The first sign that the neo-Nazis had arrived in Knoxville came a few minutes past noon with the sound of shouting outside a downtown parking garage.
“Jump! Jump! Jump! Jump!”
A small group of anti-racist activists had gathered across the street from the Locust Street Garage and were yelling up toward a contingent of black-clad white nationalists who peered at them over the top ledge of the six-story parking structure. Somehow the activists had gotten wind of where the neo-Nazis were meeting and began heckling them from the sidewalk. Their message: Leave our city or kill yourselves.
“Yankees go home! Yankees go home!” the activists on the ground shouted.
Among those atop the garage was Matthew Heimbach, the Maryland-raised leader of the Traditionalist Worker Party (TWP) who had invited fellow neo-Nazis and white nationalists to join him on Sunday, January 21 in Knoxville for what he framed as a rally to support the anti-abortion March for Life taking place in the city that day. In reality, Heimbach was trying to capitalize on the publicity surrounding a much larger event being held simultaneously — the Women’s March, organized to protest President Donald Trump, who has helped reignite America’s racist fringe since launching his campaign in 2015 and taking office last year.
The confrontation at the garage went on for 10 minutes or so without any law enforcement in sight until an officer on a motorcycle drove up. A short time later, an unmarked, white van arrived. Several cops piled out carrying rifles and donning body armor. A few more motorcycle officers quickly joined them. The police kept an eye on things until Heimbach’s crew disappeared from the roof to head to their rally and the anti-racists set off around the corner, into the crowd gathering for the Women’s March.
Despite the early drama, the day ended up being mostly a failure for Heimbach and his crew. Dogged by the anti-racists and hemmed in by a heavy police presence, TWP managed to convince only about 20 people to show up. That was just a third of what Heimbach predicted, and far smaller than other recent rallies he’d organized. Meanwhile, police estimated the Women’s March drew 14,000.
The biggest effect Heimbach’s crew had might have been on the very cause he claimed to support. Organizers of the anti-abortion March for Life spoke with police after learning that Heimbach had talked about supporting their event. The organizers disavowed him and soon decided to move their rally indoors from the World’s Fair Park to the nearby Knoxville Convention Center, a lower-profile venue but one that allowed them to maintain more control over the attendance. Local media estimated the March for Life crowd numbered in the hundreds. Organizers later praised the police department on Facebook for keeping them safe.
And indeed, the actions of law enforcement were likely what kept the events of the day free from violence. Multiple cities have stepped up security at white nationalist rallies after last year’s killing of anti-racist activist Heather Heyer at the “Unite the Right” event in Charlottesville, Virginia, a rally that Heimbach helped organize.
In Knoxville, the police set up barricades on both sides of Market Street along Charles Krutch Park. They banned guns and water bottles from both events. The police kept the initial gathering for the Women’s March behind barriers in the park and Heimbach’s group behind barriers on the opposite side of the street. Cops with rifles lined up between the two rallies as attendees from each shouted at one another.
At one point, a group of about two dozen black bloc protestors showed up at the corner of Market Street and Union Avenue, just north of the park. They were wearing all black except for pink bandanas around their faces. They chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho, neo-Nazis got to go!” But police kept them far enough away that the racists may not have even heard them.
TWP members, including Tony Hovater, an Ohio man who was recently profiled by The New York Times, and Tom Pierce, took part in the racist rally, as did Garon Archer of the neo-Confederate League of the South. Members of the group chanted slogans, like “Strong families! Strong nation!” and “National! Socialism!” Occasionally, Heimbach or one of his followers would step to the front of the barricade to yell at the Women’s March attendees, some of whom had lined up along their own barricade to heckle the neo-Nazis. “We are the real revolutionaries!” screamed a young man dressed in a white shirt, black tie, black jacket and sunglasses. At another point, he yelled at a woman wearing a rainbow shirt: “Go to a Muslim country with a rainbow shirt on and see what happens!”
Heimbach’s group displayed a pair of black-and-white League of the South flags as well as a Tennessee state flag. They also carried a banner that read “White Pride Worldwide.” Another banner read “Our Children Our Future” and displayed TWP’s logo as well as a Celtic Cross, which is popular with neo-Nazis. Yet another banner read “Femininity Not Feminism.” On one end of it was a cartoon of a smiling, blond-haired woman holding up the logo of the TWP. On the other was a scowling, purple-haired woman holding up the Jewish Star of David.
At 2:02 p.m., as the Women’s March was continuing to grow, the racist contingent decided it was time to go. They lined up in a formation and marched south to Clinch Avenue before hanging a right and heading back to the parking garage. As they left, a group from the Women’s March sang:
Na na na na
Na na na na
Hey hey hey
Within 20 minutes, anti-racist activists had again assembled across the street from the parking garage while the white nationalist crew gathered on the roof. This time, there were more than a dozen members of law enforcement standing guard. One of the activists carried a large flag with the logo of Anti-Racist Action. One man shouted up from the street, daring the racists to display the flags they’d been carrying at the rally. “Our flag is bigger than your flag!” he yelled.
A woman with two young children got an escort from a police officer while passing the crowd on the sidewalk. She thanked him after they made it through the chaos.
A few minutes later, a black SUV pulled out of the garage with police officers hanging off the sides and back. A line of 10 vehicles, presumably with the white nationalists behind the wheel, pulled out behind it. The convoy led down the street and out of downtown Knoxville.
The white nationalists never did make it to the March for Life just a few blocks away.