Content warning: This article contains graphic language, including anti-LGBTQ+ slurs and racist and antisemitic language. Reader discretion is advised.
The leader of the white nationalist Tennessee Active Club, Sean Kauffmann, is a Holocaust denier who idolizes Hitler and has recently escalated his group’s confrontation with their perceived political enemies, a Hatewatch investigation reveals.
Kauffmann, 30, from Linden, Tennessee, has a history of violence, including a 2021 conviction for domestic assault that makes him ineligible to possess firearms. A Hatewatch investigation also discovered Kauffmann has Jewish ancestry on his mother’s side. Despite his Jewish roots, Kauffmann has led the Tennessee Active Club into the streets to chant racist and antisemitic slogans, brandish neo-Nazi imagery and stage demonstrations aimed at intimidating perceived enemies including Jewish and Black people, LGBTQ+ communities and migrants.
Kauffmann’s group is part of a larger network of white power “active clubs” that have appeared across the U.S. in recent years. Active clubs train, hold fight club events and promote a type of white nationalist brotherhood that focuses on physical fitness and an aggressive white Christian masculinity that borrows heavily from European far-right groups. Kauffmann leads an active club that is particularly threatening. Under his leadership, the Tennessee Active Club has attempted to intimidate local journalists, activists and politicians, as well as harass participants of LGBTQ+ inclusive events and perceived “anti-white” organizations. Kauffmann’s story mirrors that of the increasingly hostile and aggressive white nationalist movement taking root in active clubs across the country. These groups have grown in number over the past few years and seem increasingly willing to escalate conflict and use violence to achieve their racist political goals.
Hatewatch contacted Kauffmann on Telegram but did not initially receive a response. Instead, after the request for comment to Kauffmann, several of his associates sent direct messages to Hatewatch staff on Telegram that included antisemitic and racial slurs, video clips of racially motivated mass murder, and photographs of Black men being lynched. Kauffmann eventually responded to Hatewatch, writing in a direct message on Telegram, “I will rebutall [sic] tomorrow after you drop your story, you f****t fucking Jew.”
After publication, Kauffmann posted a legal document to his Telegram channel, which courts use to distribute property to the heirs of a person who died, that suggested his maternal grandfather was adopted by a Jewish family. A Hatewatch investigation has confirmed the authenticity of this document— known as an Affidavit of Heirship—which was filed in Harris County, Texas after the death of Kauffmann’s maternal grandfather.
Kauffmann’s violent white nationalist past
Kauffmann, who grew up outside Tucson, Arizona, has been a participant in the white nationalist movement since at least 2019, when he caught the attention of an antifascist researcher monitoring online chatrooms on the platform Telegram that collectively have become known as “Terrorgram.” Aside from sharing racist and antisemitic imagery, chatrooms associated with Terrorgram are graphically violent and have a distinct visual aesthetic. Participants in these chats share footage of racially motivated mass shootings, honor the perpetrators of these acts, extol the virtues of committing more violence, and share bomb-making materials and instructions on how to illegally modify firearms to make them more deadly.
Antifascist researcher and organizer Gwen Snyder identified Kauffmann in June 2020 as a participant in a Terrorgram chatroom who went by Boog Fuhrer. Snyder identified Kauffmann after he posted pictures of confidential documents presumably from his time in a state-run home for juvenile offenders in Arizona. Worried that police would take his firearms due to a custody dispute with an ex-partner, Kauffmann sought advice on how to hide his weapons and used the documents as evidence for what he stood to lose, which included “sniper rifles, AK-47’s, and other high-powered rifles,” according to the document Kauffmann posted to Telegram.
Telegram user Anti-Kosmik, whom the FBI would later identify as Jarrett William Smith, was one of the chatroom members who provided Kauffmann advice on how to hide firearms from law enforcement. A few months after advising Kauffmann, Smith – then a soldier in the U.S. Army – was arrested and subsequently pleaded guilty to two counts of distributing information related to explosives and weapons of mass destruction. Smith was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison and served 14 months. Smith appears to have continued participating in far-right activity following his release. This year, a Raw Story article identified Smith as one of the masked men who chanted anti-LGBTQ+ slurs outside an Oct. 15 drag show in Sanford, North Carolina.
Kauffmann also used a Terrorgram chat to organize the now-defunct Panzer Strike Division. Referencing a tank Nazi Germany used in World War II, Kauffmann modeled the Panzer Strike Division after the Rise Above Movement (RAM) in Southern California organized by white nationalist Robert Rundo. RAM rose to prominence for fighting perceived political enemies in the streets. After Rundo fled to Eastern Europe in 2019 to escape federal charges of conspiracy to riot, RAM folded. In 2021, while still in Europe, Rundo launched Active Club and used Telegram and his media company, Media2Rise, to encourage men in the United States and Europe to start their own chapters of the organization. Romanian authorities apprehended Rundo in March, and he is now in U.S. custody awaiting trial.
On Telegram and VK, a Russian social media site favored by extremists for its low moderation, Kauffmann shared numerous video clips and photographs of the Panzer Strike Division sparring in the desert and shooting semi-automatic rifles. He also shared a video clip in April 2020 of him and other members driving around Tucson yelling racial slurs at Black people. A month after Snyder identified Kauffmann as a member of a Terrorgram network, he was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct in Rogersville, Tennessee, along with eight other reported white supremacists, for fighting participants of a Black Lives Matter protest. At least two of the men arrested communicated with Kauffmann in a Terrorgram chatroom.
‘Even my mom reps our club’
Kauffmann moved to Tennessee with his mother, Mary Elizabeth Spicker, who purchased property outside Linden on Nov. 24, 2020, for $83,000, according to property records. Hatewatch has decided to name Spicker after reviewing photographs and video that appear to show her active involvement in her son’s white nationalist group.
In early January, the Tennessee Active Club channel, which is operated by Fash Squatch – a well-known alias of Kauffmann – posted a photograph of a woman, who faces away from the camera, wearing a blue Tennessee Active Club shirt. The caption to the post, which has since been deleted, states, “Even my mom reps our club.”
Hatewatch attempted to contact Spicker numerous times and left a voicemail on a cell phone number listed in a September 2022 police report she filed with the Perry County Sheriff’s Office involving a relative who had allegedly stolen her identity, but she did not respond.
However, in his response to Hatewatch, Kauffmann wrote in a direct message on Telegram, “I will confirm 1 detail that is totally 100% true, my mother 100% supports us and was in Chattanooga with us protesting f**s.”
Hatewatch also reviewed video footage and photographs received from an antifascist research collective called Trash City that appears to show Spicker participating in a protest alongside the Tennessee Active Club. Trash City shared a cache of photographs of Spicker with her family outside their home in Arizona. Hatewatch then compared these photographs to video footage Trash City shared of an anti-LGBTQ+ protest outside a drag show in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on Nov. 13, 2022, that appears to show the same woman holding a sign that states, “You do not know what love is.”
About six months after moving to Tennessee, Perry County sheriffs responded to an incident of domestic violence at Spicker’s home between Kauffmann and his ex-partner. According to the police report Hatewatch obtained dated May 6, 2021, the responding officer saw a visibly drunk Kauffmann waving around an assault rifle. The officer then “received information that Kauffmann stated he was going to get into a shootout with police,” according to the police report. The victim, Kauffmann’s ex-partner who was not present when officers arrived, was questioned the next day. According to the police report, officers spoke to the victim and “observed a knot on her forehead on the left side, black eye, swollen lip, and a swollen nose,” as well as “red and purple marks on her neck.”
Police arrested Kauffmann for aggravated assault. He was held on a $500,000 bond in the Perry County Jail, according to court records obtained by Hatewatch. Kauffmann spent 203 days in jail and was released Nov. 24, 2021, after accepting a plea deal. According to court records Hatewatch obtained from the circuit court clerk in Linden, Tennessee, Kauffmann pleaded guilty to two counts of domestic assault and was sentenced to time served and five months of court supervision. Kauffmann was also ordered to forfeit his firearms to the Perry County Sheriff’s Office.
The 21st Judicial District Deputy Attorney General Jennifer Mason, who was a Perry County prosecutor at the time and litigated the case, said in an email to Hatewatch, “Kauffmann was convicted of two counts of domestic assault, which makes it illegal for him to possess firearms in the state of Tennessee.”
‘We’ve been getting ready’
Active clubs are a growing network of white nationalist groups appearing across the U.S. While Rundo retains influence in the network, he plays a ceremonial role and does not exert direct leadership over its activities. Within the white nationalist movement, each active club is autonomous and organized by a local leader. What unites active clubs is the desire to create a subculture and a distinct aesthetic that focuses on hypermasculinity. Borrowing from far-right groups in Europe who organize under stricter speech laws, leaders of active clubs typically use subtle racist messages and do not use hate iconography. However, owing to its autonomous group structure, the Tennessee Active Club under Kauffmann is not subtle and uses the Nazi swastika flag and the Confederate Battle Flag in its propaganda.
After being released from court supervision in May 2022, Kauffmann began to organize the Tennessee Active Club. The group’s Telegram channel was created Aug. 21, 2022, and Kauffmann’s first move for the group was organizing an anti-LGBTQ+ protest outside a drag show on Nov. 13, 2022, in Chattanooga. At this event, protesters, including Kauffmann’s mom, local Proud Boys and the Tennessee Active Club, held anti-LGBTQ+ signs and hurled anti-LGBTQ+ slurs at drag show guests. Photographs of the event show protesters holding a prayer circle before leaving.
Since the anti-LGBTQ+ protest in Chattanooga, Kauffmann’s Tennessee Active Club has participated in at least seven other protests as of this reporting: four outside LGBTQ+-inclusive spaces in Tennessee, one on a street corner in Lexington, Kentucky, one at the state capitol in Nashville, and one in Montgomery, Alabama, that focused on the perceived anti-white nature of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).
In response to an article Hatewatch published that identified a private gym above the Lewis Country Store used by the Tennessee Active Club and other white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups, Kauffmann led a group of 25, including self-proclaimed Nazi Brad Lewis – the owner of the store – to rally outside SPLC headquarters and the first White House of the Confederacy on July 15 in Montgomery. At these sites, the group posed for photographs, held racist and antisemitic signs, and chanted slurs at onlookers. Kauffmann also gave a short speech outside the SPLC headquarters that focused on its perceived anti-white nature. Afterward Kauffmann posted photographs of the protest to Telegram and wrote, “We are not scared of these parasites.”
In August, Kauffmann and one of his acolytes, whom Hatewatch is not naming because he is a minor, appeared at a white nationalist MMA-style fighting event in Southern California, according to photographs Kauffmann posted to Telegram. During the trip, Kauffmann and his teenage companion stopped in Arizona and met with a member of Arizona Action, according to photographs posted to Telegram.
After spending much of the summer arguing on his Telegram channel that electoral politics could do little to further white nationalist goals, Kauffmann’s Tennessee Active Club provided security at an Oct. 4 political forum for Gabrielle Hanson, an alderman in Franklin, Tennessee, who was then running a campaign to be the city’s mayor. At the forum, Tennessee Active Club members and members of the neo-Nazi Vinland Rebels – including Lewis, who has a Proud Boys logo tattooed on his face – manned doors, patrolled outside the building and sat in the audience to monitor the crowd. For their efforts, Hanson, Lewis and Kauffmann received an intense amount of media scrutiny, including a mention on “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” and a segment on MSNBC.
Hatewatch sent a voicemail and an email to Hanson to ask about her relationship with Lewis and Kauffmann, but she did not respond.
Despite media coverage outlining the white nationalist goals of Kauffmann and Lewis, Hanson’s campaign appeared to embrace the pair. A woman associated with the campaign, Valerie Baldes, interviewed Kauffmann on Oct. 18. The interview provided Kauffmann a friendly platform to spread his white nationalist views uncontested. In the interview, which was posted on Telegram, Baldes asked Kauffmann why he and his group are referred to as Nazis. Kauffmann responded, “Well, this one is tough, you know, because of the swastikas.” Kauffmann went on to talk about the group’s use of a Nazi swastika flag at a protest outside a Jan. 21 drag show in Cookeville, Tennessee. Kauffmann also alleged that he started to learn about Nazi beliefs once people started calling him a Nazi in 2015 for supporting former President Donald Trump. However, the confidential documents Kauffmann posted to Telegram in 2019 suggest Kauffmann held neo-Nazi beliefs in 2010, when he was 16. According to the document, a resident of the state-run home where Kauffmann lived told state officials that “Sean is what [the resident] describes as neo-Nazi as he has a Nazi flag in his room, along with a bunch of other Nazi memorabilia.”
Kauffmann then used the interview to describe his white nationalist group as “basically like the Boy Scouts” and then paraphrased the “14 Words,” saying, “We are going to fight back and protect our way of life, and we will protect our women and children.” The “14 Words” is an iconic slogan of the white supremacist movement a member of the terrorist group The Order penned.
Hatewatch reached Baldes by phone to ask her about her relationship with Kauffmann and the goal of the interview, but she refused to comment.
‘This is our only warning’
Over the summer and fall of 2023, Kauffmann, Lewis and others associated with the Tennessee Active Club attempted to intimidate journalists and activists they viewed as a threat to their political agenda. Kauffmann’s group and affiliated Telegram channels identified the home addresses of at least three local journalists who covered their activities and a Franklin resident who spoke out in the press.
In an email to Hatewatch, Lewis starts his response to questions about his relationship with Kauffmann, his intimidation of local journalists and the goals of their protests by using antisemitic and anti-LGBTQ+ slurs. Lewis then writes: “I would never answer a question for you even at gun point. As far as journalists and activists that have the same agenda as you, fuck them too! You can kiss my white Aryan ass till the day I die mother fucker!”
In his interview with an associate of the Hanson campaign, Kauffmann shared information from two documents about perceived threats to Tennessee, which included local journalists and activists, as well as state representatives Justin Jones and Gloria Johnson. The documents appeared on Telegram shortly after the interview. One document, titled “Diagrams of Connections,” provides an organizational flowchart of the people perceived to be threatening the state. The other document, which Baldes calls “comprehensive,” lists the social media accounts of individuals Kauffmann has labeled threats, along with screenshots of social media posts.
At some point before or after the interview Hanson sat down for a photo op with Kauffmann. The caption of the photograph that appeared on Telegram stated, “Last teaser.”
In the days leading up to the election, Kauffmann’s group appeared to fixate on News Channel 5 Nashville investigative reporter Phil Williams. They forwarded a series of demands in a Telegram post Oct. 19, including demanding that he publish the full interview with Hanson’s campaign surrogate on the channel’s news website. “This is our only warning,” the posts stated. The night before the Oct. 24 election, flyers appeared in downtown Franklin that identified individuals allegedly threatening Tennessee. The flyers included people’s photographs and lies about their work. Hanson lost the election in a landslide, receiving approximately 20% of the vote.
Following the election, Kauffmann and his group have continued their attempts to intimidate local journalists and activists. In one incident a day after the election, Kauffmann, his teenage acolyte and three others stormed into a local college library and menaced a handful of students who were affiliated with the Young Democratic Socialists of America chapter on campus, according to photographs and video Kauffmann’s group posted to Telegram.
In an email, Snyder told Hatewatch: “Kauffmann is escalatingly violent in his confrontation with political opposition and is currently emboldened by his new relationships with local MAGA GOP actors in Tennessee. Of all the far-right extremists I’ve tracked and identified, he worries me the most in terms of immediate potential for enacting a deadly terror event. The man is a ticking time bomb.”
'They can burn for all I care'
Hatewatch received an anonymous tip in October that Kauffmann has Jewish ancestry, surprising given his and his associates’ open contempt for Jewish people. Hatewatch investigated Kauffmann’s family tree, reviewing birth and death records as well as obituaries, and identified his apparent Jewish ancestry. However, after the publication of this story, Kauffmann shared a legal document on Telegram that shows his maternal grandfather was adopted by a Jewish family.
The document Kauffmann shared, known as an Affidavit of Heirship, is used by courts to distribute property to heirs after the death of a relative. Hatewatch was able to independently verify the authenticity of this document, which was filed in Harris County, Texas in 2016. According to this affidavit, Harry Allen and Faye Smith adopted Kauffmann’s maternal grandfather, Budd Allen. Faye Smith was the daughter of Romanian Jewish immigrant Benjamin K. Smith, who immigrated to the U.S. in the early 20th century and is buried in Beth Irael Cemetery in Houston. Ben Smith founded Big 3 Industries, a car parts manufacturer, according to the obituary of his daughter.
The affidavit also states that Spicker, Kauffmann’s mother, was born Mary Elizabeth in September 1961, and is the adopted daughter of Budd Allen and Barbara (Bobbie) Smith. Budd Allen worked for the Smith family company, Big 3 Industries, for 35 years according to his obituary.
Whether Spicker or Kauffmann knew about their family’s Jewish benefactors is unclear. Spicker could not be reached for comment. In a direct message on Telegram, Hatewatch asked Kauffmann whether he owes the Jewish family who adopted his grandfather some gratitude for providing his family with financial support and care, Kauffmann responded “Papa hated his family, talked shit about Jews, that inheritance was squandered, (sic) I never saw a dime. They can burn for all I care.”
This article has been updated to reflect statements Kauffmann made following publication, and additional reporting to verify his claims.
Photo illustration by SPLC