In February 2018, the Traditionalist Worker Party (TWP) kicked off a multi-state campus tour, entitled “National Socialism or Death,” at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK). Thus, Tennessee’s flagship campus became the latest in a long line of universities recently targeted by white nationalist and white supremacist groups. These organizations want to recruit and build a following on campuses across the United States. They also seek to undermine the credibility of institutions of higher education. This article outlines TWP’s recent incursion into Knoxville and the community’s responses.
The Traditionalist Worker Party (TWP), co-founded by Matthew Heimbach, is a white nationalist organization. It advocates for the creation of an independent whites-only nation-state. Core to white nationalist belief is the notion that the United States was built by and for white people. Notably, this idea has purchase even in academic circles, albeit thinly veiled under the guise of Western European culture and values. TWP also believes that white people—defined as “the descendants of indigenous Europeans”—should dominate the nation’s political, economic, and social spheres.
In their own words, TWP wants a “Homeland for Whites, governed and built by and for our people.” Heimbach has never articulated how this whites-only homeland would be established—an end to non-white immigration? the forcible removal of non-white people? genocide? In his mythology, however, its creation is imperative.
Groups like TWP frame non-white immigration and multiculturalism as “white genocide.” They deliberately misrepresent the fact that genocide is a violent means of forceful annihilation through mass murder. In addition to their hostility toward people of color and non-white immigrants, TWP is openly antagonistic toward Jewish people (their platform declares war on “international Jewry” and members refer to the Holocaust as the “Holohoax”), LGBTQ+ people (whom they refer to as “degenerates”), and feminists (really, all non-traditionalist women).
TWP became active in Knoxville in September 2017, and Heimbach has previously visited the area to speak to other white nationalist groups and attend Stormfront’s Smoky Mountain Summit.
As an immigration scholar, it’s no surprise to me that TWP made their first public appearance in Knoxville during the start of Hispanic Heritage Month. Each September, downtown Knoxville hosts the HoLa Festival, a celebration of Latin American culture and heritage. The event attracts thousands of people who are drawn to the festival for its diverse array of Latin American food, music, crafts, and dancing, and for the Parade of Nations. This year, during the festival, TWP and State of Franklin Party (a local white nationalist organization whose platform states that “multiculturalism and amalgamation will only bring harm and complications to what should otherwise be a more stable, homogenous community”) posted the following flyer in the downtown public parking garages:
Flyer posted at the HoLa Festival. Photo by author.
Although the vast majority of Latinos in the United States—especially those in East Tennessee—are either US citizens or authorized immigrants, Latinos have long been conflated with unauthorized immigrants, especially by white nationalists who seek to sublimate racial threat through law-and-order rhetoric. Their message is that non-white people, particularly those who might turn out for the HoLa festival, are not adequately American and should be removed.
That same September, TWP launched a propaganda campaign on the University of Tennessee campus. At the outset, this largely consisted of posting flyers with white nationalist slogans. One flyer depicted a white family standing amid a wasteland with the text: “The most precious possession you have in the world is your own people.” Notably, a report from the Anti-Defamation League finds that incidents of white supremacist propaganda on campus have more than tripled in 2017. This seems to hold true for Knoxville. In December, TWP members began painting the Rock—a 97.5-ton rock that sits in the middle of campus and serves as an open message board for the campus community. The first message that I noticed—“It’s OK to be white”—references a 4chan meme whose explicit purpose is to use supposedly harmless messages to provoke university overreaction—as though these messages operate in a context outside of white supremacy and campuses are not climates of racial hostility.
A few days later, the Rock was painted again, this time with the words “White Pride.” In response, a UTK student tweeted, “@UTKnoxville this was seen on the rock approx. 30 minutes ago and it not okay.” The University quickly responded, “While we sometimes disagree with what appears on the Rock, those who paint it are protected by the First Amendment. We trust that the Volunteer community will take care of this quickly.”
University response to TWP’s “White Pride” message. Photo by author.
The University deleted its tweet after a number of people criticized the response as inadequate. UTK Chancellor Beverly Davenport noted that “it didn’t convey our position about racism.” Following this, TWP was interviewed by Backroom Knox, a far-right blog. The transcript from this interview—which TWP posted on their website and then later removed—identified a “watch list” of UTK students, staff, and faculty—including several in my department—who, in TWP’s words, “have been proven to support and/or attend events organized by: Antifa, BLM, and other radical Leftists.”
TWP has continued its work in Knoxville into 2018, though with varying success. On January 21, the group organized a counter-demonstration to the Knoxville Women’s March 2.0. The March mobilized more than 14,000 participants, while TWP had only twenty. That same evening, TWP painted the UTK Rock again, this time with the slogan “My borders my choice.” This slogan was accompanied by neo-Nazi and Nazi propaganda, including the 14/88 symbol—14 refers to the 14 words slogan, “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children,” and 88 refers to H, the eighth letter of the alphabet, code for “Heil Hitler.”
The UTK Rock painted with neo-Nazi propaganda. From left to right (bottom row): symbol for the Traditionalist Youth Network; Othala Rune; Celtic Cross; TWP (initials of the Traditionalist Worker Party); Triskele; 1488. Photo credit: Louise Seamster.
TWP also posted a number of flyers with the same slogan across campus. The slogan—part of an international meme campaign—attempts to appropriate framing from the women’s rights movement to apply the message of women’s bodily autonomy to geopolitical boundaries. Anti-immigrant rhetoric often takes place around women’s bodies. Since women control the means of reproduction, the bodies of immigrant women are often the platform through which white nationalists express fears about the “browning” of the nation. Think, for example, of US Representative Steve King, who tweeted in 2017 that “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies,” or of Tennessee State Representative Curry Todd, who in 2010 argued on the floor of the Tennessee General Assembly that immigrant women “go out there like rats and multiply.”
Flyer posted on UTK campus. Photo by author.
At UTK, the Chancellor issued a statement affirming the group’s right to free speech and calling on university community members to use their own First Amendment rights to respond to TWP’s rhetoric:
Even though the First Amendment to the Constitution protects hate speech, that does not mean we must remain silent about it. In fact, we have a responsibility to condemn what we know is wrong. Hate is wrong. Racism is wrong. Advocating for the exclusion of all but one race is clearly wrong.
So I encourage all of you to be guardians of our campus. Protect it and make it a symbol of what you honor and love. Take care of it and each other. Be mindful of what’s hurtful and hateful. If you see something hateful or hurtful on the Rock, say something and/or enlist the help of others to paint over it.
Then, in early February, noting that the “local unit in Knoxville has been very active,” TWP announced that they would kick off a multi-state tour and campus lecture series at the University of Tennessee. As details of the tour developed, UTK’s administration noted that TWP had secured a room on campus under false pretenses, but that they would nonetheless allow the group to host their event, citing free speech and university policies that allow non-campus entities to rent space on campus. The University’s decision was disappointing to many on campus, including myself. It hits particularly hard now since TWP’s incursions onto campus come just a few years after the University of Tennessee temporarily disbanded the Office of Diversity, including the UT Pride Center, when the State Legislature voted to defund the Office altogether.
A number of events were quickly organized in anticipation of TWP’s campus lecture. These events reflected the variety of responses people have to white nationalism. The UTK Campus Ministers Council sponsored United at the Rock Against Racism. This event brought together hundreds of people to cover the Rock with colorful handprints, which were almost immediately defaced by TWP. More than 100 UTK student organizations signed onto a statement denouncing Heimbach’s appearance on campus. Academic departments like Anthropology, History, Modern Foreign Languages & Literatures, and Sociology issued statements condemning TWP and their use of free speech as cover for bigotry. The Geography Department organized a panel on navigating white supremacy on campus. Other faculty organized and participated in a Teach-in Against Fascism, covering topics ranging from National Socialism, to the Biblical roots of anti-Semitism, to contemporary anti-immigrant movements. UTK librarians created a platform to share resources that “stand against hate.” The UTK Faculty Senate passed a resolution affirming the campus’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. Labor rights groups, including the UTK chapter of UCW-CWA, Jobs With Justice East Tennessee, and the Knoxville-Oak Ridge Central Labor Council, excoriated TWP’s appropriation of the labor movement. And the administration sponsored a talk by the Southern Poverty Law Center on responding to “hate and extremism.”
Despite widespread objections from the campus community, TWP’s lecture continued as planned. And so, on Saturday, February 17, the white nationalists came to campus. Per one reporter who was present for the more than two-hour-long speech, Heimbach voiced his “vision for a whites-only state where the purpose of women is ‘to have and raise children’ and homosexuality is grounds for capital punishment.” This language comes as no surprise to those who have read TWP’s talking points, but it stands in stark contrast to the university’s mission to encourage intellectual rigor, embrace diversity, and create a welcoming atmosphere for students, staff, and faculty.
Heimbach’s lecture was not well attended. Although TWP boasts of having thousands of members, and approximately half a dozen student members at UTK, all of the students who showed up for the event came to protest their presence on campus. More than 300 students, staff, and faculty, as well as community members, attended the No Nazis on Rocky Top protest, which was organized by the UTK Progressive Student Alliance. Others participated in University-sponsored counter-programming activities, including the United in Love Community Gathering at the Frieson Black Cultural Center.
We still have much to do to reject bigotry on our campus and in our community. Although I expect that TWP will continue its operations in Knoxville for the near future, it’s important to recognize that not all of these threats come from white nationalists. Tomorrow, though, I will return to my classroom to teach about US immigration policies, helping my students draw connections between modern-day white nationalism and legacies of racism embedded in our nation’s history.