If you scroll down to my bio real quick, you’ll see I attend the University of Tennessee. Good Ol’ Rocky Top. On Saturday, February 17, white supremacists came to my school. The Holocaust-denying organizer of the Charlottesville rally came to my school. And my fellow students refused to remain silent in the face of hatred. Honestly, the Nazis chose the wrong group of people to mess with, because UT students have had a lot of practice standing up to bigotry.
Matthew Heimbach has been called the next “David Duke,” according to the Huffington Post. His profile on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s website is extensive, and will make you a little nauseous. He co-founded the Traditionalist Worker Party (TWP), a white supremacy hate group. How, you may ask, did he manage to get space at a university? The Knoxville News Sentinel reports that he lied. The space was reserved under the name of a local church (which has no affiliation with TWP and had no idea their name was being used). The person who made the request called back to change the contact information to reflect who really was organizing this event: out-of-state Nazis.
The event was the first of a speaking tour of college campuses entitled “National Socialism or Death,” writes the Southern Poverty Law Center. No students or faculty invited TWP to speak at UT. SPLC says TWP has made previous attempts to infiltrate UT, spraying “white pride” and neo-Nazi symbols on a giant rock that serves as a community message board. UT responded with a tweet saying, “...We sometimes disagree with what appears on the Rock,” which they deleted after backlash for not condemning racism. TWP also hung up flyers advocating for a white nationalist group, which were ultimately removed for not being affiliated with a campus group.
Despite the fact that the reservation was made under false pretense, the university did not cancel the event. I need to interject some important context for readers not familiar with UT and its track record on standing up for marginalized students. The Tennessean reports our Office for Diversity and Inclusion was defunded for a year because the state passed a law banning the use of state funds to promote gender-neutral pronouns. The Pride Center was run by a skeleton crew of “Pride Ambassadors,” queer students who fought tooth and nail to maintain the safe space previously run by a salaried faculty member. Local news station WVLT states that during this time, the center suffered multiple incidents of vandalism and a pride ambassador was assaulted in the adjacent neighborhood where many students live. Someone hurled a brick through a Pride Center window attached to a note that said, “F*gs get AIDS more often.” And this was after the state legislature actively tried to shut down sex-positive programming run by students, as detailed by The Huffington Post. In 2016, our school newspaper, The Daily Beacon, wrote an article about the uneven distribution of people of color in student housing. I might as well mention the Title IX lawsuit eight women filed and settled with UT for what The Knoxville News Sentinel describes as a “hostile sexual environment," following the women's accusations of sexual assault against former male student athletes. Marginalized students are very used to fighting for their right to exist on campus without support from the administration.
Just because they’re used to it doesn’t make it any easier when these things happen. Faith Held is the media coordinator for the Progressive Student Alliance (PSA), one of the student groups that organized the protest against TWP. In an email, she said, “PSA and the rest of us are angry, disappointed and ashamed that these people were allowed to use our campus as a platform for hate speech.”
The university condemned the speakers and scheduled events in the week leading up to the talk in an effort to unite the campus against hate. The events, outlined on UT’s website, included a free speech panel, a presentation by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and an anti-Nazi teach-in by faculty throughout Friday. Multiple departments released statements disavowing TWP. The Department of Sociology said, “We object to TWP’s manipulative use of free speech as cover for promoting their violent ideology. TWP has no genuine interest in free speech; their ideology, if actualized, would destroy the free speech rights of others. Their goal is to undercut rational debate, maintain structures of exclusion, and promote violence.“
The university also took extensive measures to ensure campus safety. The “clear bag” policy in place for football games was enforced for these events and the protest. Originally scheduled to take place in a museum auditorium, the TWP talk was moved to another part of campus amid security concerns. Classes and events in that area were cancelled. A performance of The Vagina Monologues was cancelled. Students received emails informing them to stay away from campus.
UT’s police department designated a protest site that was out of view of the event and lacked access to food, water, or restrooms. And it was surrounded by barriers. Held said, “PSA felt that was not only was the ultimate insult to students who pay thousands of dollars to attend UT, but it was a dangerous situation that would have been difficult to maneuver out of had anything happened like we saw in Charlottesville, for example.” This is why the majority of demonstrators did not even go to the protest zone on the day of the talk, opting instead to gather across the road from the building where the talk was taking place. Police in riot gear took up position inches away from students and community members who had made it very clear that their only intent was to protest peacefully.
250 people braved a miserable rain to protest. The Knoxville News Sentinel reports that 45 people attended the talk. None of them were students. People who did attend got to hear giant manbaby Heimbach talk about a “whites only” state, women’s sole purpose “to have and raise children,” and how LGBTQ2+ people should be put to death.
A report on UT’s campus climate came out the following Monday. The News Sentinel writes that the results revealed that 15% of the student body in spring 2017 had experienced “exclusionary, intimidating, or offensive conduct.” 32% of these respondents said that they felt excluded because of political beliefs. The next greatest factors for exclusion were sexuality, gender identity, and ethnicity. The Princeton Review ranked UT the 5th most unfriendly school to LGBTQ2+ folks.
When asked about the university’s anti-hate events in the week before TWP’s talk, Held said, “Those events came from a well-meaning place, but our students needed more, sooner. These things shouldn’t be reactive. If we had more of those events on campus at times other than when marginalized students are feeling like they’re at their most vulnerable, perhaps Heimbach would not have seen this as a place where he was welcome to come speak.”
This is my takeaway from UT allowing the hate speech to go forward. As a student and an activist there, I can tell you that this stuff is almost old hat. Every year features some shenanigans to the point where I know the administration doesn’t care about marginalized students. Or at least care enough to actively protect them. Sure, there’s a new chancellor this year, but it’s too little too late. It’s not just that they allowed non-students to be on our campus in order to say that I should be killed or made into a broodmare a la The Handmaid’s Tale. That’s just the cherry on top. This isn’t about me. I’m white, cisgender, and I wasn’t even in Tennessee for the TWP talk.
It’s that UT doesn’t listen to its most vulnerable students time after time. It’s that UT’s campus is really inaccessible. It’s that I’ve heard the lived experiences of sexual assault survivors on campus. It’s that a number of students of color and queer students would advise against other POC and LGBTQ2+ folks attending UT. It’s that I have witnessed a friend have what could be described as a panic attack after speaking publicly against the school. The University of Tennessee had a valid reason to cancel on TWP, and the students who would be impacted the most wanted them to.
I graduate later this year, and while it might be too late for my class, I can only hope that the administration will listen to future students when considering what kind of university they want UT to be.
Top photo: Nima Kasraie/Wikimedia Commons
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Anna Greer was an editorial intern spring 2018 and is a senior at the University of Tennessee, where she studies comics and human rights. When she is not engaged in feminist activism, she usually can be found wearing Doc Martens and looking at Star Wars prequel memes. Follow her @activistanna42