If Nikema Williams knew November 13, 2018, would end the way it did, she says she would’ve worn a different outfit.
That morning, donning a printed dress, red jacket, heeled boots, and a multistrand pearl set, the Georgia state senator said goodbye to her husband, made plans to pick up their 3-year-old later that afternoon, and headed to the Capitol. It was less than a week after Republican Brian Kemp had declared victory in a hotly contested governor’s race, and Democrat Stacey Abrams was refusing to concede. The legislature was in special session to approve funding for hurricane victims, and by the time the Senate had adjourned, dozens of demonstrators were in the rotunda demanding to “count every vote.”
Unlike her friend and mentor Rep. John Lewis, the storied civil rights leader known for getting arrested more than 40 times, Williams, who represented a diverse swath of Atlanta, hadn’t meant to stir up trouble (good or bad) that day. She was sitting on a third-floor bench with friends, chatting about Thanksgiving plans, when she noticed more police officers roaming around than usual. “I’m like, why are you standing here with zip ties? Never once imagining that in just a few minutes one of these is going to be on me.” She went downstairs to see what the fuss was about. “I noticed one of my constituents standing firmly in her place and not saying a word. And I went and I stood with her... I wanted her to know that she was seen, that I heard her, and I appreciated her being there to raise her voice.”
Before long, Williams recalls, “my hands are being put behind my back.”
Once at the county jail, officers told Williams to lift up her dress so they could search her vaginal cavity. She refused. They made her exchange her boots for a flimsy pair of “little jail shoes.” During the intake process, officers warned Williams that her blood pressure was dangerously high. “You want me to calm down?” Williams remembers thinking. “And they just arrested me for being in the Capitol where I’m a senator?” Each of the protesters faced a misdemeanor charge of disrupting the General Assembly; the charges, including those against Williams, were eventually dropped. (Williams and some of the protesters later sued, claiming the law they were arrested under was nearly identical to one that had been deemed unconstitutional.) The incident signaled a frightening new chapter in Georgia’s long history of voter suppression and put Williams on the national radar.
Afterward, Williams sensed a stark shift in how people reacted to her at the Capitol. White cops, for instance, tended to approach her cautiously, uncertain of how she’d use her new visibility. Black people, particularly building staff, regarded her with respect. When I visited about three months later, I saw a Black janitor pull Williams aside to talk, all familiar, with big smiles and warm hugs. “Thank you for standing up for our people,” she told Williams.
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