Gadsden, Alabama: Arson at BLM Offices

By Curtis Price

Posted December 22, 2020


On the evening of January 31st, 2016, I heard a loud thumping on the door. It was the kind of ominous knock that makes your heart skip a beat. I was flooded with a sense of dread that something bad  was getting ready to be set off. And sure enough, something bad was about to unfold.

I opened the door. There, standing outside were two mean-looking, redneck Alabama sheriffs with a tense look on their faces and hands on holsters. They brushed me aside and did a quick sweep through the apartment. Then, they told me I had to come with them. I asked, “Am I being arrested and if so, what for?” They didn’t answer. Instead they escorted me to the waiting cruiser. But I noticed they didn’t handcuff me.

Driving down University Drive, one of the main drags in Huntsville, the night was starting to fall and all I remembered were the street lights blurring together like stars that had fallen from the sky, illuminating a path. Bur a path to where? The sheriffs still refused to tell me where we were going. They engaged in the hard-bitten banter of lawless law enforcers and I was the invisible, powerless,  prisoner under their control.  I thought to myself this is what it must have felt like in 1937 Soviet Union, with the GPU rounding people up without warning.

To me surprise, however, they drove past the county jail – an ugly, squat building known on the street as “The Blue  Roof Inn” because of its distinctive blue roof tiling. Instead, they pulled into the Huntsville Hospital ER. The sheriffs bundled me out of the car and escorted me inside a locked area, a mini-Panopticon with a staff desk in the middle surveying everything that went on. Right away, I heard an older woman who looked like Phyllis Diller with a shock of blond hair hanging over her face like a rooster, yelling “Get your motherfucking hands off me!” and swinging wildly. Then it dawned on me. I was in the Psych Ward.

No, dear reader, I hadn’t suddenly decided to fly over the cuckoo’s nest. As I soon found out, an involuntary petition for civil commitment had been filed against me for being “suicidal and homicidal.’ A former BFF who I had cut off contact because he went on a crack run had filed the petition in a fit of vindictiveness, because being drug-addled and being able to manipulate the system aren’t two mutually exclusive propositions. I would remain involuntarily committed until I saw a judge for hearing two days later. The staff placed in a holding room painted sickly, institutional green with the only furniture a cast iron bed. That would be my impromptu “home” until a bed opened up on the inpatient psych unit.

A nurse came in to interview me. I let her have it, in controlled outrage. How can people be picked up against their will just on hearsay, I said? Isn’t this what Third World dictatorships do, where anonymous complaints lead to incarceration?  Where were my rights? She remained calm, explained what was happening and what I could expect. I sat down on the hard metal bed while the older woman continued screaming next door. But at least they left my door open which was a sign they didn’t see me as a security treat.

I was due to work that night at 11pm so I went out to the desk and asked if I could use the phone to call my job. A yellowed sign said “No personal calls allowed.” But in one of the many instances that happened to me over the next two days, she broke the rules and let me call work. It showed me how even in the most bureaucratized and regimented situations, ordinary people will ignore the system and reveal some humanity if they think these rules unfair. They don’t do it because they consciously want to buck the system. They do it unselfconsciously from a personal sense of what’s right.

It wasn’t until 1 am that I was admitted upstairs to the locked ward, to a plain room with just a bed, one wooden chair, and a small desk.

I slept soundly. I don’t remember if I dreamed.

At 7 am, staff woke everyone up and sent us to the day room for breakfast. The day room was a large lounge with a communal eating table, a big screen TV, a jumble of worn but comfortable mismatched chairs- and the only reading material a few old, torn-up “People” and “Entertainment Today” magazines. I looked around at my fellow inmates. One woman, a small white woman in her late 30s with waist length, dirty blond hair, lay stretched out over a chair like a wilted flower, hair dangling, staring vacantly into space, dealing with who knows what inner demons. The whole time she was on the unit she never talked to anyone and held her head down while eating, avoiding all eye contact.

I recognized Phyllis Diller from the night before. We talked. She said she was here because she changed her will, cutting a daughter out, and the daughter filed commitment papers as retaliation. I asked the nurse later how often that happened. She said quite a lot. One party in a messy divorce would file a petition to prevent the other from getting custody. Wills were yet another common reason, like with Phyllis Diller. Swearing out an involuntary petition gets used to settle lots of scores.

I thought, “Isn’t this so typical of how America works?” People living disheveled on grates and baying at the moon can’t get help while perfectly sane people are rounded up against their will, wasting scarce resources that others in real distress are denied.

Phyllis Diller went around with a perpetual Bernie Mac “WTF?” expression on her face, cursing like a small battalion of sailors while  demonstrating a natural comedic flair with pitch-perfect timing .But quite honestly, I found her draining to be around because she was too high-strung and talkative. She told me she used to work in the chemical plants and when news came out about birth defects in children born to line workers, she stormed into the supervisor’s office with her work shears in hand and told the supervisor, “If my baby is born with no balls, I’m coming after yours.”

At meals, we were only served decaf, on the theory that caffeine over-stimulates the nerves of the mentally distressed.  I told the monitors, two young, hip, muscular black guys, I needed real coffee. One went off the unit every meal and brought me fully-strength coffee from another floor. Again, that spontaneous willingness to break the official rules.

People came and went continually while I was there because most patients had signed themselves in voluntarily and thus could freely leave on their own volition. Later that first day, a middle-aged black woman was admitted. She shuffled in, shoulders slumped, deeply depressed. But as the hours went on, she became more outgoing, as if being around the warmth of others’ company caused her to open up, the way a seed sprouts under the sun’s rays. She told me her story. She had married a man, who whisked her off to the deep country, where he isolated her from her family, and continually beat her.  Finally, she escaped to the local ER, threatening to kill herself and she ended up transferred here.

We hung out talking while watching TV, which was always tuned to Steve Harvey and Dr. Phil. Many times she would talk back at the TV, giving advice, and her advice contained more wisdom and insight than anything coming out of those two clowns’ mouths. I wondered what she would do when she was released. Would she end up, like so many battered women, back in the same situation she had escaped ? I got a hold of some napkins and borrowed a pen from a staff member, wanting to write down my impressions. I guess to outsiders I looked like the right madman, furiously scribbling away on napkins. But by this time, I was resigned to being held against my will and was determined to record all my thoughts.

Later that evening, a nurse brought me a mobile phone from the nurses’ station, telling me I had a call. It was the security guard from the job who had demanded – and won-  the right to speak to me. Again, that breaking of the rules, because patients were only allowed to use the communal phone in the day room. The security guard said that when the rest of the night shift heard what happened to me, they set up a prayer circle overnight. She and one of the other workers wanted to come to my hearing and testify on my behalf.  The nurse listened next to me, with a warm, concerned expression, obviously moved by this show of solidarity. But I told the guard she didn’t have to come because the hearing didn’t allow witnesses. (The security guard, by the way, was a hard-core Trump supporter and Christian fundamentalist, but pro-abortion, pro-gay and with many close black friends. We met for breakfast several times afterward and still keep in-touch occasionally years after I left the job.)

On the second day, I had my psychiatric evaluation. An elderly West Indian psychiatrist, very serious and official, speaking in a thick lilting accent, administered the test. I could tell from his eyes, because he wore the blank expression of professionalism, that he could obviously see there was nothing clinically wrong with me but he had to go through the motions anyway. He said nothing though to reveal his thoughts and left. I talked briefly with a new admission, a young white guy, rail-thin and heavily tattooed, with sores on his face – a tell-tale sign of heavy meth use. He told me he had just gotten out of jail and I thought him admitting himself was maybe a ploy for an upcoming court case. But he spent most of this time on the communal phone afterward and we didn’t talk any more. The rest of the second day went like a blur.

On the morning of my hearing, after consulting with my appointed lawyer, the psychiatrist came in. He asked if he could pray. Not wanting to be difficult and potentially causing him to change his evaluation, I agreed. He intoned a prayer, with his mournful, long face, for about 20 minutes. Of course, it should have been illegal to mix religion and public services. But I guess in the psychiatrist’s own way he was a rule breaker too. It was a fitting, concluding absurdity on top of already accumulated absurdities.

The hearing was over in 15 minutes. Of course, they found no reason for my long-term commitment and the case was dismissed and expunged.

I walked out into the crisp, winter morning, closed my eyes and felt the sun hit my cheek, the first time I had breathed fresh air in two and a half days.  Now, I was free. But others weren’t. My fellow comrades in bad luck, misfortune and powerlessness were people taxed to their limits, isolated, unable to cope, and with no social support. Most would be discharged in three days  back into the same circumstances that sent them there. The system works, just as it was intended to.

Early morning November 12th,  an arson destroyed the Gadsden BLM offices. Unknown intruders smashed in the back door, set fires, then fled. People nearby reported hearing a “boom!” like a bomb went off and it’s possible an incendiary device was used. Gadsden BLM activist Jerome Gunn is convinced his business, which also housed his barbershop and detail shop, was targeted because of his BLM activism. The day before, BLM had picketed the Ellen Sansom statue in Gadsden, which was erected in the Lost Cause era to memorialize a woman who had assisted a wounded Nathan Bedford Forrest ( later the founder of the Klan),  demanding the statue be moved.

Gunn’s RJT and More Auto Detailing was not only an informal office for BLM but also fed the homeless, sponsored an annual Halloween carnival for local kids, and a yearly school supply drive. Gunn reported receiving a flood of hate mail since BLM began, which he finds ironic since the majority fed at the soup kitchen are white. The police department says the incident is “under investigation.”

“Under investigation” – where did I hear that phrase before? It was the same phrase the Gadsden police used when Tina Johnson’s house mysteriously burnt down a couple years before at the height of the furor over Roy Moore. Johnson was one of the women accusing Moore of sexual harassment when they were teens. That incident too, as far as I know, is still “under investigation.”

Gadsden is one of the many smaller blue-collar cities dotting Alabama struggling like fish flopping out of the water, gasping for air after the economic tides receded beginning in the late 1950s. At one point, Gadsden was an economic powerhouse, second only to Mobile in trade. Steel, rubber and textiles once thrived. But the trade winds shifted south and railroads detoured elsewhere. The largest surviving industrial employer, Goodyear Rubber, one of the few unionized factories in Alabama, shut its Gadsden branch after 91 years earlier this year, leaving a gaping hole in the local economy. The flopping fish heaves more today.

(The rapper Yelawolf, one of Eminem’s protégés, was born in Gadsden. And Roy Moore rides his horse to the polls every Election Day. The city routinely makes the lists of Top Ten Worst Cities in Alabama.  But the downtown is reviving and and winning awards, so maybe after all, Gadsden will have its post-industrial day in the sun.)

***

After the industry and textiles left, drugs and crime moved in.  Gadsden’s crime rate is nearly three times the national average.  Gadsden drowns, awash in meth and heroin, in part because the city lies on the interstate drug route starting in Atlanta and the first stop is supplying secondary markets such as Birmingham. Birmingham acts as a regional hub, shipping north past Gadsden and “Meth Mountain,” as Sand Mountain is now known, to tiny Guntersville, a picturesque town on the shores of Lake Guntersville. Guntersville further links to tertiary destinations such as Huntsville, Decatur and other northern Alabama cities. A well-oiled, seamless and effective supply and logistics chain, replacing the ones from the industrial past.

Gadsden is also infamous for its jail, the Etowah County Jail, a sprawling, forbidding complex downtown. Etowah County Jail became notorious for two things. First, it houses one of the largest and most brutal immigration detention centers in the country. As one former detainee says, “That place in Alabama, oh my God. That’s the worst place, that’s the worst place ever.” (1) This Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) center is the target of a local campaign called Shut Down Etowah that provides visits, legal support, fills practical needs and, when possible, bail funds. The authorities routinely ban and then lift their contacts with detainees, arbitrary intrusions like so much state authority in Alabama.

Second, former Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin was at the center of the “jailhouse food-funds” scandal, a scandal that implicated many other Alabama county Sheriffs. Under an archaic law, county jails – which were decades ago small operations where the Sherriff’s wife cooked for the prisoners – were allowed to shuttle unspent inmate food monies to the Sheriff. Fast forward to the present, where jails house hundreds, if not thousands of prisoners, and food gets prepared in huge lots. The law still allows local sheriffs to pocket leftover monies from inmate food funds into personal accounts, giving sheriffs an economic incentive to underfeed prisoners. Entrekin owns  multiple properties with assessed values of over $1.2 million dollars. Over the last three years, Entrekin claimed $750,000 extra income over his salary on “savings” from inmate food funds. Perhaps not coincidently, Entrekin also purchased a $580,000 house in a tony section of Orange Beach on the Gulf Shores around the same time.

When confronted with this evidence, Entrekin replied to a reporter’s email, writing  “As you should be aware, Alabama law is clear as to my personal financial responsibilities in the feeding of inmates. Regardless of one’s opinion of this statute, until the legislature acts otherwise, the Sheriff must follow the current law.”

 And so ”follow the current law” he did. Entrekin, though, was booted out of office the next election and Alabama legislation plugged most of the loopholes. But Entrekin wasn’t an outlier. Once in 2009, Morgan County’s Greg Bartlett a.ka.“Sheriff Corndog,” known because he bought a large consignment of corndogs and fed them to inmates for all three meals for months, siphoned $212,000 to a controlled personal account. Even in Alabama, there’s limits to naked corruption so the good sheriff ended up briefly incarcerated in his own jail. But to this day, no one knows how widespread the practice is since less than a quarter of county sheriffs responded to Freedom of Information requests.

Gadsden and the surrounding area were also hotbeds of Klan activity during the 1960s. Just thirty miles away lies Anniston, another distressed blue-collar city. Anniston is known for the infamous “burning bus” incident during the Civil Rights era in which mobs of enraged whites pulled over a bus with Freedom Riders, beat passengers and set the bus on fire. The images of the burning bus were among the iconic photographs of the era and today, a commemorative mural showing the bus covers a wall in Anniston at the site of the attack. How many of these embers still smolder undetected in hearts and minds?

Gadsden and the surrounding area were also hotbeds of Klan activity during the 1960s. Just thirty miles away lies Anniston, another distressed blue-collar city. Anniston is known for the infamous “burning bus” incident during the Civil Rights era in which mobs of enraged whites pulled over a bus with Freedom Riders, beat passengers and set the bus on fire. The images of the burning bus were among the iconic photographs of the era and today, a commemorative mural showing the bus covers a wall in Anniston at the site of the attack. How many of these embers still smolder undetected in hearts and minds?

There are two souls of the South today. One tied to the past and the other to a different future. One sign of this South, struggling to make itself heard but whose voice is strengthening, is in the letter written by the surviving relatives of Emma Sansom still living in Gadsden. Here are excerpts. You can read the whole letter at ”Descendents of Emma Sansom Statue Call For Removal of Statue,” https://abc3340.com/news/local/descendants-of-emma-sansom-family-call-for-removal-of-statue?src=link

“. . .Some white people in Gadsden say they feel a connection to this statue as part of their heritage, and consider the statue part of the fabric of their home. Our Black neighbors are making it clear that they agree, and that is exactly why they need to see change in our community. We want to live in a harmonious democratic society where all can live free of intimidation.

Many people who feel pride about Emma Sansom discuss ‘division’ about the statue like it is a new phenomenon. The outcry against the statue is the voice of an awakened community. They understand that it is time to address the focal points of what has really caused a division in our community for over a hundred years. It only seems like a new ‘division’ to those of us who benefit the most from the ‘normal’ status quo.

We ask those who may feel a sense of pride about the statue to examine if most of their Black neighbors feel the same pride. You may say you are not personally racist and have good deeds to prove it. The statue’s effect in Gadsden is not about anyone’s personal feelings or failings – it is a feature of the systemic oppression that acts to this day against the freedom of Black people. . . .”

Notes

1. Paul Moses. ‘The Worst Place Ever’ Is ICE’s Etowah County Detention Center in Alabama. The Daily Beast,  June 8, 2018. https://www.thedailybeast.com/the-worst-place-ever-is-ices-etowah-county-detention-center-in-alabama

Resources

1. Shut Down Etowah: shutdownetowah.org, also on Facebook.

2. Etowah Freedom Fund:  “We assist with bonds, commissary, and other expenses for people caged by ICE, with a focus on those at the Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, AL.: http://etowahfreedomfund.org/?fbclid=IwAR2gmNC8sB79RtlfTKrUNq94GUOpmtsEXdS9et7LTAXwYohOjwIS9HZvlsI

3. To help Jerome Gunn rebuild, donate to GoFundMe: https://www.gofundme.com/f/help-blm-gadsden-leader?fbclid=IwAR2rXFsr8FKGpvGJMBZ40FDMsKnYFL1_ONVBW3PkHVifFSo-xnj1Z9F41oc

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