NEW MARKET, Tenn. — A racist symbol found spray-painted near a building destroyed by fire at a social justice center in Tennessee has been displayed by white supremacists here and abroad, including the man accused of livestreaming the massacre of worshippers at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.
A fire of undetermined origin destroyed the main office Friday of the Highlander Center, an internationally known social justice organization that hosted prominent leaders, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s.
The building, about 25 miles northeast of Knoxville, Tennessee, in New Market, housed archives documenting the Highlander Center’s history. It’s unclear what documents were destroyed; the Wisconsin Historical Society preserves the center’s documents and said the majority of the archives are safe.
In a news release Tuesday, the Highlander Center announced that a “symbol connected to the white power movement” was found spray-painted in the parking lot by the main office. Jefferson County Sheriff Jeff Coffey confirmed the symbol was found Friday and described it as “the hashtag symbol.”
A photograph taken Tuesday shows the symbol, painted in black, not far from the rubble of the burned building on the center’s 200-acre campus. It consists of three vertical lines intersecting three horizontal lines, and looks like a hashtag with an extra line in each direction.
The symbol was used by the Iron Guard, also known as the Legion of the Archangel Michael, a far-right, anti-Semitic movement active in Romania in the 1930s, said Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow with the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. He specializes in right-wing extremism and maintains the organization’s Hate Symbols Database.
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“Right-wing extremists in Europe and some in the United States have occasionally used that symbol, including in Tennessee,” Pitcavage said. “The symbol was also one of the symbols that the Christchurch shooter painted on one of his firearms.”
Coffey, the sheriff, said Tuesday his office is seeking assistance from another law enforcement agency to verify the context of the symbol found at the scene of the fire. He would not say which agency is assisting those efforts, and he could not be reached for comment Wednesday morning.
Before the center issued its news release, authorities had not mentioned the graffiti publicly, nor had they said whether they considered the fire to be arson. The sheriff’s office is investigating with assistance from the Tennessee Fire Marshal’s Office.
Members of the Traditionalist Worker Party also have used the Iron Guard symbol, Pitcavage said. The neo-Nazi outfit was active in Knoxville in late 2017 and early 2018 before the group reportedly collapsed when a bizarre love triangle saw its leader, Matthew Heimbach, arrested on battery charges in Kentucky.
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Heimbach grew popular in far-right circles after he helped lead the August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The demonstration turned deadly when avowed neo-Nazi James Alex Fields rammed his car into a group of counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
Days later, when Heimbach spoke to reporters outside a court appearance for Fields, he wore a shirt bearing the Iron Guard symbol and a picture of the Romanian movement’s fascist founder, Corneliu Codreanu.
In January 2018, the Iron Guard symbol appeared on the Rock – a massive boulder that serves as an ever-changing message board on the University of Tennessee’s campus – spray-painted in black along with the letters “TWP,” the words, “My borders my choice,” and various other white supremacist symbols.
Although the Traditionalist Worker Party reportedly disbanded after Heimbach’s arrest in March 2018, some of its members continued to show up at events in Knoxville, including at a rally over the Supreme Court confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh. Meanwhile, Heimbach signed on to be the “director of community outreach” for another neo-Nazi group, based in Detroit, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Swastikas have appeared on the Rock as recently as November.
During the livestream of last month’s terror attack that killed 50 people at two mosques in New Zealand, the suspected shooter could be seen using weapons with various names and symbols scrawled on them. It was reported that one gun had the hashtag-looking Iron Guard symbol prominently displayed. He also posted photos of the guns to Twitter before his account was taken down; one image showed the symbol on the side of a firearm.
The video of the massacre was shared around the world before social media companies could react.
Contributing: Hayes Hickman, Knoxville (Tenn.) News Sentinel. Follow Travis Dorman on Twitter: @travdorman