patch of crisscrossing streets surrounded by a mosaic of fields along the South Platte River, she felt like she’d finally overcome it.
“I felt like I had a sense of freedom that I hadn’t had in all six years of me living here,” she said. “So right as soon as I felt that, I realized this is what I wanted to do.”
On Equal Peace For Sterling, a demonstration was being planned. Jones set up Facebook polls to ask which dates and times worked best for everyone. She said it wouldn’t be like the big city protests. “In small towns, we can take the time to poll and be like, ‘Hey, this is what we want to do. Ask your neighbors, ask your cousins.’”
Though she had left town, Ssessanga felt drawn back to Sterling to participate. “Obviously I know that nationwide, there’s a big issue with police brutality. But in rural areas like this, it’s not about the police. It’s about the community, which encompasses the police,” she said.
She was curious about what the reaction would be. They all were.
“We were heard … it felt bigger than me.”
On June 7, I arrived at the Sterling Black Lives Matter demonstration a few minutes before 7 p.m. with my partner and my mom. We came from the nearby town of Iliff, where we were living. My mom held a sign she painted that said “Stop killing Black people.”
There were a few dozen people gathered in front of the Sterling Police Department, all of them quiet, polite and a little shy. “We’re so glad you guys are here,” one woman said to every group as they walked up. Another person offered us bottled water from a cooler.
People continued to arrive until there were about 100 of us. Everyone wore masks. Some held signs. We did the same things protesters across the country were doing: We knelt for George Floyd for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, chanting “I can’t breathe,” and reciting the names of others killed by police. We cheered when passing cars honked and waved at us. But it felt more intimate. It seemed like many of us had never chanted like this before. A person wearing a Guy Fawkes mask livestreamed the whole thing, narrating it for anyone watching online. Jones and her friend Levine brought a speaker and played music.
Jones sought institutional participation too. Sterling police Chief Tyson Kerr formally addressed the crowd at the police station, condemning the killing of George Floyd to applause.
“Tonight alone, we are not going to be able to solve all of the issues that are before us. It can certainly serve as a springboard or a platform to continue the conversation, to continue to build trust,” he said. “We are one community, and the police department is just a piece of that puzzle.” Logan County Sheriff Brett Powell did not respond to Jones’ invitation to speak at the protest.
Jones was amazed by the turnout. “By the time I was done giving my speech, it was this huge crowd, and when we were marching, we were on both sides of the street marching,” she said. As we marched the couple of blocks to the courthouse, we grew louder, gaining confidence as we walked.
Many who passed us in their cars looked surprised and happy. Others did not.
Across the street, a group of white people, mostly men, watched us. Jones recognized “people I went to school with, people I’ve partied with, people I’ve been friends with.” The Sterling Journal-Advocate identified Sheriff Powell standing with a group of onlookers on the other side of the street a block away. Some people drove by once, and then circled the block again and then again, filming us on their phones. Ssessanga noticed a little boy who rolled down his window and yelled, “Go home!” A man on a motorcycle shook his head as he drove past, “Are you kidding me?” he yelled. A man outside a bar flipped us off as we marched past.
I realized I was with people who were protesting in a place where doing so was not anonymous, where they faced real social consequences. Everyone I talked to who participated in the protest was deeply moved by the turnout and the support. It felt to them like a watershed moment.
After we reached the courthouse, the group of demonstrators lingered there, reluctant to let the event end. On Equal Peace For Sterling, Jones posted, exuberant, “WE WERE HEARD TONIGHT! I am still just so blown away!! … We made history today!” Someone commented and said that it had been the best night of her life. “I cried a lot, just because it was this weird, overwhelming surprise and, like, acknowledgement,” Jones told me later. “I never thought I would see the day that Sterling would ever even care to hear a voice of Black lives, and it just felt bigger than me.”
But there were many people who were not there.
Ssessanga said she originally planned to meet an African American friend of hers from high school and the friend’s sister.
“And then I get there, and they’re not there. And I call, and I call, and I call, and she was like, ‘I just didn’t want the backlash, Julia,’” she said. “I know a lot of the African Americans from the high school, they didn’t come. Why would they? They’re immersed in this community, they can’t get out. They’re stuck here. Me, on the other hand, I could drive to Denver anytime I want. I don’t have to listen to what people say.”
When Chief Kerr handed the mic to Jones for questions from the group after his speech, she told him there were none.
“I did try to reach out to as many people of color who have been in this town who I’ve grown up with, who really have to grow in this community where we aren’t really welcome, ” she said, but no one wanted to come forward. She said there were no questions because they were afraid to speak up.
Jones received a series of nasty and threatening messages on social media as she planned the event, some alluding to running people over. Another said Jones should “watch what she does” and “run.” “I’ll be honest, if I was living here, I don’t think I would have done it,” she said.
Michelle King, whose Facebook post sparked the whole conversation, said her husband told her not to attend any more Black Lives Matter events in Sterling. “With everything going on and kind of seeing the people across the street, you could kind of tell that they weren’t in support of us,” she said of the group that gathered to watch the protest. “I just kind of knew that I had to separate myself and my daughter.”
“While the protest ends and everyone goes home, I’m still Black.”
The first protest was followed by two others, one the following Sunday and another on Juneteenth. Neither was as well-attended as the first. Debates and arguments escalated on Facebook, especially after Jones called out a town bar for displaying a Confederate flag.
Two days after the first protest, state Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, who represents Logan County, was the only state senator to vote against the Colorado legislature’s police reform bill. The bill requires body cameras and outlaws chokeholds among other changes. In an email, the senator said he supports prohibiting chokeholds, but he objected to what he called an “unfunded mandate,” referring to portions of the rule requiring law enforcement agencies to conduct new training and use certain equipment, but with no money attached.
“The vast majority of law enforcement does a great job and I am not willing to penalize them all for the reprehensible actions of a few,” Sonnenberg wrote.
The blue lives matter sentiment took hold in Sterling, with police handing out the black and blue flags that have come to symbolize support for their work. People organized coordinated thank you events to bring cards and baked goods to the police department, and the Sterling Journal-Advocate covered that along with the anti-racism protests.
Nowadays, the dialogue on Equal Peace For Sterling is still active, but less directed than it was before. The Sterling Journal-Advocate, a vital community newspaper that permanently closed its offices in the midst of the pandemic, has continued to explore what it’s like to be Black in Sterling, profiling the school district’s only Black educator, Dr. Jamie Johnson, and a biracial high school student athlete, Jaden Newson. The paper also published an op-ed by Johnson about what the Fourth of July means for people of color.
The people I spoke with told me they just wanted the town to have a conversation about these issues. Jones hoped to plan a community forum to discuss racism in Sterling, with an emphasis on making sure everyone is heard. With social distancing precautions, it’s unclear when or if that forum will take place.
“While the protest ends and everyone goes home, I’m still Black and still getting followed through Walmart,” Jones said.
But for all the people who threatened Jones online and said terrible things, there were the people who showed up and stood by her side. In one of our conversations, she described love for Sterling, even after all this. But I couldn’t quite hear what she said over the phone: Was it “I love my hometown,” or “I loved my hometown?” She paused. “That’s probably the hardest question you’ve asked so far,” she said. “I would probably say love.”