WILMINGTON –– Raising signs demanding “Drop the Charges,” local activists joined once again on the New Hanover County Courthouse steps Monday –– this time to call on District Attorney Ben David to dismiss charges against leaders of Black Lives Matter protests that took over the streets of downtown Wilmington around this time last year.
The location of the assembly was just blocks away from David Walker’s historical marker on North Third Street, one organizer noted. The free, Black Wilmingtonian of the 19th century is memorialized for his defiant authoring of an antislavery pamphlet. Organizers highlighted the prominence of this venue, comparing the activists they were defending to the Greensboro Four and Wilmington 10.
“Everyone likes the victory story, but few people ever talk about the toil that it takes to be a leader,” said Ashley Daniels, one of several organizers behind a broad-based coalition pushing for dismissed charges.
The leaders Daniels and others spoke of were the lowercase leaders. Prominent members of the Wilmington activist group –– Nicole Nelson (who goes by Lily Nicole), Timothy Joyner and Joshua Zieseniss –– are scheduled to appear in court May 27 on charges of injury to real and personal property.
After months of boiling tensions over downtown protests — complaints arose over the demonstrations breaking traffic flow, interrupting the public and reportedly taking up police resources — the group was accused in October of vandalizing a “Wilmington for Trump” billboard, which at the time was backed by the New Hanover County GOP.
“I think it’s outrageous,” Republican party Chair Will Knecht said of the coalition’s demand to scrub charges. “If they’re innocent, they should be found innocent in a court of law.”
In the fall, protesters shared photos of themselves online with the damaged signs, according to Knecht.
The “Wilmington for Trump” billboard initially raised red flags, as it broke campaign laws without identifying who paid for it. After local media outlets took note of the federal violation, the New Hanover County GOP announced it was taking over the sign. It also replaced it once vandalized.
“Donald Trump was the Republican nominee for president of the United States,” Knecht said. “They didn’t have to vote for him. They could work for Joe Biden. They could do anything they want to get their candidate elected. But, again, whoever the guilty party is destroyed property.”
James Earl Frazier was one of the four accused of ripping apart the pro-Trump billboard. His charges were dropped Nov. 17 when he attended court alongside Joyner in regards to a June 14 incident.
Both pled guilty to spray-painting a Confederate statue downtown with “BLM” and swastikas, and both entered into a Prayer for Judgement Continued, a tool used in North Carolina to mitigate impacts of a conviction. That same day, charges against Frazier for the billboard incident were dismissed. Frazier told Port City Daily he didn’t understand the reason behind it.
“I wish I knew why because if mine were dropped then so should theirs,” Frazier said.
Less than 10 days from the May 27 court date, the coalition is committing to contacting the district attorney every day, requesting he dismiss the charges against Nelson, Joyner and Zieseniss. The group is also asking for donations through mobile payment apps to cover the protesters’ legal fees.
The coalition is seeking other individuals and groups to contact David continuously, although the call for action promoted through this week’s media conference may have backfired. The district’s attorney office said it received dozens of calls, and not all were in favor of dismissal.
“Some citizens are asking for the cases to be dismissed, while others are asking for the prosecution to proceed,” Sam Dooies, assistant to David, wrote in an email to Port City Daily.
Joyner, Nelson and Zieseniss did not issue any statements to outlets and were absent from the press conference. “All they should have to do in this moment is breathe air and drink water,” coalition member Daniels told reporters.
The coalition believes the indictments are a waste of government resources and insinuated law enforcement are using the non-violent charges to “make an example” out of the protesters. Organizer Nada Merghani told reporters the protesters are victims of police surveillance, a tactic historically used against Black activists, like Martin Luther King Jr.
Merghani accused the Wilmington Police Department of flying drones over the homes of the accused. Merghani said WPD posted outside their homes and directed their landlords to cut down trees so they could better survey their properties. The Wilmington Police Department denied the allegations.
“I mean, we’ve got real crime that’s going on,” spokesperson Lt. Leslie Irving said.
The coalition also points to the three contributing more good than harm to the community. A press release listed several of their accomplishments, such as the fact that Joyner reads to kids of New Hanover County Schools, and that Zieseniss served as a youth camp leader at Hannah Block, and that Nelson helped found the Wilmington School of the Arts and volunteers for Sokoto House’s youth programs.
“Instead of threatening these folks with jail time, we should be thanking them for their willingness to, day after day, show up and remind us of the work that we each have to do if we’re going to confront those who still want to use race to divide us,” speaker Anna Lee, co-director of Working Films, said Monday.
But Knecht argues “we like them” and “we believe what they believe” isn’t a reason to bypass court.
“It’s not the same as the Greensboro Four,” he added.
Send tips and comments to Alexandria Sands at firstname.lastname@example.org