Photo: Pictured above, Black Lives Matter Gadsden leaders join protestors for a Father’s Day demonstration. Pictured, from left: Wesley Quarles (University of Alabama cap), Gabriela Hernandez (pink leggings), Jerome Gunn (white shirt), Mckenzie Clark (center, black tank top) and Shunbrica Dozier (black shirt, camo bandana). (Katie Bohannon/Messenger)
By Katie Bohannon, News Editor
During a time when division and strife appear rampant, one community organization remains steadfast to promote a message of healing, justice and peace.
Led by local youth, Gadsden’s Black Lives Matter chapter is raising awareness to the discrimination and animosity that cripples Etowah County from evolving. Through unified efforts and empowered words, Gadsden BLM represents how a few individuals can spark a movement and inspire positive change.
Black Lives Matter is a movement that originated in 2013 in response to the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, whose murderer was acquitted. Seven years later in May 2020, 46-year-old George Floyd was killed during an arrest in Minneapolis, resulting in a demand for justice regarding systemic racism and police brutality. Martin’s, Floyd’s and thousands of other victims’ deaths occurred as a result of a core systemic issue that remains prevalent in society today as citizens are targeted and discriminated against based solely upon the color of their skin. BLM Gadsden is addressing this issue directly, starting with the community its leaders call home.
As a movement characterized by its decentralized leadership structure, BLM Gadsden follows the same construction through using delegation and community engagement to enact change. Jerome Gunn, Savannah Miles, Shunbrica Dozier, Wesley Quarles, Gabriela Hernandez and Mckenzie Clark are all delegated BLM Gadsden leaders dedicated to bettering their community.
Wesley Quarles is considered one of the core leadership members for BLM Gadsden. He and his best friend, Larry Dudley, held a prayer vigil at the Gadsden Mall the same Sunday as the initial Gadsden march. Quarles started BLM Gadsden’s Facebook group, where he connected with other individuals who would construct Gadsden’s BLM leadership. With the recent concerns and fear circulating police departments nationwide, Quarles noted that BLM Gadsden is not against the police.
“I know that we have a really good group of law enforcement officers in Gadsden,” said Quarles. “We do not face some of the issues that they have in other places. That is one thing I would like for everyone to understand. This is not about fighting or blaming local police – this is about the systemic oppressions, mass incarcerations and militarization of our police.”
Quarles grew up in Attalla before moving to Gadsden, where he recalled experiencing systemic racism at a young age. When Quarles was 16, he was riding in a car with a group of white friends who were pulled over for speeding. Quarles and his white friends were released with no ticket, without having any licenses checked. The following week, Quarles was with a group of black friends who were pulled over for a broken tail light by the same officer who pulled Quarles over a week before. The officer insisted everyone exit the vehicle while he searched the vehicle and ran everyone’s license.
“Both of these incidents occurred with guys I played football with,” said Quarles. “None of them had ever been into any kind of trouble. That was when I realized that being black was much different…especially with interactions from law enforcement.”
Systemic racism (or institutional racism) refers to racism embedded as normal practice within society, which leads to discrimination in facets of life such as criminal justice, healthcare, employment, education, housing and politics.
“Systemic and overt racism can feel like two different things, but they both work in the same way to make me and my family unwelcome in the Gadsden community,” said BLM Gadsden leader Mckenzie Clark.
When Clark’s parents were searching for her childhood home in Gadsden, their realtor consistently showed them houses only in redlined districts (neighborhoods typically occupied by people of a certain race or in certain socioeconomic groups outlined in red to warn mortgage lenders against making loans). Clark’s father discovered their home himself and purchased it after demanding the realtor sell them the house. As the first black family to move onto their block, the reality of the Clark family’s situation settled in rapidly. Though most of their neighbors were kind, one of Clark’s white friends was ordered not to associate with them because of their race. But while the Clark’s neighbors seemed kind, their actions spoke louder than words.
“It’s important to note that even though my neighbors were kind, we still saw many of them move from our neighborhood,” said Clark. “Now my block is majority black, and it’s still just as beautiful as it was when we first moved in. Those who participated in the ‘white flight’ may have moved in fear that property values would decline, but that is often a false stereotype.”
Gadsden BLM’s most recent demonstration intentionally included two other organizations to display that despite the groups’ different goals and perspectives, the members were able to organize together successfully and peacefully. At the Etowah County Courthouse facing the detention center on June 21, organization members and Gadsden residents gave testimonies of their experiences with discrimination in Gadsden and systemic racism, which is the essence of the BLM movement. As a movement dedicated to the validation of all black voices and lives, Clark believes that the Father’s Day protest represented the perfect embodiment of BLM’s message.
“I feel like Gadsden tells a story of two cities,” said Clark. “That should not be the case in the City of Champions. We hope that the community gets actual concrete change and real unity among our citizens. We should be able to conquer our divided past and move into a unified future.”
Gabriela Hernandez understands the power one voice can hold to influence others, to make a message heard and to inspire change. At the forefront of the Gadsden protests, Hernandez lead the crowds in chants and call-and-response mantras where strong voices filled the air refusing to be silenced. Though Hernandez did not grow up in Gadsden, she recognizes that the distress felt by black Gadsden residents echoes the injustice of black people nationwide, and she dedicates herself to help however she can.
“I’m being a voice to show everyone that we can all walk together as one and not be worried about what the police are doing,” said Hernandez. “[I’m being a voice to show] that not all things have to result in violence.”
Hernandez has been involved with BLM since the movement’s conception. She herself has lost two friends to police brutality: one a few years ago, and one a few weekends ago. She considers the community responsive to the BLM message; engaged with all efforts and actions as individuals who desire freedom, justice and peace.
“We are tired,” said Hernandez. “Enough is enough. No more police brutality. No more black-on-black crime. No more. We are supposed to be living, not dying.
“Thank you [to the community] for letting me be a part of history,” said Hernandez. “I won’t stop until my heart stops. [Through BLM Gadsden] I’ve gained knowledge and my true calling to help, show up and show out for everyone. I see a community coming together for change – not a temporary change, but forever.”
BLM Gadsden leader Jerome Gunn never anticipated the movement to expand on such a massive scale. As an individual who has dedicated himself to helping the community for a decade, Gunn organized the local chapter’s events and activities geared toward developing positive change in Gadsden. Gunn shared some advice for those seeking to become involved.
“Look out for your neighbor,” said Gunn. “If you see someone being treated wrongly or hurt, record it (and bring awareness to it) but also try to help as much as you can without causing more confusion. Speak up for those who can’t, or will not [speak up for themselves].”
BLM Gadsden feeds the homeless each Sunday at Gunn’s business, and raised funds for inmates’ books who are without help. The chapter organized a team for security and a legal team to care for protesters as well as acquired a legal official and stand-by bond money for its people. Gunn attested to BLM’s actions to improve the community, stating that the chapter cleaned spray paint off several buildings throughout Gadsden. Quarles shared that BLM Gadsden recently donated to the family of a local law enforcement officer whose child suffered a drowning incident and is currently at Children’s of Alabama.
While some skeptical and uninformed residents might associate BLM with negativity, focusing on the rhetoric that the protests originated from outsiders seeking to incite trouble or disrupt the community, BLM Gadsden leaders want the community to know that this movement is a product of its people. The people of Gadsden have witnessed firsthand the racism that plagues its community and the damage and destruction that ensues as a consequence, and it is the people of Gadsden who understand now is the time for change.
As a nonviolent movement, BLM Gadsden advocates justice and peace for all residents, beginning with the black lives that are affected and harmed by systemic racism and hatred. Until black lives matter, all lives are not considered equal. Until all lives are recognized as significant, valued and precious, the community will never progress. BLM Gadsden commits itself to raising awareness to this fact, emphasizing the major discrepancies in society that must change for justice and peace to prevail.
“I would like to believe all lives truly matter in society,” said Clark. “But the reality is black people are disproportionately harmed when it comes to policing, healthcare and the economy. It’s not anyone’s singular fault, but the system we always talk about effectively puts society in a position where black lives don’t matter. We want all lives to truly matter, so we are putting the work in by addressing the parts of the system that is disparaging our value in society. We all have to work together to make it where all black people are truly valued and equal in this society, so that the claim ‘all lives matter’ is a reality.”
Gadsden BLM leaders utilize individual talents to evoke change as a whole. Together, Gunn, Miles, Dozier, Quarles, Hernandez and Clark work towards a better Gadsden — a Gadsden void of hateful discrimination, corruption and ceaseless violence, but a city where all residents feel safe and confident to live and thrive. BLM Gadsden envisions a city that measures its prosperity on the well-being of its entire population, including the black community and local leadership who represent its people, a progressive city that invests in its education systems and youth, provides more resources for law enforcement to learn and improve and recruits businesses for its residents. BLM Gadsden recently presented its message to city officials, who have been receptive and cordial. City officials have already met some demands but are still discussing what can and cannot be done.
For more information on Black Lives Matter in Gadsden, visit https://www.facebook.com/BLMGAD/ for updates. Individuals are welcome to share their own experiences in Gadsden on the group page, as well as any ideas they may have concerning improving Gadsden.
“If you want to start making changes in your community, the first step is finding an outlet to enact your change, resources that can help you, and setting out to make that change,” said Clark. “Even if you start slow, any step is a great start.”