At Bespoke Coffee last Friday afternoon, Tim Joyner sips a cup of hot tea to soothe his raspy voice while talking to me about the past week of protests in downtown Wilmington. Joyner always has maintained a loud voice within his community. Activism is embedded in his soul—a calling instilled in him from his mother and father, both pastors from Greenville, NC. He remembers attending his first protest when he was only 6 or 7.
“My dad took me to a Piggly Wiggly in my grandmother’s neighborhood,” he says. “They were protesting because the grocery store was price gouging: cashing people’s checks but taking more money out of it than a check-cashing place because it was located where low-income, elderly and marginalized people live. . . . So my grandmother came to the store and headed toward the door. I said, ‘Grandma, don’t go in.’ She said, ‘I’mma go in; you move out of my way.’ I looked at my dad, and he said, ‘That’s life.’”
Joyner’s parents led by example, doing boots-on-the-ground outreach throughout his life, whether bringing in FEMA trailers filled with free clothes and food for neighborhoods in need, or generally organizing communal events that kept them face-to-face with people. His father marched with the Black Panther Party in Greenville, and his mother was a part of integrating the middle school during Dr. King’s activism.
Joyner has been a part of Wilmington protests since 2014. The 34-year-old UNCW grad has supported local organizations like Black Lives Matter, NAACP, Black Leadership Caucus, Support the Port, Advanced Youth Outreach, LINC Inc., and more. He’s volunteered at schools like D.C. Virgo and Rachel Freeman School of Engineering, reading to kids in the morning, or working with them after school on poetry, while also managing his full-time job at Port City Tattoo.
“I was always told I wouldn’t be able to work with [kids] looking the way I do,” he tells, his skin pierced and dotted with tattoos. “But, now, because of the way I look, they want me to work with them. Someone at the protest a few days ago said, ‘Oh, I know who you are; you came to my school a few months ago.’”
Judgments fall by the wayside outside City Hall, where Joyner can be seen nightly alongside young folks who have shown up every day since May 31 to protest the murder of George Floyd and the systemic racism running rampant in the U.S. Joyner has spoken words of comfort over the megaphone in the past week. He’s also offered hugs and solace, including to his friend Destiny Davis, whose uncle Brandon Smith was shot by sheriff’s deputies while unarmed on October 13, 2013. Smith was accused of shooting an officer in the Creekwood neighborhood of Wilmington on October 10, though his family maintains his innocence. His name has been spoken among many others at the daily protests. “We are adding a name every night,” Joyner tells. “We can’t keep up.”
The heaviness of the May 31 protest, which turned riotous after New Hanover County Sheriff’s Department launched tear gas and fire bangs, weighed on Joyner on Monday morning. He awoke to messages that burned to his core, from people he thought knew him better: “I heard you had a gun; please, tell me you didn’t,” or “Did you throw a Molotov cocktail?”
He did neither.
He began texting his dear friend and neighbor, Lily Nicole, who has garnered national media attention for easing tensions between police and protesters Sunday evening. Joyner asked how she was. Her response: “Safe, but not OK.”
“It’s how I felt, too,” he says. “After leaving downtown Sunday night, I cried. I cried because the youth got gassed. I cried because a mother was covering her child as we ran from the library to another spot for safety. I cried because that’s not us. Because it hurts. I cried. There was no other way. I cried because I knew we were going to be vilified. I cried because I knew that everything was going to turn on us.”
Not to be deterred, Joyner and Nicole returned the next day to the steps of City Hall to stand with the youth again. The experience was one of unity, and resulted in the group securing seven days of permits to host protests daily. That number grew to 365 days of permits by Friday, June 5, to last through June 6, 2021.
The protests have become more organized in a very short time. The organizers have begun reaching out to counselors and therapists who wish to be onsite to offer help to those suffering from any traumas incurred by the unbalanced equality happening in our nation. There are daily themes taking place, like Women of Color Wednesday, Community Leaders Saturday or Peaceful Sundays—all of which include speakers that match the theme. Nicole and Joyner both have shared their own stories, and speakers from local chapters of Black Lives Matter and NAACP have spoken. A Native American, lovingly known as Momma Jane, recently closed out the evening before their 9 p.m. curfew with 9 minutes of silence, representing the amount of time Derek Chauvin had his knee on George Floyd’s neck.
Even councilman Kevin Spears —the city’s only black representative on council—came out. “Kevin Spears is my accomplice, my brother,” Joyner says. “I even got him to speak, but it was clear he was nervous being out there because of COVID.” When Joyner got home that evening, he saw a post Spears had put on on Facebook: “It’s time to find another way to protest. I know I know; don’t tread on the young people. I’m not, but if Black Lives really Matter, then you have to quit hogging all of the city/county resources to the downtown area. There was a shooting earlier today. Another shooting 2 days ago and a stabbing. Not to mention that 2 recent killers walking the streets free. Protestors are tired, law enforcement is tired, I’m tired, you’re tired and you’re all standing too damn close to one another because the Coronavirus has not left town!”
Joyner confirms protest organizers are handing out masks and offering hand sanitizer, all culled from donations. Nights when protests draw less people, they can space out more, but when 700 show up, like last Thursday, it’s impossible. Still, Joyner believes the cause transcends any potential health concerns. Stopping unnecessary police force to black Americans and people of color remains priority number one.
“I wish the police knew how to use their budget better,” Joyner says with regards to Spears’ post. “Councilman Spears has to say what a councilman has to say, I get it—but I wish back in the day, when they would send six cops out to swarm one incident, they used their [budget] more responsibly. I wish they would respond to killings more . . . we can’t let the cops give us such an answer and expect it to be OK because, of course, they’re going to say what they could do only if—how fitting. It’s like, ‘Let’s take some heat off of us: Want us to stop the killings, how about you stop the protests?’”
Defunding and abolishing the police are hot topics currently nationwide, especially after the Minneapolis City Council announced its intent to disband their department and the LAPD banned the use of chokeholds. Joyner, too, supports in reconstructing the current system. “I believe if there is a model in existence this wrong that have repeatedly resulted in injustices on [black Americans], sometimes even legally—if an experiment that has that many black eyes on it hasn’t worked, it has to be destroyed and restructured.”
Joyner would like to see more community policing and unbiased people holding officials accountable. He also is in support of a community review board that considers all police officer complaints.
“We need community accountability reports more rapidly,” he says. “We don’t need to just see [New Hanover and Pender County District Attorney] Ben David when everything goes wrong. A lot of meetings are happening and happening and happening . . . but these meetings happen when working people cannot be there. Measures should be taken to increase de-escalation training but also community members should become watchdogs. Maybe we could have an independent filmmaker record every meeting, and record how officers are being retrained, and then community members run the YouTube and social media channels for the city and county institutions, and make sure the videos are uploaded for full transparency.”
Community ties must strengthen between citizens and authorities, according to Joyner, to build trust with youth as well. Though interim police chief Donny Williams of Wilmington Police Department already has initiated community policing—including officers riding around neighborhoods to make connections and sincerely talk with citizens, not patrol, and continuing programs like Santa Cop, Cop Camp and Port City Super Girls Community Watch—Joyner says we need more. “Donny Williams is only one man,” he says. “There needs to be more of that from him and more of that from other officers.”
More so, Joyner believes when transparency is evident, everyone is held accountable. That includes officers who sometimes are discriminated against for standing up for what’s right.
“Of the same accord, if [an officer] is so upstanding, he or she should be taking a lot more accountability and standing up for all who suffer from the thin blue line, the blue shield. But when they stand up, what happens? They get left out in the line of fire.”
Joyner will continue to protest for as long as it takes to incite incremental change. It’s nothing new for him, really. He admits things do feel more impactful this time around. The tenacity of this new generation of activists is inspiring him more.
“We have the whole nation out—the whole world—it’s amazing and it feels different,” he says. Acknowledgment from organizations and businesses, though it sometimes seems pandering, feels like long-deserved recognition. Joyner cites Cartoon Network going dark for 9 minutes, as well as statements from companies locally, like Boombalattis, and nationally, like Ben and Jerry’s, as hopeful.
“There are so many things coming,” he predicts. “And we have to make sure we know what ideology we are going by and stick together—no matter if you’re Republican, Democrat, anarchist, socialist, Communist, Libertarian, whatever.”
That being said, Joyner encourages everyone to fulfill their civic duty by voting come November—no matter what. While he understands many cannot protest due to health concerns surrounding the pandemic — “no one thought three months ago we would be here” — it doesn’t mean folks can’t be active in other ways. He points to three items that can make a difference:
- Donate to Wilmington’s protest bail fund, which also helps provide protest supplies. “If you want us to stop diverting resources, a.k.a. police at protests, well, donate to our causes that help us reach equitable justice,” Joyner says. Local organizations include Black Lives Matter, NAACP, Black Leadership Caucus, Support the Port, Advanced Youth Outreach, LINC Inc.
- “Watch the narrative, and once you see it being spun a certain way, correct it. One negative spin can ruin our platform,” he forewarns. If misinformation is spread on social media, he says to screenshot and correct it. “I love that media has all eyes on us—but, yes, all eyes are on us, so we need to think how our voices are being used on various platforms. Share links to events and to correct information.”
- Most importantly, he encourages everyone, especially white people, to examine their friend and family circles. Are you living what you preach? Is there diversity in your friend group? Take stock of your companions and their beliefs. “I know many people who mean well but don’t really live what they preach,” Joyner says. More so, don’t avoid hard discussions with family. “It gives them an echo chamber against us,” Joyner says. “And I know it’s hard but these constant videos we see are hard. Tamir Rice was hard. Mike Brown was hard. Philando Castile was hard.”