During chaotic protest, Wilmington woman works to deescalate

Published 8:20 am Monday, June 8, 2020

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The StarNews

WILMINGTON — People are calling her a hero, and saying she potentially helped keep a bad situation from getting even further out of control.

As protesters faced off with police in downtown Wilmington on May 31 — part of a nationwide show of outrage over a white Minneapolis police officer’s killing of a black man, George Floyd — Lily Nicole was consistently front and center, engaging directly with police and protesters.
Her goal, she said in an interview on June 1, was to “de-escalate” the situation, keep violence from breaking out and potentially stop buildings from being burned — like the one she works at, historic Thalian Hall, where she is an assistant technical director.

Violence eventually broke out anyway. Some protesters smashed windows, set off fireworks and threw at least one glass bottle at a police car, with most of the mayhem happening around 11 p.m., after the protests had been going on for five hours. Nine people were arrested.

But by visibly and passionately acting as a voice of reason, some are saying Nicole might have helped keep the chaos at bay while convincing some people to leave the area before things got out of hand. At one point, she convinced Wilmington Police officers to remove gas masks covering their faces, creating a moment that, at least temporarily, made a heightened situation a little less tense.

Facebook was filled with accolades for Nicole’s actions: “Thank you for being the change we need”; “Lily is a queen. And she knows how to speak peace and love”; “The power of words. Lily Nicole, you are a leader and a peace maker.”
The words “hero” and “heroine” made regular appearances on her feed.

But Nicole said she wasn’t trying to be a hero when she went down to the protests with several friends and her fiancee, Brandon Cagle, a little after 6 p.m. on May 31.

Nicole said she wasn’t part of the Black Lives Matter-sanctioned protest on May 30 that was calm by May 31’s standards. (Also an actress and a model, she was shooting a commercial on May 30, she said.)

Nicole and her friends were “suspicious” of the protest on May 31, she said, because no one knew who was behind it. Nicole, who said her mother is white and father is black, said she went in part to protest because she believes “minorities do not feel like they are part of America.”

She also went because she knew a large number of teenagers and young people were attending, and she was worried for their safety.

She said things were peaceful early on, but that people started getting agitated when a middle-aged white man in a light blue shirt started intentionally started coughing on protesters.

The man left, and when Nicole and her friends followed him, they came across police getting into riot gear.

“I was terrified,” she said, and ran back to the protests to warn people.

Eventually, Nicole wound up speaking with Interim Wilmington Police Chief Donny Williams at the intersection of Third and Princess streets.

She stepped up, she said, “Because nobody else was.”

Williams agreed, she said, to give her time to get people onto the sidewalks and out of the street.

After most people got onto the sidewalks, a line of Wilmington police marched out of the street to cheers from the crowd.

Nicole praised Williams for speaking to protesters while he was unarmed and without wearing a helmet or body armor.

“He believes in Wilmington,” she said. “He loves and wants to protect Wilmington.”

Williams was not available for comment on June 1. But WPD spokesperson Linda Thompson said Nicole’s actions were “very helpful and that’s the kind of work that we want to continue doing with community members.”

Thompson said the WPD’s response to the protest was planned with the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office, the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

At about 8:40 p.m. on May 31, after a warning, officers shot what appeared to be tear gas in the direction of the crowd, which scattered.

“I couldn’t breathe,” Nicole said, and “started to walk away” to go home. But she then went down to Front Street because she and her friends heard loud bangs coming from that area.

Soon, she was engaging with a line of Wilmington police. She convinced them to take off their gas masks in exchange for her exhorting people to leave. She shouted down other protesters who were trying to antagonize the police.

“I knew if the (police) took their masks off, we wouldn’t be gassed,” she said.Some protesters did leave. But others stayed, and Nicole said that someone in the crowd threw a glass bottle at a police car as it was driving away.

She screamed at them, “They were leaving!” she said. She went home herself about 10:45 p.m., just before most of the destruction occurred.

Nicole said she didn’t feel truly scared until the morning of June 1.

“I probably should’ve been more fearful” on the night of May 31, she said. Two or three times, her fiancee tried to physically take her from the protests: “Once he threw me over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes.”

Nicole said she finds fault with both the police (“I don’t think full riot gear was needed”) and with the protesters (“some of them did get out of hand”).

Ultimately, she said, neither side is to blame.

“It’s the system,” she said. “It’s got to be fixed. I don’t know how, but it does.”