A Pittsburgh activist and art curator said when she tried to start a fire at two different pizzerias one night in October 2019, she was mentally exhausted from fighting a racist system.
“My brain broke,” Nicky Jo Dawson told a judge on Thursday. “It was literally an act of exhaustion that I felt I couldn’t control at the time.”
Dawson, 39, pleaded guilty to one count of arson and one count of criminal mischief for his actions on the night of October 29, 2019.
Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Kelly Bigley ordered Dawson to serve three years of probation, including six months under electronic monitoring. Dawson will be allowed to work and travel for work as co-owner and curator of Blaqk House Collections, an art gallery on Smithfield Street.
“I’m not a threat to this community,” Dawson told the judge. “I really am not. I had a moment.
Investigators say Dawson walked into Cafe Milano on downtown Sixth Street around 10:15 p.m. that night, ordered a shot and a beer, then took the Heineken bottle, put a wick in it, and turned on.
She then tossed it into a hot fryer filled with oil, Assistant District Attorney Rebecca Walker said.
“She was also seen throwing her lighter in the grease,” the prosecutor said.
Police said Dawson also entered Pizza Milano on Fifth Avenue Uptown at 11:05 p.m., where they said she set fire to the woman’s restroom and a stack of pizza boxes.
No one was injured in either incident and property damage was minimal.
Dawson had been vocal in protesting Milano after an Uptown location official, Mahmut Yilmaz, was accused of attacking and assaulting Jade Martin on January 12, 2018.
A video of the attack has gone viral and the person responsible has been charged. But he was later found not guilty.
During Dawson’s hearing on Thursday, defense attorney Heath Leff said his client was civic and active in the community. He said his actions that night stemmed from mental exhaustion, desperation and misguided efforts in the face of his frustration at the lack of accountability for Martin’s assault.
“She knows that was the wrong way to plead to right the wrongs of the world,” he said. “It was a symbolic gesture which, thankfully, was no worse than it could have been.”
Bigley said either way it could have been a completely different outcome.
“In a second, this place could have gone up like a powder keg,” Judge said. “It is only by the grace of God that nothing happened, and no one was injured and no one died.”
But Dawson replied, “Somebody got hurt. Jade was injured. I was hurt. The whole community was hurt.
Bigley said she had no control over this matter and was focusing on those in front of her. She also told Dawson she was glad her actions weren’t trying to send a message.
“If you had done it for a cause, then clearly you are at a point where your advocacy is no longer productive, and in fact it would be counterproductive,” Judge said.
She acknowledged that the recommended range for Dawson called for a prison term of 22 to 36 months. But Bigley also noted that Dawson had no previous criminal convictions, hadn’t had any issues since his arrest and worked in the community.
“I think you have a lot of gifts to give,” Judge said. “But don’t let it consume you.”
“My business is my advocacy,” Dawson replied. “I’m not looking to backtrack, harass or hurt anyone. It was never my intention in the first place.
But she continued: “I’m still struggling with that, because as I sit here today, nothing has changed.”