White nationalist groups are using a private gym above a store in Nashville, Tennessee, to network and train for hand-to-hand combat, a Hatewatch investigation reveals.
The private gym is located above Lewis Country Store – a gas station, convenience store and restaurant known locally for displaying hateful anti-LBGTQ+ and misogynistic signage. A message posted May 21 on a Telegram channel run by Tennessee Active Club, a white nationalist hate group, led Hatewatch to photographs of the property on a real estate listing website. Those images were matched to a propaganda video and photographs the group posted online. The photographs and video appear to show the same gym. Brad Lewis owns the store and appears to be a cook at the restaurant, according to photographs of him making food for customers posted to Google Photos. Lewis’ store now appears to be an important hub in the local white nationalist movement.
Hatewatch contacted Lewis through email to ask about the private gym and his relationship with the Tennessee Active Club. Lewis responded in an email laced with profane language and an anti-LGBTQ+ slur.
“You and the SPLC can go fuck yourselves,” Lewis said. “What I do with my life and my business is none of your fucking meddling business.”
Later the Lewis Country Store posted a photograph of the group giving the Hitler salute outside Lewis Country Store with “Fuck the SPLC!!!” as the caption.
‘This dudes cool’
Sean Kauffmann is the leader of the Tennessee Active Club, which is part of a national network of white power hate groups. Founded by Robert Rundo, Active clubs train in mixed martial arts to fight against what they perceive as an anti-white system. The group celebrates violence and hypermasculinity, arguing that physical strength will position them to stand up to the forces they believe weaken America and European nations, including Islam, Judaism and racial diversity. Rundo was recently arrested in Romania and is currently being extradited to the U.S. to stand trial on federal rioting charges.
Kauffmann, who does not hide his identity, has used the Tennessee Active Club brand to mobilize protests against LGBTQ+-inclusive events, including one in January at a brewery in Cookeville, Tennessee. At a drag show in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in November 2022, Kauffmann and members of his group screamed slurs and acted aggressively toward participants before appearing on video joining a prayer circle.
Kauffmann reportedly has been around the white nationalist movement for years and started a neo-Nazi group called Panzer Strike Force in Tucson, Arizona. Around this time, Kauffmann was an active participant in Telegram channels celebrating white supremacist mass shooters and was communicating with an enlisted soldier, Jarrett William Smith, who has since been convicted for providing bomb-making material to an FBI informant.
In June 2020, Kauffmann was photographed with three others giving a Nazi salute at a Black Lives Matter rally in Tucson. The next month, Kauffmann was in East Tennessee, where he and three others were charged with disorderly conduct at a Black Lives Matter protest in Rogersville, Tennessee. Citing police reports of the incident, a local news program reported that the four individuals “became violent and started trying to assault people.” Since these incidents, Kauffmann has led the Tennessee Active Club out into the streets to harass participants at LBGTQ+-inclusive events.
On May 21, an administrator of the group’s Telegram channel forwarded a message from Lewis Country Store that mocked the reactions of community members to the store’s bigoted signage. About an hour later, a message on the channel asserted that the group has a working relationship with the store’s owner.
“This dudes cool as fuck,” [sic] the message states, “he lets us train at his private gym upstairs! Fuck this commie government!”
This message was deleted a short while later, as was most of the content on the Tennessee Active Club Telegram channel.
Hatewatch attempted to reach Kauffmann via phone and email for comment but was unsuccessful.
Following this lead, Hatewatch compared photographs of the property on a real estate website to video and photographs of Tennessee Active Club members training in a gym posted to Telegram. The photographs and video appear to show the same gym. The images appear to show the same boxing ring with a distinctive blue mat, as well as identical tile floors, trophy wall, alcoves and windows. Photographs and video Tennessee Active Club posted also appear to show the same set of boxes, free weights and exit sign, as well as a separate exercise room that appears in photographs on the real estate listing website.
After Lewis responded to Hatewatch’s request for comment, the Lewis Country Store posted an undated photograph of Kauffman, Robert Bray, two unidentified individuals and six others whose faces are obscured giving a Hitler salute outside the store. Bray’s ties to Kauffmann’s group were first reported by Raw Story, which also cited evidence linking Bray to the Philadelphia chapter of the Proud Boys.
Shortly after the Lewis Country Store posted the photograph of the group, the Tennessee Active Club posted the same photograph to Telegram, but only Kauffmann and Ian Elliott did have their face obscured. (More on Elliott is below.)
According to video and photographs the Tennessee Active Club posted online, the gym above Lewis Country Store was used at least three times in 2023, all on Sundays: on April 2, May 7 and May 21. Lewis Country Store is closed on Sunday.
In a video posted to Telegram dated April 2, Sean Kauffmann, members of Tennessee Active, and members of the Vinland Rebels are seen sparring with each other in the boxing ring at the private gym. The Vinland Rebels are a Neo-Nazi hate group that has engaged in book burnings, banner drops and racist flyering activities. In one clip an individual appears to be instructing others on how to attack someone using a defensive position to shield their head.
In addition, a photograph the Tennessee Active Club posted online on May 7 shows Kauffmann standing next to Ian Michael Elliott, unidentified individuals, and about 10 other men whose faces are obscured. The group is posing in front of the trophy wall at the private gym during a training session. Nearly everyone in the photograph is wearing gym clothes. Some are not wearing shoes, presumably to protect the mat in the boxing ring – though a few individuals are seen in combat boots. The group also displays a Tennessee Active Club flag in the photograph and a flag of the Sonnenrad, or the Black Sun, which is also incorporated into the Tennessee Active Club logo. The Sonnenrad is a symbol used in ancient Nordic and Celtic cultures that was appropriated by the Nazis. Kauffmann, who is in a kilt, Elliott, and an unidentified individual also wear a Liftwaffe T-shirt, which is a hashtag Nazis use to represent their desire to stay physically active. Liftwaffe is a nod to the Luftwaffe, which was the German Air Force before and during World War II.
Elliott, whose last known residence is in Harvest, Alabama, is a former member of the white nationalist group Patriot Front. The research collective Atlanta Antifascists identified Elliott as a chapter leader in Patriot Front who worked as a mixed martial arts instructor in Alabama, specializing in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Krav Maga, a style of fighting developed by the Israel Defense Force. Elliott reportedly lost his instructor positions after his racist activists were revealed. In March 2022, Elliott was arrested in Alabama as a fugitive from justice and spent several weeks in jail on charges stemming from his involvement in vandalizing a school in March 2017 in Sierra Vista, Arizona according to court records. Elliott accepted a plea agreement in this case and was convicted of aggravated criminal damage. Elliott now appears to be involved with the Alabama Active Club and traveled with the group to a meet-up on May 7 at Lewis Country Store, according to photographs posted to Telegram.
Elliott could not be reached for comment. Hatewatch reached out to him using a phone number associated with his name found on a data service provider, but the calls went unanswered.
Tennessee Active Club and the Ohio Active Club also appear to have used the gym on May 21, according to a photograph posted on Telegram. In the photograph, Kauffmann embraces an individual whose face and tattoos are obscured inside the boxing ring of the private gym. Both are wearing gym clothes. In the background appears to be the same free weights, floor tile and window that peers into an exercise room as seen in photographs found on the real estate listing website. The caption of the photo posted to Telegram reads: “Ohio AC Lead. Tennessee AC Lead. White Unity at Every Opportunity.”
A ‘thriving business’
Located about 15 miles northwest of downtown Nashville on the Ashland City Highway, Lewis Country Store seems designed to celebrate American gun culture. As seen in photographs posted to a real estate website, as well as by customers to Facebook and Google Photos, the store is designed in a kitschy Americana style that is similar to many other restaurants found alongside American roadways – but with guns.
Original sculptures depicting guns and people using guns made from found objects appear outside, as do decommissioned weapons and military equipment. Old rifles and handguns adorn the walls inside. Next to an aisle of protein bars, near the middle of the store, is a life-sized cutout of John Wayne – who is dressed as a cowboy and is shooting a gun – that has been placed next to a decommissioned cannon, a miniature soldier holding a full-sized American flag, and two sandbags.
Hatewatch found the store listed for sale on a real estate listing website with an asking price of $5 million. The listing describes the store as a “thriving business” that sits on 2.5 acres and includes a 17,000-square foot building built in 2004. According to the listing, the sellers are keeping the lease to the gas pumps and a parking lot that connects to the property.
Hatewatch left voicemails with the real estate agent listed on the website to confirm these details, but did not receive a response before publication.
The store, which sells gas, food and knives along with branded merchandise, gained attention over the years for displaying bigoted and profane signage, including in October 2016 when it displayed a misogynistic sign to show support for Donald Trump.
“Trump just Said It. Bill Clinton Did it! The Only P*$$y Trump Ever Grabbed was Paul Ryan! #TrumpThatB*tch.”
Shell reportedly ended its contract to supply the store with gasoline after the company conducted an internal investigation into the origins of the signage.
In June 2017 the store stirred controversy for displaying signage that offered a $50,000 reward “For Kathy Griffin’s Head Delivered.” Griffin posted a picture of herself online in May 2017 holding a Donald Trump mask designed to look like a severed head.
During the height of COVID-19 pandemic, in June 2020, the store reportedly defied the county mask mandate and posted signs that read in part, “If you are afraid to be within 6ft of another person PLEASE DO NOT ENTER THIS BUSINESS!!!”
Lewis Country Store has also used its signage to show support for the Proud Boys involved in the violence at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. According to a photograph posted online, the sign uses the Proud Boys yellow laurel and states “Free the Boys,” a slogan first employed by the Proud Boys themselves.
In May, photographs posted online show the store displaying signage that states, “F*** THIS COMMUNIST GOVERNMENT,” which is the same phrase used by the Tennessee Active Club Telegram channel in its May 21 post about using the store’s private gym.
According to state business records, the store has been open since 2004. Renee Lewis, who is married to Brad, appears as the principal officer on state business records. In interviews with local media about his bigoted and sometimes threatening signage, Brad Lewis insists on his First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Brad Lewis also claims in interviews that the store’s customers and employees support the bigoted signage.
Lewis Country Store appears to be active on Telegram and Gab, two social media platforms popular with white supremacists. The accounts using the store’s branding use slurs against Black people, migrants, LGBTQ+ communities and Jewish people. Posts promote racist and antisemitic conspiracies, including denying the existence of the Holocaust. On Gab, the account uses the store’s logo and the description of the account states “Exercising the FK out of our 1st and 2nd amendment rights,” which is the slogan of the store found on branded merchandise. The account on Gab shares posts that support the former leader of the American Nazi Party, George Lincoln Rockwell. It also shares content from the leader of the Goyim Defense League, an antisemitic hate group known for plastering communities with antisemitic flyers and shouting antisemitic slurs on street corners in California and Florida.
Lewis did not respond to questions about who operates the store’s social media accounts; however, his response to Hatewatch and the email Hatewatch sent to request comment were subsequently posted to the store’s Telegram channel.
The Telegram account also posted a photograph of Sean Kauffmann and others, many with their faces obscured, giving the Hitler salute in front of the store.
The Telegram account using the store’s name and logo touts the store’s bigoted signage and shares racist content from the Tennessee Active Club, Ohio Active Club and the Alamo Active Club. The Telegram account also shares racist content from other hate groups, including Patriot Front, the Proud Boys, and the Vinland Rebels. In thinly veiled threats against the federal government posted to Telegram, the account uses lightning strike emojis, which Neo-Nazi groups use as a shorthand for the SS, or Schutzstaffel – a Nazi paramilitary organization that was led by Henrich Himmler.
The account on Telegram also promotes the great replacement theory, which is a false notion that suggests that U.S. officials are actively and covertly replacing white people with migrants. The account wants people to be prepared for war to stop what is viewed as white replacement.
“Never apologize to these communist fucks,” one post on May 20 states. “Always double down and be defiant till the bitter end. No matter what.”
Photo illustration by SPLC