lowercase for a HIGHER cause

Lily Nicole organizes for change in Wilmington

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Wilma 0720 Lily 5When LILY NICOLE, a local artist, educator, and activist, heard about a protest being planned at Wilmington City Hall for the evening of Sunday, May 31, she was both supportive and concerned.

The protest was in honor of George Floyd, a Black man killed by a police officer in Minneapolis just days earlier. Tensions throughout the country had been running high since Floyd’s death, with many protests ending in confrontations with police and destruction of property. Nicole didn’t want the same to happen in Wilmington.

“I knew a bunch of youth were attending, but there was no clear organization,” she says. “I was also outraged about George Floyd, but initially I went down not to protest, but to make sure s— didn’t hit the fan.”

Wilma 0720 Lily 7As the evening wore on, protesters spilled off the sidewalk and into the street, blocking traffic. Police officers and sheriff ’s deputies arrived in riot gear. Chaos seemed imminent, and that’s when Nicole decided to step in. She approached Interim Police Chief Donny Williams and asked him to work with the protesters. He agreed and gave them five minutes to clear the streets.

“The protesters started leaving,” Nicole says. “I’m proud of that. They were upset, but they were getting out of the street and onto the corners.”

But, despite Williams’s promise, the protesters did not get their full five minutes, she says. Accounts vary about what happened next, but after about two-anda- half minutes, law enforcement began to fire tear gas into the crowd. The next day, Nicole spoke to Williams by phone to discuss the events of the previous night.

“He talked about his side; we talked about our side,” she says. “He commended our attempts for cooperation, and that’s when we started bringing up our questions.”

While they came to no conclusion about what happened that night, Nicole realized there was a lack of communication between the police, the sheriff, and the community.

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Since that night, the daily protests in front of City Hall and marches through downtown Wilmington have continued. They’ve also evolved, becoming more organized and focused.

“We believe a protest without a purpose is pointless,” Nicole says. “So, we have evolved into community education and outreach.”

The early part of each day features different speakers who share key issues and register voters, while the evening hours are reserved for protesting, marching, and demonstrating. Nicole believes that to create meaningful change, people have to first understand what their community needs.

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“The morning portion of the day is for that,” she says.

So, what does Wilmington need? Nicole and fellow organizers have formed a new activist and protest group called the lowercase leaders to help answer that question.

“(The lowercase leaders) didn’t ask for this, and we don’t want to be the face of things,” Nicole says. “It’s not about me or about us. It’s literally a community coming together. We’re a hodgepodge of people who were in the right place at the right time with the same mission.”

The group recently released a list of seven demands for the Wilmington Police Department, with a focus on community education and outreach. The demands include things such as reallocating some of the department’s annual budget to restorative justice and community-led interventions, creating a citizens review board, requiring mental health support and cultural competency training for all officers, mandatory use of body cameras for officers when they’re engaging with the public, and installing Williams as the city’s next police chief.

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“We’re not out to villainize the police,” Nicole says. “We don’t think the police in Wilmington should be defunded. We think the officers should get a different deal.

“They should have mandatory therapy sessions, and they should be put on desk duty until they complete the sessions. You can’t see the worst of the world and not talk about it. Police need to be set up so they can succeed.”

In addition, the group wants to see education specific to Wilmington’s history added to police training, as well as more community policing in general.

Wilma 0720 Lily 4“Walk around, meet the people in your district, come to our block parties, get to know people so you’re not just an officer, you’re a part of the community,” Nicole says. “A lot of officers relocate here or didn’t grow up here, and they should know about the community they’re policing.”

The lowercase leaders plan to register as a 501(c)(3) and gain nonprofit status, which would help them have a lasting impact beyond the downtown protests, and they’ve already seen a groundswell of enthusiasm for their plans.

“This is something the community believes is needed,” Nicole says, “and we’re so thankful for that support.”

To view more of photographer Terah Wilson’s work, go to terahwilson.com.

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Categories: Features