WILMINGTON — After three weeks of daily peaceful demonstrations, protestors and law enforcement clashed again late Tuesday evening for the first time since May 31. Law enforcement agencies have stood by their use of pepper spray and the arrests they made, but protestors dispute parts of the official account.
Following a tense City Council meeting, five people were arrested outside of Wilmington City Hall after protesters took their demonstration to the middle of Third Street.
At least two protestors were pepper-sprayed by one New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office deputy, according to video live-streamed by Evan Pye. A 22-year-old female protester was allegedly hospitalized after a Wilmington Police Department (WPD) officer pulled on her arm, apparently dislocating her shoulder, according to protest organizers. Wilmington Police Department spokesperson Jessica Williams could not confirm whether this incident occurred.
After the city lifted its 9 p.m. curfew last week, protestors sat in Third Street for nearly an hour until police broke up the demonstration around 11:20 p.m.
Tensions rose after the leader of the local protest against police brutality, Lily Nicole, was asked to leave a City Council meeting held at the Wilmington Convention Center after speaking out of turn.
Also, Council also did not implement any of the group’s seven demands for reform in adopting its fiscal year 2020-2021 budget, which did not include any notable police-related funding changes.
The meeting and Council’s inaction on the group’s demands agitated and prompted protestors to step up their civil disobedience tactics by occupying Third Street. Protestors sat in the middle of Third Street between about 10:30 and 11:20 p.m., until the first arrests were made and law enforcement herded protestors off the street.
Why it escalated
Protestors opted to elevate their tactics for a number of reasons, according to protest organizers. Generally, the protestors felt their concerns had gone unheard by the area’s political leaders after three weeks of nonstop peaceful assembly on the steps of City Hall.
So when City Council adopted its budget Tuesday evening incorporating none of the group’s requests, many said they felt slighted. Funded by the City, WPD’s new $37.1 million budget remains mostly unchanged from the current fiscal year.
“We definitely felt silenced. And just not, I don’t want to say taken seriously, but just discarded as if what we were talking about didn’t matter,” one of the protest’s head organizers, Lily Nicole, said in an interview Wednesday.
Council’s meeting was held at the Wilmington Convention Center to accommodate more people due to Covid-19 concerns. The meeting was streamed via a video conference and public speakers were permitted inside before being capped at 38 attendees. Those in attendance were corralled into separate rooms to watch the meeting on a projector.
Before the meeting began, Nicole said a fellow protestor attempted to press the unmute button on the city’s computer so that their room could be heard. She said she was threatened with a misdemeanor, which a city spokesperson confirmed.
Mayor Saffo addressed some of the protestors’ demands at the meeting, clarifying that WPD already has a policy in place requiring the use of body cams when officers are interacting with the public.
[Editor’s note: The current WPD body cams record continuously, but the footage is only saved when they are manually activated. This allows the camera to ‘jump back’ 30 seconds from when they are engaged. According to WPD, this is to avoid an unmanageable amount of data storage. However, some protestors have asked for cameras that do not involve officer discretion, removing the potential for un-recorded interactions.]
Saffo said WPD used to have a Citizen Review Board in the 90s that was disbanded for a reason unknown to him but that establishing a new one would be a good idea.
Saffo also listed off a long list of community partnerships WPD has fostered, describing reform as a lengthy process that has already been underway for years. “The more transparency we have in our system the more respect, I believe, that our officers will receive as well as the community has much more faith in our policing situation,” Saffo said.
Only six members of the public were permitted to speak during the public information portion of the meeting. Nicole said far more would have wanted to speak if they were permitted. According to city spokesman Dylan Lee, the six-person cap is a longstanding rule, requiring speakers to sign up ahead of time. Most meetings, only one or two speakers sign up, Lee said.
If all speakers take less than 30 minutes combined, the next speaker in line can address Council until the half-hour has elapsed. Anyone still left in line is automatically put first in the queue for Council’s following meeting.
“Council has a lot of business to go through at these meetings. They sometimes have gone to midnight even with this restriction in place,” Lee explained. “It’s just a matter of maintaining — it’s a rule that’s been in place to maintain functionality.”
Lee encouraged the public to get involved in the budget process earlier on in November when the months-long project begins.
Public hearings do not require speakers to sign up in advance and have no limit on the number of speakers. Nicole was permitted to speak later in the meeting during a public hearing for CARES Act funding and requested a city-wide rent freeze. At some point in the meeting, Nicole spoke out of turn, criticizing city officials for not being transparent and called them “frauds and liars,” she said. She was then escorted out of the building.
“At any point, whether it’s in City Hall or in the convention center. Any time people speak out of turn, they can be asked to leave the room. And if they don’t, they can be escorted out by police. That’s been the case always. It’s an organized meeting. It prevents it from turning into a yelling match,” Lee explained.
Joshua Zieseniss, one of the protestor’s lead organizers, said the events at City Hall led to the clashes later on. “Our entire group is very upset with the handling of us being able to go in there and express our demands. And also just a genuine lack of disregard for them,” he said Wednesday. “It eventually led to that boiling point where we’re just exhausted.”
After the Council meeting, protestors convened in front of the convention center parking deck.
According to a WPD news release Wednesday, protestors blocked officers that were attempting to escort a convention center employee out of the deck with a vehicle and their bodies. “Officers were able to get the worker out safely, but the crowd was growing increasingly hostile,” the release states.
Zieseniss said the group wasn’t actually blocking cars from exiting the deck and that they’d move to let cars through. About one dozen police officers lined up on Nutt Street to try to get the crowd to disperse.
The crowd eventually walked a little over a half-mile back to City Hall from the convention center. At around 10:30 p.m., protestors began occupying Third Street, setting traffic cones around the group, leaving one lane of traffic open.
At about 11:15 p.m., officers commanded the group to disperse under § 14-288.5. Several officers attempted to engage with protestors, requesting they move back to the sidewalk.
“Understand, we’re draining a lot of resources on the City right now,” Cpl. Peter Schwarz told protest organizer and former mayoral candidate Devon Scott.
“There’s a lot of other stuff, that obviously you know we’ve got a tremendous gang problem, shootings, stuff like that. We’ve got a lot of people pulled off the street right now, just minimizing everything else we’re doing everywhere else,” Schwarz told Scott.
In turn, Scott said the number of officers on the scene was unnecessary.
Though exact figures aren’t immediately available, WPD spokeswoman Jessica Williams confirmed the protests are putting a strain on the department’s resources. “Speaking anecdotally, I know they had to pull officers last night who had already worked a full day. It’s definitely incurring a lot of overtime,” she said.
By about 11:20 p.m., officers moved in on the crowd and arrested two individuals. They later physically carried Israel Alexander Sorenson off the street and arrested him (watch the moment where things escalate at the bottom of this article).
Sorenson’s arrest agitated the crowd. In a live-stream recording taken by Evan Pye, New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office deputies are seen pushing protestors, with one protestor pushing back. At least two Wilmington Police Officers are seen aiming non-lethal weapons at the crowd.
Another deputy uses pepper spray twice, spraying at least two people. Sheriff spokesman Lt. Jerry Brewer said after speaking with the officer who administered the pepper spray that officers were making an arrest behind him that he was unaware of.
“The crowd started coming at them as if to stop this guy getting arrested. He said there was four to one protesters versus them. So when he turned and that crowd started coming toward them he couldn’t let the crowd get to those officers so we pepper-sprayed to keep them back from advancing on them,” Brewer said. “Protesting is fine. It’s when you want to get out in the street and stop traffic and it causes problems.”
According to WPD, one protestor was pepper-prayed “after shoving a New Hanover County Sheriff’s deputy.”
However, protestors deny this, and video of the event seems to contradict it.
Zieseniss said the older man that was pepper-sprayed was simply trying to move people out of the road and onto the sidewalk. He was referring to veteran organizer Denny Best, who has served as the protest’s ‘peace monitor.’ On Facebook, Best adamantly denied that he shoved any officers.
Another incident, which WPD has neither confirmed nor denied, involved a woman who was ultimately hospitalized.
During the commotion, a young woman was attempting to cross to the other side of City Hall when an officer pulled on her arm to stop her, according to Zieseniss. She got spooked, and the officer grabbed her arm again, dislocating her shoulder and causing her to roll her ankle, Zieseniss said.
Zieseniss and Nicole said they picked the woman up from the hospital where she was treated for her injuries.
One young man that was pepper-sprayed went into shock and required medical attention, according to Zieseniss.
Tuesday night’s events highlighted an issue Zieseniss said the group has observed before. “I know most of the cops out there because they’ve been out there for the past few weeks now. Most of them were not being aggressive,” he said. But a few were, he said, holding up non-lethal guns and elevating the situation, representing an interdepartmental discord of approaches.
Asked what she would say to people who support the movement but disagree with tactics that include breaking the law, Nicole said:
“You can’t’ trust a system that’s not in place to protect you. We did it their way. We filed the paperwork. We respected the policies and procedures. We remained the utmost level of peaceful for 15 days and they constantly snubbed us to our face and they constantly shut us out and they constantly talk down to you or look down on you or treat you in a manner that isn’t respectful and unfortunately, even last night, we did not aggress, we did not fight back, there was no violence in our court.
“We sat in the middle of a road at 11 o’clock with no traffic and the businesses on both sides were blocked. Wilmington is a grid — literally, our sit-in was at most an inconvenience.
“So I get where they’re coming from, but we could have blocked [I-]40 or something reckless. Like a major highway that actually sees traffic. We could have taken it down to College Road and blocked that [expletive]. That would have been dangerous. But we were on Third Street. Between a bank and City Hall….
“I get the technicalities and I get the finite definition of the law. But I mean come on, look at the situation, we weren’t doing anything wrong. We weren’t putting ourselves in danger. at most, we were an annoyance.”
In all, officers arrested five individuals, each charged with impeding traffic and failure to disperse on command:
- Zachary Alan Ulrich, 30
- Jarod David Nizen, 22
- Brandon Zachary Odeh, 25
- Israel Alexander Sorenson, 28
- Christopher Steven Haynes, 31
The Wilmington Police Department has stood by its approach to Tuesday night’s incident.
“The protestors were given multiple warnings over a 15-minute period and officers tried to explain to them why it was unlawful to be in the road and they ignored that and chose to stay in the road. So I would say we stand by those arrests,” WPD spokeswoman Jessica Williams said.
A snippet of live-stream recorded by Evan Pye. Denny Best can be seen getting pepper-sprayed at the 46-second mark.
Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee Still at email@example.com