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#DefendBlackWomen #FreeKenyairra #ShowUp4Jessica


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On Friday, May 6, 2022, Jessica Williams, the director of Gender Justice for Freedom, Inc., a Black and Southeast Asian rights organization, walked into the Dane County courthouse in downtown Madison to attend the sentencing hearing for Kenyairra Gadson, a queer Black woman was was charged and convicted for defending herself against a long time tormentor. Almost immediately after entering the courthouse, Jessica was surrounded by police and whisked off to a room where she was arrested on trumped up charges of threatening a prosecutor and two counts of resisting arrest.

Jessica was released on the following Tuesday, May 10, after spending the longest amount of time one can legally be held in a US jail without any formal charges filed against them, including Mother’s Day away from her infant child. No charges have been filed, but the case has not been dropped either, as an independent prosecutor has been assigned to investigate whether Jessica did, in fact, threaten the sitting US attorney in open court more than 100 days prior.

Jessica Williams is a political prisoner who was arrested by Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, Wisconsin’s first Black DA, for effectively advocating for Black women targeted by the criminal justice system. As such, the only way to understand Jessica’s arrest is to understand the case of Kenyairra Gadson and other Black women who dare to defend themselves against patriarchal violence.

 

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Kenyairra Gadson is a Black Queer woman. She could not escape any of these identities. Not that she tried, but she could not.

Kenyairra had a long running feud with a Black man in Madison that began in 2014 with an act of violence that neither of them were responsible for, but impacted them both. The feud meant Kenyairra had a man out there who hated her and demonstrated that hate on occasion. He would confront her with sexist and homophobic remarks and physically assaulted her on more than one occasion, including one where shots were fired, but no one was injured (during the trial the DA insisted there was no evidence the man fired those shots). Kenyairra suffered years of harassment, homophobia, intimidation and abuse from this man. This pattern of confrontation continued for years and could have happened anywhere.

On October 28, 2018, Kenyairra and a friend went with a friend to a night club in downtown Madison and it happened there. The man was there and began to verbally berate her. She decided to leave and walked to her car in the nearby parking lot. The man and several of his friends followed Kenyairra and her friend to her car where the confrontation resumed. Fearing for her life, Kenyairra retrieved a handgun from her car and, in an act of desperation, defended herself by discharging the weapon at the group facing off against her. The single shot hit one of the men, though not her longtime tormentor, who was wounded fatally.

Soon afterwards, Kenyairra was arrested and charged with first degree intentional homicide and incarcerated on $100,000 bond, though she was bailed out by the local bail fund. During the 2022 trial, Kenyairra asserted her right to self-defense, but the prosecution, under DA Ismael Ozanne, rejected the claim. She was ultimately found guilty of murder, taken back into custody and three months later sentenced to 13 years of confinement.

Kenyairra’s plight follows that of other Black women- such as Marissa Alexander of Florida and Chrystul Kizer of Wisconsin, as well as Maddesyn George, an indigenous Wisconsin woman- who were persecuted by the state for attempting to defend themselves against male attackers.

 


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Freedom, Inc. already has a long-standing meta campaign to #DefendBlackWomen, designed to bring attention to the intersecting patriarchal, white supremacist and capitalist attacks on Black women in culture, in the home, in society, by corporate America and by the state, usually by the police or other agencies using the police to enforce patriarchal norms. Under this meta campaign, Freedom, Inc. has raised awareness about specific instances of domestic violence, police brutality and patriarchal inter communal violence that, taken together, form a broader pattern.

Recognizing a pattern when they see one, Freedom, Inc. took on Kenyairra Gadson’s case. While the organization could have assigned her case to the Queer Justice department, she was ultimately settled with Gender Justice with plenty of coordination between the two departments, given the level of intersectionality. That meant Jessica Williams was the defacto facilitator of the team working to #FreeKenyairra, and became the most prominent public face of the campaign.

The advocacy brought Kenyairra’s case to the attention of the Madison Bail Fund, which bails people who otherwise cannot afford it out of jail, under the logic that if someone gets bail, but is unable to pay it in order to be released, then they are actually imprisoned for being poor, not for committing a crime. A small but effective coalition was built, with Freedom Action Now providing much of the online advocacy for Kenyairra, as Freedom, Inc. continued to organize in real life.

The campaign centered around two major themes: first, that like everyone else, Black women have the right to self-defense. The US is a gun happy society that touts, and even glorifies, the right of individuals to defend themselves, with deadly force, particularly when the state is unable or unwilling to protect. However, those same rights that are glorified when deployed in one context are criminalized when deployed in another. Black women have the right to self-defense, but those rights are often denied and those Black women are often criminalized instead of protected.

The first theme extended naturally into the second, that if Black women are denied their right to self-defense, the government is the party primarily responsible for that denial and solely responsible for the literal criminalization of victims and survivors of domestic and patriarchal violence.

Equally as important for Jessica, the responsible party is not some faceless behemoth or an all encompassing concept of “the state,” he is a real life human being who selectively prosecutes Black women by day while making lofty public pronouncements at nighttime fundraisers and pressers.

Kenyairra was not just being harmed by an amorphous economic and social order or even just by a state with a long history of racial and gender based violence, she was being actively prosecuted by District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, the same Ozanne who has released other people from jail because he accepted their claims of self-defense.

The #FreeKenyairra campaign effectively wielded both themes, firmly asserting Kenyairra’s right to self-defense against a long time tormentor and that DA Ozanne is engaged in the selective prosecution, and persecution, of a working class queer Black woman, and should be held in account for doing so.

 


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This society’s long history of class-gender-race based violence is sometimes meted out by individuals, acting like a roving mob of social norms, and other times by the state itself, but the acts of violence themselves are often designed to accomplish one of two objectives: first, is to enforce the broader economic order- ie, terrorize enslaved people into work or brutalizing workers into working without the benefits of unions or living wages. And the second objective is to enforce the broader social order- ie, calling women who own property “witches” and burning them alive or calling Black and brown social climbers “uppity” and lynching them.

While the basic arguments of the #FreeKenyairra campaign, and the #DefendBlackWomen campaign more broadly, can be distilled into the dual themes of the right of Black women to self-defense and the state selectively prosecutes Black women, the sentiment underlying both themes is singular: Black women- and queer Black women in particular- are under attack and must be defended. Black women are attacked for being themselves and then attacked again for defending themselves against the initial attack.

During the trial, Ozanne’s prosecutorial team asserted that Kenyairra did not act in self-defense because she actively “lured” the group to the parking lot and, therefore, they did not simply follow her with the intent of doing her harm. The very notion that an outwardly lesbian woman used her wiles to “lure” a group- not one, but a group- of men, including her tormentor, into a parking lot so that she could shoot one of them is part of the “trickster” narrative used to dehumanize and criminalize gay, lesbian and transgender people for generations.

A version of the narrative has been historically applied to straight women, as sailors, business people and men from all walks of life claim a wiley “siren” sang a song of distress. The upstanding citizens, eager to help a woman in need, changed the direction of their ship, traveled into a seedy part of town or otherwise altered their plans and ended up shipwrecked or naked and drunk all because of an alluring trickster who intentionally drew them away from their otherwise righteous path.

The trickster trope is also at the very center of the “gay panic” or “trans panic” legal strategy used when a straight man regrets an intimate encounter and justifies murder by claiming the gay or transgender person mystically clouded their judgment or vision and somehow tricked them into a sexual encounter. The act of subterfuge was intentional, premeditated and so egregious that it justifies a brutal murder. Until recently, this was a legitimate legal strategy. Today, the legal strategy is frowned upon, but apparently some version of it remains in the arsenal of the prosecutors in Madison, Wisconsin.

 


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While the campaign is not Freedom, Inc.’s most high profile, it has gained traction and attention, much to the aggravation of Ismael Ozanne. Social media posts, livestreams and media stories brought attention to the case and harshly questioned why the police side of the state declined to intervene when Kenyairra was being harassed and even physically assaulted, but the “criminal justice” side of of the state, as executed by Ozanne, was so eager to lock her up when she defended herself. The questions surely stung all the more every time the campaign pointed out that a Black man- Ozanne- was leading the prosecution.

Again, the campaign was not Freedom, Inc.’s highest profile, but it was very effective, and Jessica Williams was its most prominent face.

In late January 2022, Kenyairra’s trial concluded. As the guilty verdict was read, Jessica had an outburst. As is standard procedure, the bailiff cleared her from the courtroom and the verdict resumed. Jessica was held in a room until the court session concluded and then walked out. The bailiff supervisor confirmed to the media that no one was taken into custody as a result of the outburst and Jessica was never contacted about the incident again. That is, until she walked into the courthouse for the sentencing hearing.

 


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To be perfectly explicit: Jessica Williams was not arrested for threatening anyone. She was arrested solely because of her role as an organizer of the high profile campaign that embarrassed local officials, particularly the Black District Attorney Ismael Ozanne.

If anyone thought Jessica Williams had actually threatened a sitting DA, on the record, in open court, before a judge and dozens of witnesses, she never would have walked out of that courthouse. If, after thinking it over a bit, the powers-that-be came to the late realization that she threatened Ozanne, as a public figure in Madison, the DA and the police could have found and apprehended her easily anytime between January and May. Jessica was free because no one- not the bailiff, the judge or the police present- thought she threatened an elected official. Period.

Far from putting the entire episode behind him, the Kenyairra sentencing hearing produced a fresh opportunity for the campaign to demonstrate the unfair treatment of Black women at the hands of the state in general and a Black prosecutor in particular.

Jessica’s arrest was a malicious tactic by DA Ismael Ozanne designed to stem the criticisms coming from the #FreeKenyairra campaign by silencing its most visible organizer. Ozanne weaponized state violence- men in uniforms who use guns to convince people to go into cages- to stop the exercise of free speech by an organization and its members.

Jessica was not arrested for threatening DA Ismael Ozanne. She was arrested for being an effective advocate for Black women and for her association with Freedom, Inc. as an effective organizer of Black and Southeast Asian communities.

People who are arrested on trumped up charges in retaliation for their political activities are called political prisoners. Jessica Williams is a political prisoner in Madison, WI in 2022.

This arrest should alarm anyone who has ever signed a petition, attended a rally or shares concern for the right to free speech. This is a gross preemptive violation of the first amendment right to free speech and expression.

 


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The #DefendBlackWomen campaign worked hard to convey the complex idea that Black women are often attacked by the state for merely defending themselves. How does one convey such a concept without seeming paranoid or getting stuck explaining the nitty gritty details of the dozens of cases used to illustrate the point. Ironically, DA Ismael Ozanne came to the rescue by proving the point for them.

On the day Kenyairra was sentenced for defending herself, Jessica was arrested for daring to defend Black women from attacks by the state. This provocative action sends a clear message that Madison, Dane County, and the state of Wisconsin will arrest those who speak out on behalf of Black women and LGBTQI folks.

Jessica’s arrest is a political tactic to intimidate those considering protesting for the lives, dignity, and rights of Black women. State power is being used as a means of silencing those who dissent against patriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism, and violence against women in general and Black women in particular. Jessica did not break any laws. Jessica Williams was arrested for the effective political organizing of Freedom, Inc.


We demand that the special prosecutor put an end to this charade and formally drop all pending charges against Jessica Williams, as well as expunge this malicious arrest from her record.

Further, it is clear that Ishamel Ozanne is unqualified for any public service granting him power over the life and freedom of working class Black people. He is morally and ethically bankrupt and is unfit for any role in office. He cannot be trusted with the safety of the public, especially with the safety of Black women, and should resign immediately.

 


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