Fifteen protesters, including Georgia State Senator Nikema Williams, were arrested yesterday during a protest inside the Georgia Capitol building. The demonstration had been organized by Black Lives Matter Atlanta to demand all votes from the recent Georgia gubernatorial election be included in the official count.
State Senator refuses to disperse inside Capitol, arrested
Standing with a group of her constituents in the Georgia Capitol rotunda yesterday, Nikema Williams was arrested by state police after, according to her, refusing to disperse.
“I was not yelling. I was not chanting,” she told the assembled media who watched as her hands were zip-tied behind her back. “I stood peacefully next to my constituents because they wanted their voices to be heard, and now I’m being arrested.”
— Maya T. Prabhu (@MayaTPrabhu) November 13, 2018
The protest, which had been organized by the local chapter of Black Lives Matter, was a response to the growing controversy surrounding the Georgia gubernatorial election results. Recently-resigned Secretary of State Brian Kemp maintains a narrow lead over his Democratic opponent Stacey Abrams, but multiple allegations of voter suppression has led to heightened tensions among Abrams supporters.
According to Senator Williams, she was arrested because she “refused to disperse.” Capitol police have charged her with obstruction. Fourteen other protesters were arrested for disrupting the General Assembly, which opened in special session yesterday afternoon.
Were Nikema Williams’ rights violated?
There is in fact a state law that curtails the rights of citizens to assemble or protest within the Capitol building itself. Georgia code 16-11-34.1 (g) says:
“It shall be unlawful for any person to parade, demonstrate, or picket within the state capitol building or any building housing committee offices, committee rooms, or offices of members, officials, or employees of the General Assembly or either house thereof with intent to disrupt the orderly conduct of official business or to utter loud, threatening, or abusive language or engage in any disorderly or disruptive conduct in such buildings or areas.”
If Nikema Williams and her constituents did fall foul of this relatively obscure law, it may have been the use of the “loud” language ban. According to the Journal-Constitution report, the roughly 100 protesters “occasionally” engaged in some chanting.
Just moments ago, demonstrators were arrested inside the Georgia State Capitol while demanding that every vote is counted. pic.twitter.com/k4vLnQv1vd
— Kevin Sanchez (@kevinxsanchez) November 13, 2018
Meanwhile the Georgia Constitution offers Williams and all state legislators a protection that appears to override this provision:
The members of both houses shall be free from arrest during sessions of the General Assembly, or committee meetings thereof, and in going thereto or returning therefrom, except for treason, felony, or breach of the peace.
Whatever the intricacies of state law, Georgia Democratic Party leaders are fully backing Williams, preferring instead to fall back on the protections of the First Amendment to freedom of speech and assembly.
Speaking of Williams, state party chairman DuBose Porter said, “We stand with her and with all Georgians whose Constitutional rights are at risk. The Democratic Party of Georgia will continue to fight every day to make sure every Georgian’s vote is counted and every Georgian’s voice is heard.”
Georgia House Speaker David Ralston told WSB-TV he thought the issue of the election was no longer up for debate. “Frankly, it’s time for the rhetoric to be ratcheted down and for Georgia to move forward. And you know, I’ve lost elections, and it’s tough to accept, but sometimes we have to.”
But the Kemp campaign is ignoring Ralston’s advice. A campaign SMS message sent out yesterday, received by a WSB reporter, said, “Unhinged radicals are protesting an election that was decided last Tuesday … while Governor-elect Kemp is working with Gov. Deal to have a seamless transition.”
What happened to the Georgia 15?
According to a post on the Black Lives Matter Atlanta Facebook page, all 15 protesters have now been released from Fulton County Jail. The post ask supporters to call state officials and demand charges be dropped.
The post also contains this chilling first hand account of yesterday’s incident by a participant named Kevin Lowry:
“Capitol police were plain about specifically targeting people who would shut up the protestors as fast as possible. They eventually removed everyone from the building who ‘looked part of the demonstration’ including me. I wasn’t holding a sign, participating in the protest, or wearing anything indicating I was there for the event.”