“Once a theatre kid, always a theatre kid,” says Lily Nicole, madame chair of the Lowercase Leaders, a soon-to-be 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Nicole has been seen on local stages in numerous plays in Wilmington, from Panache Theatrical Productions’ “The Cake” to Pineapple-Shaped Lamps “Wolfcrush.” She’s also worked for Thalian Hall and chairs the soon-to-be-launched Wilmington School of the Arts. Yet, most folks have seen her front and center on a larger stage since June 1: at City Hall steps where she has been leading protests daily and encouraging voices to be heard loud and clear against the systemic racism and police brutality seen nationwide
Whereas Nicole has been the face and voice of the cause, Zieseniss—much like his role as stage manager for Thalian Association—is behind the scenes doing heavy lifting each night after the protests. He stays up into the early hours of the morning deep-diving into city budgets and policies, assessing spreadsheets and figuring out paperwork to register the nonprofit.
Recently, the Lowercase Leaders helped with a 130-plus page explanation, in collaboration with Black Lives Matter, New Hanover for All and other community members, for seven demands of Wilmington City Council. They asked the council to reduce $5 million from the police department’s $37.5 million in the city budget to go toward community-led restorative justice; a citizen’s review board with subpoena power and budget-approval power; required therapy for law officers; mandatory use of body cams on law enforcement; required cultural competency training; deprioritizing misdemeanors; and to instate Interim Chief Donny Williams as the official chief of the Wilmington Police Department (update: council voted unanimously to instate him during Tuesday, June 23’s meeting).
Last Tuesday, June 16, about 100 or so protesters marched to the Wilmington Convention Center for the public council meeting, which was socially distanced and only allowed around 38 people in three separate rooms to watch council meet via Zoom. The city’s main priority was to pass its budget. Though numerous speakers took to the lectern to make a case for why a citizen’s review board was needed, why money shouldn’t fund unnecessary military toys for local police, and why statues and monuments should come down that don’t represent all people in Wilmington (update: the city temporarily have removed the statues as a “public safety” measure as of Thursday, June 25), the council didn’t concede to any request at that time. They also moved forward on the budget.
“We felt shut out, unheard,” says Nicole, who also was asked to leave the public meeting for speaking out of turn.
So they marched back to City Hall, and around 10:30 p.m. or so a smaller group held a sit-in and prayer circle in the turning lane on Third Street, between City Hall and the bank. They blocked themselves off by orange safety cones so they would be visible to incoming traffic. It wasn’t long before a slew of officers from WPD and New Hanover Sheriffs Department combined blocked Third Street, demanding protesters get back to City Hall steps, where they were permitted to picket, else arrests would be made. Many stayed put and tried to speak to officers.
“When you roll up with that many officers, that’s when it becomes aggressive,” Nicole says. “Also, there was an officer trying to talk to me who had a hand on his gun the entire time.”
Among many who were maced was The Lowercase Leaders’ peace monitor, Denny Rufus, who was trying to help people out of the street, per police orders. A young lady had to go to the hospital after her arm was dislocated when an officer grabbed her just as a protester reached for her from the other side to help her onto a curb. A lot of yelling and commotion took place, including an officer hoisting a paintball/pepper-ball gun. Five people were arrested.
“It’s exactly what we’ve been seeing nationwide: excessive, unnecessary force,” Zieseniss says.
“Why couldn’t we have had a dialogue?” Nicole questions. “One officer was willing to talk to me that night but was ordered not to. . . . yes, we were in the middle of the street—it’s the most radical thing we’ve done. We barely broke the law. But at that time of night, with very little traffic and danger, honestly, WPD could have given us just that one thing; it didn’t have to go [the other] way.”
“When you look at the budget, there are just unnecessary purchases that can be better,” Zieseniss says, bringing our conversation back to the topic at hand. “For officers to receive better pay, required, mandated mental-health services and better training to prevent these instances.”
NC law enforcement are only required to be trained 16 weeks and have a year to complete the Basic Law Enforcement Training State Comprehensive Written Examination to be sworn in as an officer. The average turnover rate, according to the National Criminal Justice Reference Service, is 14%.
“When you offer that [kind of training] as a bare minimum, the turnover rate will continue to be bad,” Nicole says. “They’re treated like shit. They’re working in a shit system and don’t have support. I can’t speak for them, but it seems to me their training desensitizes them. It’s heartbreaking.
“Which leads to greater systemic issues we’re dealing with now,” Zieseniss adds.
“Constantly hurting people, constantly treating minorities like animals,” Nicole continues. “People deserve to live. People deserve the right to exist regardless of their color or ethnicity.”
During one of the Lowercase Leader’s earlier protests, Nicole was joking around with an officer light-heartedly, as she thought they had established a good rapport. It was the day she found out they had a year of permits ready to go for protests on City Hall steps. He asked her how long “all of this” was going to last, and when she answered through June 6, 2021, he responded, “It’s wasting our resources,” and proceeded citing crimes that had happened a week prior, including two homicides.
“I told him, ‘I grieve for that community member, I grieve for that family suffering loss, but we don’t need you down here.’ He said, ‘No, we need to protect the protesters, but we don’t have resources.’ I said, ‘Well, you need to take that up with the person you work for. It’s not my fault you can’t protect the city and protesters simultaneously. Respectfully, we’re protesting to get you guys more money, better support, more training—we’re also fighting for you.’”
Nicole points to a lot of the events officers bear witness to yet don’t work through emotionally, mentally and intellectually as part of the broken system. It absolutely must change in order to work for citizens.
“[Officers] are going inside these houses and neighborhoods and seeing the worse of the worse and the darkest of the darkest, so not requiring therapy at least six times a year—how about 16?—isn’t working. We want them healthy, to go home to a safe place. They hurt and don’t get paid enough . . . North Carolina is just not taking care of its people.”
As protests continue, action is evolving and growing beyond the streets and the leaders’ demands. The Lowercase Leaders have a full calendar beginning daily at 8 a.m. So far they have met with councilman Jonathan Barfield about taking over community gardens to help feed marginalized areas of Wilmington. They have been arranging meetings with Senator Harper Peterson, and representatives Deb Butler, Ted Davis and Holly Grange about overturning the NC state law that prevents removal of Confederate statues and monuments (though the city technically has the ability to make a call). They’re talking with local organizations like Coastal Horizons, Carousel Center, Domestic Violence Shelter and Services and Grandmothers Raising Grandchildren—the latter two receive all the leftovers from the daily protests, like water, food, supplies, etc. (local businesses like Fu Wangz, Tidal Creek, Brooklyn Pizza, among many others, have been sending food, ice and other items to City Hall).
The leaders are reaching out to folks to speak to protesters on themed days as well. On one recent Political Tuesday, they had District Attorney Ben David speak and on another, county commissioner candidate Leslie Cohen. “She will come back and join us in October for a walk to vote,” Nicole says. “And, should people feel inclined, we are going to ask them to march to the polls with her. Community involvement: it’s one of our primary investments.”
“There is also something to be said about politicians showing up to the rallies,” Zieseniss says. “We can research all day long about Leslie Cohen’s platform but her coming to speak to us, that will stand out. People can learn firsthand her beliefs.”
During Mentor Monday they welcomed Sonya Patrick, leader of Black Lives Matter Wilmington, who iterated the message of being present and using a voice. She also stressed the importance of taking that voice to the polls. “We are really hammering voting,” Nicole says. In fact, Lowercase Leaders have registered more than 300 voters at their protests, and folks can request an absentee ballot as well. They will continue registering folks nightly, especially since it’s an election year.
They’re also honing their message for “little protesters” by doing youth organizing and social distancing rallies from 8 a.m. to noon daily. They welcome families to bring kids to learn more about social and racial justice during two-hour blocks. “We aren’t children’s teachers, so we want to build a bridge with an organization that works with children so they can devise a good curricula.”
Lowercase Leaders also have begun Community Day Saturday, where they help neighborhoods in need. Now that hurricane season is underway, they are looking to put together hurricane preparedness packages. “A lot of us live right on the Northside of downtown, so we’re introducing ourselves. If we see a fallen tree, we have a couple of guys who have chainsaws who plan to help and get the trees down. We want to help rake leaves, if need be. We just want to get to know our neighborhoods and assist.”
The broader picture for the Lowercase Leaders includes solidifying an official building they can call home, to plan and operate the nonprofit out of because, at the end of the day, their protests are more than performative. A new group of leaders are ready to plant roots to expand and reach their goals beyond holding a megaphone.
“Right now, we have the greatest stage management positions ever,” Nicole analyzes. “We are getting so embedded into a different aspect of community—and we want to be here for them. The way I see it, we are not leaving theatre, it’s just going in a different avenue.”
MEET THE LOWERCASE LEADERS
Madame Chair, “face” of protests, chair of Wilmington School of the Arts
Treasurer, works at Carousel Center, helps with trauma therapists at City Hall during protests
Member, works with Thalian Association, huge political nerd who stays up ’til 3 a.m. reading 200-page budgets
Member and logistics man, responsible for obtaining a year-long permit for the ILM protests
Member, nonprofit experience, dreamt up the community-based organization Lowercase Leaders
Member, works with indigenous tribes in the Amazon
Member, protest medic
Member, who says “Lowercase Leaders gave me my second chance, I want to do that for my community.”
Jane Jacobs (a.k.a. Mama Jane)
Member, Indigenous woman who participated at Standing Rock Protest and is the glue that keeps the organization together
Member and “privileged white man raising an African American child” who wants to see better for his son
Member, nonprofit experience, one of the largest activists in town