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Confederate monument sparks tension at Gadsden Black Lives Matter march

Eddie Burkhalter

Gadsden police detained two counter-protesters Sunday after several tense moments between Black Lives Matter protesters and a group who said they were there to protect a Confederate monument near the city hall.

The two counter-protestors, a man and a woman, left their group and wandered into the crowd of protestors, kicking off a yelling match that prompted police to remove the couple and walk them across Broad Street.

Protestors began the day with a march across downtown Gadsden, stopping off at the Etowah County Detention Center, where inmates banged on windows and walls and protestors chanted for deputies standing guard outside to take to their knees, but they declined to do so until Sheriff Jonathan Horton asked that they kneel in prayer. [mfn referencenumber=*]Correction: This story previously stated that the sheriff’s deputies kneeled in response to the protesters’ requests. They declined to do so until Sheriff Jonathan Horton asked that they kneel in prayer. We regret the error.[/mfn]

The day’s events were organized by the Gadsden Black Lives Matter group after the death of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis. 

The march ended in front of Gadsden City Hall, where the Confederate Monument honoring Emma Sansom, a woman who helped lead Confederate soldiers to a Union enemy, stands in the median of Broad Street. 

Before the marchers arrived, a group of about 20 people, some wearing Trump shirts and others wearing military-style garb, milled around the monument and came in and out of the Gadsden Elks Lodge nearby. 

Photo by Eddie Burkhalter

One of the men in the group told APR that three black canisters hanging from his belt contained “wasp spray” and others said they were there to protect the monument from the marchers. 

When the protestors walked up to City Hall a shouting match ensued between the protestors and the counter-protestors standing in front of the monument.

Police quickly moved the counter-protestors across Broad Street and a line of Gadsden police with riot shields stood along one side of the monument while a line of Etowah County sheriff’s deputies with shields stood on the other, separating the two groups. 

After several tense moments, the crowd of protestors backed away and gathered at the nearby gazebo for prearranged speeches. 

Photo by Eddie Burkhalter

Lia Autrey from Gadsden said she came to the march to speak out against police brutality and injustice. 

“Specifically for black people, who are wrongly targeted and killed over the color of their skin,” Autrey, who is white, said. “We’re here to support them and let them know we stand by them, and to let the police know that it’s not okay. It’s got to stop.” 

Autrey said she’s kept up with protests across the country and the world, and said the continued videos of police brutality at many of the protests is troubling. 

“It’s sad to see more brutality on top of what they’re protesting. So many videos everywhere,” Autrey said. 

Mary Kelley, chairwoman of the Etowah County Voters League, stood at the start of the march handing out flyers encouraging people to vote and to help others register to vote. 

Kelley said the current protest movement sparked by Floyd’s is bigger than those of the past, and it’s made up of a wider and more diverse group of protesters. 

“We’re reaching younger people. We’re reaching people who have not already been active in the political process,” Kelley said, adding that so often in such events one sees the same people. 

“I’m meeting new people, so there are a lot of new people involved, and they seem so committed. That’s encouraging to me,” Kelley said. “We need to know that all of the work and suffering we did wasn’t in vain. That there’s somebody who’s going to pick it up.” 

Kelley said there’s a danger in believing we’ve arrived, when we haven’t yet. There’s still work to do, she said. 

“We’re going backward,” Kelley said. 

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Kelley looked out over the crowd assembled before the march and noticed all the young people, and white people. 

“It looks like there are more white people than black,” she said.

*Correction: This story previously stated that the sheriff’s deputies kneeled in response to the protesters’ requests. They declined to do so until Sheriff Jonathan Horton asked that they kneel in prayer. We regret the error.

Eddie Burkhalter is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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