LOS ANGELES — The chants outside the downtown Los Angeles courthouse were familiar, but this time they weren't talking about Britney Spears.
"Free Nichelle Nichols!"
"Isolation is abuse!"
"Hey hey, ho ho, the conservatorship has got to go!"
On Monday afternoon, a group of just over a dozen #FreeBritney supporters and fans of Nichelle Nichols, who became a Star Trek legend for her portrayal of Nyota Uhura, marched around Stanley Mosk Courthouse to raise awareness about the 89-year-old actor's situation. Since 2018, Nichols has been living under what they believe is another abusive conservatorship that has allowed her son, Kyle Johnson, to take control of her life and finances and decide who she sees and where she lives.
"We're going to do whatever we can to shed light on the issue and to make sure that there's lasting change for not just Britney, not just Nichelle but everyone who is trapped in this corrupt system," #FreeBritneyLA organizer Kevin Wu told BuzzFeed News.
Known for her trailblazing role as Lt. Uhura in the original series that first aired in the 1960s, Nichols is now living with dementia, a condition that has made her susceptible to exploitation, Johnson claimed in his original petition to place her under the court's supervision. But her longtime friend Angelique Fawcette, a producer and actor, has argued that Nichols was and is able to manage her affairs with help from an assistant and that Johnson is not acting in her best interests.
Instead, Fawcette says Johnson moved his mother out of her Woodland Hills home to New Mexico against her will, sold her property against her wishes, and isolated her from her friends. She points to a troubling 2019 recording of Nichols screaming at Johnson to get his hands off of her and a deposition from a former conservator who raised concerns about him having control as proof that he is unfit to take care of his mother. "You're trying to get rid of me," Nichols cries at her son in the recording.
"You just can't come and take people’s home and money and just say, 'Hey, it's mine. Sorry, you're old, you're almost dead anyway, so I'm taking this,'" Fawcette told BuzzFeed News. "Look at all these amazing old people who are out there doing things. They’re living the life 'til their last drop and that's really what I'm fighting for, for Nichelle."
BuzzFeed News uncovered abuse, neglect, and death across the US guardianship industry. Read our investigative series "Beyond Britney" here.
During a hearing on Monday, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge overruled Fawcette's objections to Johnson's final accounting report for his mother's conservatorship, which is now under the jurisdiction of a New Mexico court, finding that she did not have standing to lodge her complaints and that they did not pertain to any specific line items in the report.
Fawcette and her attorney Matthew Taylor tried to argue that Johnson failed to declare Nichols' home and neighboring property as assets of the conservatorship estate and provide the necessary evidence required by state statute to sell the properties. They also alleged that Johnson may be misappropriating his mother's assets and asked for time to conduct discovery to investigate their concerns.
His attorney, Jeffrey Marvan, argued that the objection regarding Nichols' home, which was sold after the conservatorship was moved out of California, should instead be raised in New Mexico, and said Johnson acted appropriately.
"He’s the only son and child," Marvan told the court via videoconference. "The conservatee’s family supports everything that my client is doing."
Johnson's attorney did not respond to BuzzFeed News' request for comment Monday.
Speaking to supporters outside the courthouse, Fawcette vowed to continue fighting for her friend.
"I'd be damned if this is my last stand for Nichelle Nichols," she said. "Whether you are white, Black, Latino, Asian, American Indian, Persian, no matter what you are, you have roots in the soil. And you have a right to stand up for yourself and you have a right to stand up for your family and your friends."
Dressed in a replica red Star Trek shirt like the one Nichols wore in the sci-fi show, Alexa Justo wiped her eyes as Fawcette spoke. The 26-year-old grew up worshipping Nichols as Lt. Uhura.
"She was definitely one of the only people I could look up to as a kid," said Justo, who is Black and Latina. "She made it cool to be smart. She made it cool to be strong and obviously the whole being a woman of color — it’s not just for me personally but for the world, in general, her being one of the only characters that wasn’t like a slave or a maid. That means a lot."
Justo said she didn't think it was fair for Nichols to be placed in conservatorship, a system in which people lose basic rights and are exposed to, as a BuzzFeed News investigation found, abuse, exploitation, and even death.
"Whether you’re emotionally invested or not, you should give a shit," Justo said. "And Nichelle’s awesome, so you should give a shit about her. "