Reflections on the Nazis Coming to Knoxville
by a Member of the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition
As many of you probably already know, the largest neo-Nazi organization in the country has announced it is coming to Knoxville this Saturday, August 14, to “Stand in the South Against Illegal Immigration.” This group, the National Socialist Movement (NSM) has invited “all Patriotic Americans” in general, and the Ku Klux Klan in particular, to join both the public march and rally and the ceremonial swastika-and-cross burning that it has planned for later in the evening on private property somewhere near Knoxville.
An announcement like this raises questions for a community like ours. Law enforcement officials must worry about keeping the peace and how best to do that. People who belong to groups targeted by the NSM -- such as Jews, homosexuals, and all those whose race or ethnicity does not count as “pure White blood” in NSM’s racial ideology -- must worry literally about threats to their security. And any person who is concerned about the effects of the hateful messages the Nazis will broadcast at this rally must worry about whether those messages will land on fertile ground here in East Tennessee, and what we can do to improve the chances that they will not.
As an active member of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC), a white person, and a native-born American, I feel a special responsibility to speak out at this time. I would like to call on my fellow Knoxvillians -- including elected officials and others in positions of public trust -- to consider both the consequences and the causes of this decision by a group of avowed Nazis to choose Knoxville as the place they want to convene a rally that targets immigrants and calls for their expulsion from our country. Just to make sure that we understand the nature of the Nazi message, let me quote here verbatim from several of the most relevant of the “Twenty-Five Points of National Socialism” as posted on the NSM’s website:
1. We demand the union of all Whites into a greater America on the basis of the right of national self-determination.
4. Only members of the nation may be citizens of the state. Only those of pure White blood, whatever their creed, may be members of the nation. Non-citizens may live in America only as guests and must be subject to laws for aliens. Accordingly, no Jew or homosexual may be a member of the nation.
7. All non-White immigration must be prevented. We demand that all non-Whites currently residing in America be required to leave the nation forthwith and return to their land of origin: peacefully or by force.
Ever since news of this planned event became publicly known, many in the Knoxville community have spent considerable thought and energy deciding what they want to do on the day when Nazis come to our town and march in our streets. This is a significant matter, and one that takes some deliberating. Nevertheless, the most important question is not what anyone does on August 14, but what happens in the Knoxville community in future months and years to reject scapegoating and hate as the answer to immigration or any other social problem, and to promote instead a climate where all people of all races and religions can feel safe, valued, respected and welcome.
So this question about the racial and religious climate in Knoxville and in Tennessee is the real focus of this message. I will talk a little below about August 14 itself and about different actions that I understand people will be taking on that day (so if you are impatient to read about tactics, scroll down to the Postscript toward the end of the message). But at this point I want to turn away from fretting about fringe groups like the NSM, however despicable they may be, and instead take a look at what is happening in the “mainstream” political climate in our state as it applies to the issue of immigration and to the human beings we call immigrants. In my view, anti-immigrant rhetoric wielded nowadays by perfectly normal, non-marginal sources, anti-immigrant legislation passed these days by popularly elected representatives, and unexamined anti-immigrant assumptions and stereotypes embraced nowadays by regular everyday citizens -- all these are trends that pose a far greater danger than the spewings of a few Nazis marching around for a day with their swastikas and Confederate flags on Main Street.
We have just finished a primary season in which some candidates for political office took the occasion to use unauthorized immigrants as easy scapegoats. They spoke of them as a criminal element. They called for laws that would help us to jail them more easily and purge them more quickly from our midst. The language used was often dehumanizing in the extreme. Irresponsible talk like this helps to create an atmosphere in which racial and ethnic prejudice is encouraged, and the Nazis feel they can productively fish for converts. Inflaming the issue in this way is highly unfair to immigrants themselves, because it demonizes them as individuals and blames them as a group for social problems that have little or nothing to do with immigration.
But the anti-immigrant, anti-alien rhetoric deployed by too many politicians is also unfair to everyone else, because it allows the candidates to dodge the real issues that should be addressed in this state in the middle of a serious recession. What is government at all levels doing to create more jobs for the people of Knoxville and of Tennessee? Why is our safety net for the unemployed so full of holes and disrespect? What is being done to help people in the hardest-hit communities -- including low-income African-American communities and rural areas -- to find economic development strategies that work to lift more people out of poverty? Why are so many employers allowed to exploit vulnerable immigrants and subject them to harsh and illegal conditions when we have laws on the books that should guarantee minimum wage, overtime pay, freedom from harassment, protection of juveniles, and safety on the job? What do politicians propose to do about adequate funding for public services, including schools, libraries, police and fire protection? What is their plan for controlling health care costs and making universal coverage a reality? What are they doing to assure that there will be a sustainable and self-sufficient energy policy in place for our children and grandchildren? How do they propose we control the military budget and extricate ourselves honorably from foreign adventures we should never have entered in the first place?
Instead of seriously addressing these and other deep problems, far too many candidates busied themselves taking cheap shots at immigrants and their powerless children. But those of us not running for office must concede that in part the candidates were responding to an anti-immigrant mood among a large segment of the general public. The stereotypes and bigotry directed at immigrants, the fearful currents of anti-immigrant feeling, are evident not only in Arizona, but throughout the country today. They spring from multiple sources and are certainly not the exclusive creation of opportunistic politicians. In such a climate it is the responsibility of all those who do not agree with the scapegoating of immigrants -- whether by Nazis or mainstream politicians or the guy next door -- to raise our voices and make ourselves heard.
Searching for a moral and practical pathway in the midst of this debate, living in a city where Nazis come to march, watching as Congress sends more millions of dollars to further militarize the border but refuses to move a single step toward an immigration reform that will address the real and complex issues at stake -- all of these things are daunting. On the other hand, they also offer important opportunities for moral witness and social action.
Here in Knoxville this weekend with the Nazis in town, it would be natural and in many ways appropriate for native-born Americans who are uncomfortable with the Nazi message to ask ourselves whether we are like the Christians in Germany before Hitler came to power. Are we in danger of remaining silent and passive in the face of anti-immigrant lies and propaganda, of waiting until it is too late, as many “good Germans” did while virulent anti-Semitism rose up and took its course? Nevertheless I would like to think that the more apt analogy for the position we are in today is that of white Southerners during the civil rights era here in the United States.
Native-born people in Knoxville today face challenges and opportunities similar in some ways to those that faced white Southerners during the 1950s and 1960s, when black people were seeking an end to Jim Crow and access to the full citizenship they had been promised in the Fourteenth Amendment -- a promise whose fulfillment was by then long overdue. Civil rights activists faced a storm of white reaction, and white people in the South who opposed segregation were faced with tough choices but also with special opportunities. I have had the privilege of learning from many white Southerners who found different ways to act and speak in opposition to the separate and unequal system of that time. Invariably, such people looked back on the days when they stood up for racial justice as the some of the most joyful and satisfying periods in their lives. They were stretched to grow in new ways, and they felt they were actually a part of making history -- and making it in a good direction.
Now decades later, I believe Americans have come to another crucial juncture in what we might think of as our racial history. Events never exactly repeat themselves, of course, so the issues and the dynamics are different in many ways from those at the time of the civil rights movement or the abolitionist movement, but the echoes of time past are evident. The nation’s labor market has again come to include a racially marked and politically powerless subset of the population, a subset that works under a different set of rules, is policed more brutally and arbitrarily, is subjected to a different and harsher set of working conditions, and is viewed as inferior, undeserving, almost sub-human, by many people in the larger society. Like free people in the time of slavery, or white people in the time of Jim Crow, those of us who enjoy the privileges of citizenship in this country now have the burden and the opportunity of deciding what part we want to play in this new moment, in this drama whose outcome is still to be decided.
I am confident that I can speak for the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Coalition when I say thank you to all the people who are finding many different public and private ways to reject the Nazi invitation here in Knoxville. I invite you to join them this weekend.
In addition, I invite you to join TIRRC in its efforts for the longer term. You can find out more about the organization on our website at http://www.tnimmigrant.org. Our mission is:
. . . to empower immigrants and refugees throughout Tennessee to develop a unified voice, defend their rights, and create an atmosphere in which they are recognized as positive contributors to the state.
We especially invite immigrants and refugees to become active members and leaders in the organization. But also important to our coalition are individual allies and allied organizations that support just and humane treatment for immigrants and who believe Tennesseans of every background will benefit from a climate in which all residents, no matter their race, religion or national origin, are recognized as contributors to the community and as fellow human beings. Two groups in East Tennessee that are already members of the TIRRC coalition are Jobs with Justice of East Tennessee and SOCM (Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment).
Many non-immigrant allies choose to be active in our Welcoming Tennessee Initiative or WTI. That initiative is described as follows on our website:
WTI is a collaboration of concerned Tennesseans from all walks of life – business, law enforcement, community and faith – who are proud that Tennessee is a welcoming state, and are working to continue that noble tradition by increasing understanding of how new Tennesseans share our values, contribute to our economy, enhance our combined culture and strengthen our communities.
Most Tennesseans agree that we are and should continue to be hospitable, empathetic people. We have a responsibility to treat everyone – neighbors and visitors alike – with respect and decency.
If any of this sounds good to you, please consider getting involved. TIRRC’s office and most staff are located in Nashville, but TIRRC members in East Tennessee meet together regularly and are actively engaged in the mission of the organization and in its work. For more information about opportunities in East Tennessee, you may call (865) 406-3297.
Thank you for reading this long message! I plan to be in Krutch Park on August 14 to help let the Nazis know their message is unwanted in Knoxville, and I hope to see many of you there.
Postscript on tactics
I think it is safe to say that the vast majority of people in the Knoxville community despise what the Nazis and the KKK stand for. I feel sure that most of us would like to make clear to these groups that their ideas and actions are not welcome here. Nevertheless, different people will reach different conclusions about how best to convey this message. Some people opposed to the Nazis believe it is most effective to ignore such gatherings altogether. (Why, they ask, should anyone spend time, give attention, or enter into any interaction at all with a group like the NSM?) Others, on the other hand, believe it is important for members of the community to demonstrate in a public and visible way their opposition to the Nazis’ message.
In any case, this weekend, different people are going to take many different kinds of actions. Some will avoid going anywhere near the place where the Nazis plan to rally. A leader of the Knoxville NAACP, for instance, has urged that group’s constituents and allies to “show our contempt for all the Nazis represent by not showing up at all. Why give these hate mongers an audience?” But for the NAACP and for many others who choose this path, staying away from the rally does not mean being inactive. Members of many faith communities will offer prayers. Parents of children will initiate conversations around the family table. Other people will write letters to the editor, post comments on the web, talk to their friends and co-workers, or pursue a longer-term project designed to counter hate and promote justice. Many will pause to honor victims of the Holocaust and of hate crimes in the United States. Some will remember the lives and other sacrifices of family members and friends that were given in the worldwide fight against Nazism and fascism not so long ago.
While some are taking actions of this kind on Saturday, a number of groups and individuals will gather publicly to show their opposition. Some have announced they will assemble at 1:30 pm in Krutch Park in anticipation of the Nazi rally announced for 3 pm at the Old County Courthouse at 300 Main Street. Expected participants are varied. Knoxville Anti-Racist Action (KARA) has taken a leading role in organizing a protest for the day. They will come dressed as clowns, using the weapon of humor to show their thorough disregard for the Nazi message, in similar fashion to the way they successfully made fun of the Klan in Knoxville some years ago. Others will assemble in other styles. Some faith congregations plan to witness by walking together. Some people intend to stand in silent vigil. All involved have stated unequivocally that their actions will be non-violent. Meanwhile, law enforcement authorities have made clear that they will provide a strong police presence, and they intend to maintain a sizeable separation between the Nazi demonstrators and those who have come to express their opposition.
The Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition has not played a role in organizing any of the planned protests. But our group applauds and respects all those who take non-violent action, whether public or private, to reject the message of Nazism in general and the NSM’s scapegoating of immigrants in particular. Various TIRRC members and supporters in Knoxville and East Tennessee will likely be represented in the full range of these responses.