Gadsden, Alabama: Arson at BLM Offices

By Curtis Price

Posted December 22, 2020


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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