Soon after the Associated Press called the state of Michigan for Joe Biden, a chaotic scene erupted inside the Detroit convention center.
Police barred Republicans and Democratic poll challengers from entering a room where Detroit ballots were being counted. A group identified as Republicans chanted “stop the count” as they were met by police, who shielded the doors of the city’s TCF Center.
Authorities were able to quickly disperse the crowd but a photo in The New York Times captured one worker fearlessly staving off the protesters. Exterior logistics coordinator Sommer Woods says she stepped outside to explain the process to the crowd.
“For me, it was just a matter of making sure that we were being fair,” she says, “but obviously also the workers that were on the inside, for their safety as well.”
A long-time logistics coordinator, Woods says she was called in to help with an election for the first time — and the experience “forever changed” her. People talk about the importance of voting but don’t put enough emphasis on taking part in the process, she says.
“Even though it was my first time being that entrenched in the process, I will forever be a part of it going forward and never take that for granted,” she says. “So I feel very fortunate and I feel very blessed that I was able to play a small role.”
Despite that Detroit is a majority Black city, videos from the scene show the protesters were white. For Woods, the altercation “said a lot” about the state of the country.
Election workers stayed in the room all night and counted ballots while the white people outside banged on the windows and yelled at them, she says. And the protesters were “irate” as they yelled at Woods when she came out to talk to them, she says.
Even in this hostile space, Black workers continued doing their job with grace, she says.
“Those people that sat at those tables, that had to listen to people beating on the walls to try to throw them off, through it all, they still maintained to count every single vote,” she says. “That said a lot for me — especially being a Black woman from Detroit — that we showed up. We represented. We did what needed to be done.”
This situation shows that the country has more work to do around racial healing and building respect, she says. In Detroit, Woods says people sometimes take for granted that the racial dynamics in the city vastly differ from Michigan at large.
“There's Detroit,” she says, “and then there is Michigan.”
To start the healing process, Woods says people need to take an honest, introspective look at themselves and the U.S. As people continue to find ways to dismantle systemic racism, communities also need to be rebuilt, she says.
The election workers who kept counting through the protest can aid in this healing by telling their stories, she says.
“I want them to share those moments, because the more that we're able to share to make this a more human experience, then I think that we can be able to do some work in order to heal,” she says. “That's just to start.”
This segment aired on November 5, 2020.