The T&T flag at the BLM Memorial Fence.

One of the focal points of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests which gripped the world for several months in 2020 was a two block long stretch of chain link fence erected outside the White House in Washington, DC, which spontaneously developed into a display of artwork, graffiti and protest signs.

The Black Lives Matter Memorial Fence, as it came to be known, transformed the fence—put up to keep at bay the crowds of protesters who gathered in the area after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020—into a unique art installation.

The job of protecting and curating the display was taken on by T&T-born Nadine Otego-Seiler who spent three months camped out at the site, repairing protest signs when they were vandalised or fell and placing them back on the memorial fence

“Two fences were put up around the White House, from June 2020 and finally removed in May/June 2021. While the second fence was put up, I gravitated to the fence and ultimately became the lead de-facto guardian,” she explained.

Otego-Seiler was eventually joined in her mission to protect the protest art by fellow activist Karen Irwin and together they waged an almost daily battle against pro-Trump supporters who hurled insults at them and defaced sections of the memorial fence.

When they got in her face and chanted “Make America great again!” Otego-Seiler would respond in her Trinidadian accent: “Make America great again to when? When were they lynching Black people?”

She admits that keeping up the vigil sometimes took a darker turn. Otego-Seiler and Irwin often had to defend the items on the fence from White nationalists and “militia types” but she said there were also many positive moments with “a lot of laughter and even soca.”

She also ensured that T&T was well represented by ensuring this country’s flag was prominent in the display “so folks knew ah Trinbagonian was around and often came asking, who is the Trini.”

“I am proud to say, I used the flag to taunt the former resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue N.W Washington D.C. 20005 (the White House). Our sh****le country did “good.”

Otego-Seiler, 56, who is originally from Tunapuna, emigrated to the United States in October 1987, but says she still feels deeply connected to the country of her birth. Her activism started when she found herself bristling at every anti-Black, anti-woman, anti-immigrant statement by President Donald Trump. She felt she had to do something, so she started going to the White House, a 45-minute drive from her home in Maryland, with protest signs.

She joined the 2017 and 2018 global women’s protests and then the Kremlin Annex protests that started after Trump’s 2018 Helsinki visit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

She started protesting at Lafayette Square when a George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis.

The BLM Memorial Fence has been officially dismantled but Otego-Seiler’s work continues as she is now spearheading the preservation of the collection. She is working on the establishment of a committee to decide what should be done with the items from the installation

She admitted: “I’m doing mostly by myself, and it has become a tad stressful, finding the storage fees and travel expenses, involved, with this phase of the project.”

She and Irwin reached out to museums to see if any of them were interested in taking the mementos, but the responses were mostly lukewarm responses. However, Howard University took 75 pieces for the school and the Library of Congress took 36 fence items, including two pieces Otego-Seiler created.

A digital resources specialist at the Enoch Pratt Free Library has taken in the task of scanning the items in batches through a high-tech scanner, which can keep every piece of debris intact on 3D items. The aim is to create metadata to display the items in online archives.

Otego-Seiler sees value in every item from the memorial fence, including those damaged by wind, sleet and debris, as they are all part of a mosaic of the moment. She wants to ensure every part of the installation is preserved.

“Everything has a story,” she said.