Freedom Inc. activist Jessica Williams arrested on way to Kenyairra Gadson sentencing

By Scott Gordon

Original version on

Jessica Williams is shown in a posed photo, smiling at the camera. Behind Williams is a sunny beach. Photo courtesy of Freedom Inc.UPDATE, May 11, 2022: Williams was released on Tuesday afternoon, Freedom Inc. announced, but the charges against her have not been dropped. Freedom Inc. is circulating a petition demanding that District Attorney Ismael Ozanne drop the charges gainst Williams and resign. The rest of the story below remains as published on the morning of May 10.

Dane County Courthouse bailiffs arrested Freedom Inc. activist Jessica Williams as she entered the courthouse on the morning of Friday, May 6 to attend a sentencing hearing for Kenyairra Gadson. Williams has been leading Freedom Inc.’s ongoing efforts to advocate for Gadson, who was convicted in January of reckless homicide and was sentenced on Friday to serve 13 years in prison followed by 11 years’ probation. Gadson, 25, maintained throughout the case that she acted in self-defense during an October 2018 confrontation in a downtown parking ramp, when she fired the shot that killed Steven Villegas, 21.

Freedom Inc. views the arrest as an act of retaliation against Williams for her advocacy on Gadson’s behalf. The organization held a “phone jam” on Monday afternoon, calling on community members to phone the Dane County District Attorney’s Office and Dane County Sheriff’s Office en masse to demand Williams’ release. Freedom Inc. is also calling for all the charges against Williams to be dropped, for all Black survivors of domestic violence and abuse to be released from the Dane County Jail, and for District Attorney Ismael Ozanne to resign immediately.

“Jessica would be free today if she were less effective and protested in a manner that was pleasing to those she protested against,” Freedom Inc. said in a statement released on Monday. “Jessica did not break any laws. Jessica Williams was arrested for her effective political advocacy.”

The Dane County Sheriff’s Office accuses Williams of making “verbal threats” against Ozanne in the downtown courthouse after a jury convicted Gadson on January 26 and giving false identity information to bailiffs at that time. DCSO’s explanation of the arrest so far does not adequately explain why, if Williams was considered a threat to Ozanne, she was not arrested at the time of the alleged threat, much less able to remain free for the ensuing 100 days, doing very public-facing advocacy work on an active criminal case in her role as Gender Justice Director at Freedom Inc.

The Wisconsin State Journal reported at the time of the conviction that after the verdict was read, someone in the courtroom called out “Ismael Ozanne, we’re coming for you. You better be ready,” and bailiffs took that person away. It appears that this was Williams.

Williams spent the weekend in the Dane County Jail and had not yet been arraigned as of Tuesday morning; a hearing is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. According to the jail’s website, the pending charges against Williams are disorderly conduct, “resisting or obstructing,” and “Battery or threat to judge, prosecutor, or law enforcement officer.” The arrest took place at 8:10 a.m., shortly before Gadson’s sentencing was scheduled to begin. Ananda Deacon of Freedom Action Now, who also worked with Williams in advocating for Gadson, says Friday’s arrest happened without any immedate provocation from Williams.

“Jessica and a couple other of our staff members came to the courthouse around 8 a.m. this past Friday,” Deacon says. “We wanted to get there early in order to provide that much-needed support for Kenyairra, as it was her sentencing day. Our staff said as soon as Jessica went through security, six or seven police officers were on her and began escorting her away.”

Deacon points out that Williams’ activism work has included raising funds to bail Black mothers out of the Dane County Jail on Mother’s Day, and that because of the arrest, she spent this Mother’s Day away from her own child. Williams and Deacon see Gadson as one in a long line of Black women criminalized for defending herself. Deacon believes that police and prosecutors are targeting Williams in an effort to disrupt her advocacy.

“We know that DA Ozanne does not care about Black women, we know that he’s persecuting Jessica Williams for daring to defend Black women, and he can’t be trusted with the safety of the public,” Deacon says.

DCSO spokesperson Elise Schaffer confirms that Williams’ arrest stemmed from the January incident.

“The Sheriff’s Office has probable cause to arrest Jessica based on an incident that occurred in the courthouse on 1/26/22, where she created a disturbance in a courtroom during a verdict reading,” Schaffer told Tone Madison on Monday via email.

Schaffer claims that Williams gave bailiffs false information about her identity when they removed her from the courtroom on January 26. “My understanding is once she was identified correctly, there were several attempts to make contact with her, which were unsuccessful,” Schaffer says. “The probable cause to arrest was on file, so when she entered the courthouse last week, she was arrested.”

That explanation would mean that DCSO believed Williams had threatened Ozanne, but let her leave the courthouse on January 26, then had to figure out her identity, then failed to reach her and were unable to apprehend her until she returned to the courthouse. Freedom Inc. is well-known to local law enforcement for its extensive work organizing protests and other actions specifically aimed at police. It’s easy to find pictures and names of Freedom Inc. staff, and an office address, on the organization’s website. Williams and Ananda Deacon wrote about Gadson’s case for Truthout, a national website that gets millions of pageviews each year. Regardless of what identity information Williams gave bailiffs in January, she’s very publicly associated with this case and certainly wasn’t hiding. If she was considered a threat, then it’s not clear why there wasn’t more urgency to apprehending her.

Tone Madison has filed an open records request for the full DCSO report on Williams’ arrest. Ozanne’s office has not responded to a request for comment for this article. Judge Chris Taylor, who presided over Gadson’s trial, also could not be reached for comment.

Scott Gordon
Editor-in-chief and publisher Scott Gordon has covered music and the arts in Madison since 2006 for publications including The A.V. Club, Dane101, and Isthmus, and has also covered policy, environmental issues, and public health for WisContext. He co-founded Tone Madison in 2014.