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Jacob Holmes’ top 5 stories of 2023

I’ve spent a lot of time covering the book-challenging campaign against public libraries.

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Anyone who has been consistently reading my stories on APR in 2023 knows I’ve spent a lot of time covering the book-challenging campaign against public libraries, so it’s no surprise that libraries are the subject of several of my top 5 stories. But there was also a notable trial of a former state representative, plus stories of white supremacy in the River Region.

Libraries under attack

Residents kick off a book-banning culture war in Prattville

I began covering the library beat way back in May as things were really beginning to heat up in Prattville. It looked then like the Prattville battle was a harbinger of things to come, but we couldn’t have anticipated how the two sides there in Prattville have become the two major statewide organizations on opposing sides of the overall war, Clean Up Alabama and Read Freely Alabama.

Members of Clean Up Alabama (then Clean Up Prattville), went before the library board, city council and county commission time and time again to voice opposition to certain books in the children’s and young adult sections— starting with gender ideology and gay relationships before expanding to include books with certain sexual content.

Meanwhile, Clean Up Prattville was transforming into Clean Up Alabama and borrowing language from Moms for Liberty, including using a quote from Adolf Hitler in a newsletter that had previously gotten an Indiana chapter of MFL in hot water.

Minutes from a meeting that the group included in a newsblast detailed the group’s plans at the state level, including jailing librarians for providing certain LGBTQ books to minors.

After the council told the group for months that it was up to the library board to review challenges and determine the appropriateness of books, the council in September brought forward a contract that would have apparently set the age for the “young adult” section to 18 years and up, while also describing what content is inappropriate for minors, and allowing the city to retract funding at any time.

Four days after APR’s report on the proposed contract, the city council narrowly voted the contract down on a 4-3 vote.

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Tensions from that meeting boiled over as Blair Gornto, then District 5 councilman, threatened to sue local citizen Adam Hunt for “defaming” him during the council meeting. APR obtained audio of the phone call. Gornto resigned from the seat at the end of October.

APR detailed the 44 book challenges at the time, although there have been four additional challenges since then, and found most of the “sexually explicit” books did not overlap with the LGBTQ books. The library has already moved at least 25 percent of the books as library leadership decided to move two series totaling 11 books by author Sarah J. Maas to the new “New Adult” section. The library board also moved the book “Red Hood” after following its established reconsideration process, and the board also raised the age requiring parental supervision to 15.

After a quiet couple of months, the situation reignited in November with the Autauga County Commission nominating former Prattville councilman Tony Moore, who has been an outspoken supporter of Clean Up Alabama, to the library board.

The library ultimately appointed Doug Darr instead, but still ignored the precedent of allowing the library board to nominate appointees, resulting in the remaining four board members resigning.

The new appointees said they don’t fall on one side or the other, but Clean Up Alabama executive director Hannah Rees suggested in a social media post that the new appointees would vote in line with their agenda.

Ozark mayor’s library threats spark events leading to censure

Meanwhile, the book-challenging campaign began to crop up in other areas of the state.

Notably, Ozark mayor Mark Blankenship threatened to cut funding to the Ozark Dale County Public Library unless it moved all LGBTQ books out of the young adult section.

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However, the majority of the Ozark City Council quickly made public statements stating that defunding the library was not on the table.

Still, the Dale County Commission delayed a vote on its budget in response to the situation.

The special library board meeting held to discuss Blankenship’s blanket challenge led to a tense meeting in which residents on both sides voiced their opinions. At one point in the meeting, local resident Adam Kamerer attempted to read text messages sent between public officials regarding defunding the library, which led to a commotion that resulted in Kamerer’s time at the microphone being cut short.

But those public records included the response of one library board member Monica Carroll who wrote “I’ll bring a match” in response to a text from Blankenship asking “What do I need to do to have these 61 books removed from our library?”

“My flippant and inappropriate comment hurt many of the people I truly love and care about…namely, the children and young people I see every day as I drive them to and from Ariton School,” Carroll later wrote in a public apology on Facebook. “ I have many students from many walks of life. Some are very poor; some are very well off; some are athletes; some have difficulty fitting into their school environment; and some are dealing with questions of their sexual and gender identities.  Regardless of where they fit or don’t fit, I truly love them ALL, and I would never do anything to harm them.

“But I did last week.  For that I am so very, very sorry.”

Meanwhile, Blankenship also took to Facebook on a joint account with his wife Lori, sending a message to Kamerer implying that he would sue Kamerer for revealing the texts despite them being public record under Alabama’s Open Records Act. Shortly after sending Kamerer the Facebook message, the Lori-Mark Blankenship account posted “Why has Adam Kamerer stopped running his mouth on Facebook?”

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This action, along with Blankenship’s threat to library funding, led to a citizen-led campaign to have Blankenship censured. 

The council didn’t immediately take up that call, but Blankenship’s penchant for pettily attacking citizens ultimately led to his censure on a 3-2 vote after he shared a citizen’s unrelated text messages and distributed them on official city letterhead at a council meeting.

Huntsville library system preemptively moves LGBTQ books

There is dispute about whether the mass relocation of LGBTQ books at the Huntsville Madison County Library system was a purposeful move by leadership, or a breakdown in communication, but there’s no denying that it happened.

I received a tip in September that some of the libraries had begun moving such books at the behest of Director Cindy Hewitt based on a list that included over 230 titles.

That list included the children’s book “Read Me a Story, Stella,” by Marie-Louise Gay, simply because her last name got caught up in the search for “gay” children’s books.

After the library publicly disputed the story, APR conducted an analysis of the list showing that 99 percent of the challenged children’s books contained LGBTQ content. When expanded to the young adult titles, 90 percent of the list contained LGBTQ content.

Hewitt told APR the relocation was due to a breakdown in communication, stating her intent was to have librarians consider the books, not to immediately move them.

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Hewitt said her directive was triggered by a meeting of the Alabama Public Library Service board the week earlier in which the board agreed to allow parents to flag books they deem inappropriate to be collated into a statewide list.

Former State Rep. Will Dismukes convicted on first-degree theft of property

Disgraced former State Rep. Will Dismukes, R-Prattville, finally faced trial on charges that he stole thousands of dollars from his former employer Weiss Commercial Flooring.

The prosecution interviewed former coworkers of Dismukes, including Weiss President Adam Whitley, to build their case of how Dismukes deceived the company out of more than $43,000.

Basically, Dismukes took advantage of the company’s trust in him as a project manager and the fact that he shares a legal name with his father, William Dismukes Jr. (also known as Bill Dismukes), to fraudulently overcharge the company.

As project manager, Will Dismukes would fill out pay applications for his father, just like he would do with other workers on his projects. However, on multiple projects prosecutors demonstrated that he overbilled the company for subflooring, which is impossible to check once the job is done without tearing the flooring back up.

Then, Will would take his father’s paycheck in the pretense that he would simply be dropping it off to his dad, but instead deposited many of the checks partially or entirely in his own name. He would often partially cash out the check, apparently telling his father that he was cashing checks for him, delivering the expected amount for his dad’s actual work and pocketing the surplus.

Dismukes took the unusual approach of taking the stand in his own defense, and attempted to paint a picture that the discrepancies were due to “double dipping” by doing flooring work for his father.

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But the most damning piece of evidence came from Bill Dismukes himself, in a drunken voicemail to the Montgomery District Attorney’s Office. In the voicemail, Bill Dismukes reinforces all of the prosecution’s characterizations of the scheme, and told investigators that he first learned of the discrepancies when getting a 10-99 form that grossly overstated his earnings for the year.

Ultimately, the jury agreed that the prosecutors had proven their case and found Dismukes guilty of the crime, as well as finding aggravating factors because Dismukes acted in a fiduciary duty and that he acted out a scheme, not a one-off theft. 

The story took a tragic turn the next day, as Bill Dismukes ended his own life. His suicide caused Dismukes’ sentencing to be delayed, but Dismukes’ sisters urged the judge not to let their father’s suicide lighten Will’s sentence.

“He used our father to steal money and then blamed him in court and tried to destroy his reputation for flooring in the process,” the sisters wrote in a letter. “Please don’t allow him to use his death that he helped induce to again avoid responsibility for his actions.” 

The letter also included a letter Bill Dismukes left shortly before taking his life: “Will lied and stole and murdered me. Put him in prison, his mama is a conspirator and she needs to go to (sic).”

Judge Brooke Reid opted not to send Dismukes to prison due to precedent of not sending first-time offenders behind bars, instead sentencing him to five years of community corrections.

Reid criticized Dismukes, however, for his apparent lack of remorse for his actions.

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“The fact that we’re still here with the same old story is a little concerning,” Reid said. “The people who gave you opportunities to succeed are the same people you turned your back on and called liars. I don’t care if it takes the rest of your life, you will pay back the restitution.”

Patriot Front protests in Prattville, Neo-Confederate conference held in Wetumpka

The river region had some notable flashes of white supremacy in 2023, although Patriot Front was focused on its anti-LGBTQ activities in Prattville rather than race.

Patriot Front has had activities in Alabama in the past, but the Prattville incident was the first known time the extremist group has shown up in person in the state.

The group showed up to a “pride picnic” hosted downtown, spouting anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and brandishing their signs.

While the members kept to their typical masking ensemble with gaiter-style masks that many people used during Covid-19, which cover the neck and the entire bottom of the face including the nose, mouth and ears. Unlike a surgical mask, these masks also conceal the sides and back of the lower part of the head. Patriot Front members also wear dark sunglasses to conceal their eyes and top the ensemble with a baseball cap, effectively concealing their entire face from view.

The group may have skirted a KKK-era anti-masking law, although the enforcement of such a law has become legally dubious particularly since Covid-19.

The leader of the group, however, briefly revealed his face to a videoing picnicgoer. Using this image, APR was able to ascertain the identity of the man as Wesley Van Horn of Lexington, Alabama. 

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Van Horn was a far-flung member of the group that had notably been arrested the year prior in Couer d’Alene, Idaho as the group planned to incite a riot there. Van Horn was convicted on the charge in August.

APR also found that Van Horn is considered the “network director” for the region including Alabama as well as parts of Tennessee and Georgia and legal filings that include allegations of domestic abuse and marital rape, while detailing concerns about his Patriot Front activities.

APR also found a membership application within Patriot Front’s internal communications that revealed a Huntsville man working with the Department of Defense petitioned to join the group.

Jacob Holmes is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can reach him at [email protected]

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