By A.Nicole Alarcón
Forty-five Nazis. Two hundred police officers. Over two hundred and fifty members from
the University of Tennessee’s campus and surrounding East and Middle Tennessee communities united to combat white supremacy and fascism. A failed university administration’s response and student organizers’ call to action.
Just over one week ago on February 17th, the University of Tennessee’s Progressive
Student Alliance (PSA) led a protest against the presence of the white supremacist, white
nationalist (read: Nazi) Traditionalist Workers Party on the university’s campus.
Booked under the false pretenses of a church’s event, the co-founder of the TWP, Matthew Heimbach, was set to deliver a talk as part of the series “National Socialism or Death” in McClung Museum’s auditorium. A Shoah denier and avid Hitlerite, Heimbach was at the center of the Nazi actions in Charlottesville that led to the murder of our fallen comrade, Heather Heyer, and attacks on other comrades and folx taking action against fascism.
While the University of Tennessee’s administration was well within their rights to cancel the event, the administration failed to protect its marginalized students, staff, faculty, and larger Knoxville community members by simply moving the location of the event to the Hill and allowing members of the TWP a secure space on the university’s campus. Citing “free speech,” as an issue of concern if the event was to be cancelled, the university prioritized the rights of the TWP over marginalized students, staff,
Because the university administration failed to show up for its students, staff,
faculty, and the greater Knoxville communities, the Progressive Student Alliance moved in to organize the protest against the fascists’ presence through the action “No Nazis On Rocky Top!”
Student organizer and PSA member, Maddux Willingham said that the organization planned the action “to show the TWP that they are not welcome on our campus, and to show to the world that the student body of University of Tennessee does NOT want these discriminatory groups to be allowed to meet on our campus.”
In the weeks leading up to the action, PSA held several meetings for community input and involvement in the protest to allow the campus’ community members space to discuss what they needed and wanted to make happen during the action.
On February 17th, over two hundred and fifty people met in the Humanities Amphitheater in the pouring rain and cold to speak out against white supremacy, the rise of fascism, and the continued, important need to organize against systems of oppression in the coming days.
Following a powerful speak out, organizers led community members on an accessible march to the base of the Hill, where the university assigned the fascists a space in Buehler Hall and a quarantined area for protesters. Hundreds of university, local, and state police were gathered in the protest area and Cumberland Avenue.
In a powerful move of solidarity and action, PSA organizers and members of the community refused to enter the heavily policed, protest area and stayed on the other side of Cumberland Avenue to protest the TWP. Community members spoke
out and chanted against the immense presence of the university, local, and state police in the streets, alongside chants of solidarity and chants against fascism and Nazism.
While local news agencies reported that no one was arrested during the action, six community members from Mercy Junction Justice and Peace Center were arrested and detained by the police through force. They were issued citations for blocking an intersection during an action of unity against fascism as they unfurled a banner stating, “God Condemns White Supremacy” on Cumberland Avenue
(if folx are able, they are collecting donations for legal expenses through Paypal at
Hundreds of members from the community remained for nearly five hours in the cold and rain to protest TWP’s presence, until the fascists left the university’s campus. When the University of Tennessee’s campus was under attack, members of the community moved up and fought back. On February 17th , members of the university’s campus and larger Knoxville communities showed the TWP and other fascists that Appalachia is
While local news agencies covered the events of the action and TWP’s talk, there remains an important question that has remained unasked and thus remains unanswered: why did the University of Tennessee provide the TWP with a warm building, security (hundreds of police officers), water, and public restrooms? Protesters from the community did not have any of these rights afforded to them during the course of the protest.
In fact, there were many moments during the protest that the police attempted to kettle the protest through the use of intimidation. The university placed larges swathes of police officers to protect members of the TWP at the expense of marginalized members in the community. If protesters were to enter the quarantined protest
area, they could not bring umbrellas, water, or food. Nor were they afforded the right to use public restrooms. Allowing the fascists a warm, comfortable space on campus at the expense of the campus community has shown that there is much work to be done and this work lies in continued, community organizing against systems of oppression and holding people in positions of power accountable.
“Doing nothing is just enabling these hate groups to be continuing to meet. Numbers
make a difference, over 250 students, faculty, and community members endured the cold rain to let the administration know they have failed us….I have never been more ashamed in my administration. They not only protected the TWP’s right, but failed our rights to organize and assemble. They failed to show how important it is to stand up against hate. The PSA invites anyone to join us at our meetings and in organizing for a more just campus,” student organizer and PSA member Maddux Willingham said. The Progressive Student Alliance holds weekly meetings on Wednesday evenings in HSS 061, 6:00 p.m.
A. Nicole Alarcón is a Xicanx graduate student and student organizer at the University of