The charred remains of the collapsed structure are still untouched, and the yellow tape blocking access to them has only recently come off. In the parking lot next to the destroyed building, a symbol someone spray-painted in black on the concrete the night of the fire is also untouched: It looks like a hashtag, but with three intersecting lines instead of two.
That symbol is one used by racist extremists in the U.S. and abroad. It was painted on one of the firearms used by an Australian white supremacist who massacred 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, just two weeks before the fire at Highlander. The Anti-Defamation League traced the symbol’s origins to a Romanian fascist movement dating back to the 1930s and 1940s. But while the symbol is obscure to most, it has resurfaced in connection with the Traditionalist Worker Party, a neo-Nazi group that was active in the U.S. until recently. A year before it was sprayed in the parking lot at Highlander, the symbol was also painted on “the Rock,” a boulder at the University of Tennessee’s Knoxville campus, not far from Highlander, used by students as a message board. Yet if the symbol was a clue about who might have attacked Highlander, investigators — with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office; the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation; the Tennessee State Fire Marshal’s Office; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and the FBI — have not yet said so publicly.
Nobody was hurt in the March 29 fire in New Market, where Highlander sits on a hilly 200-acre campus with stunning views of the Great Smoky Mountains. But it’s not the first time the center has come under attack. For nearly nine decades, Highlander has offered sanctuary to an array of racial, social, and economic justice movements, hosting the likes of Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, Stokely Carmichael, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., as well as the activists who wrote the Movement for Black Lives policy platform and immigrant rights and Palestinian solidarity groups. But the center also has a long history of being targeted for harassment and violence by government officials and racist groups. In 1961, as anti-communist fearmongering gripped the country, the state of Tennessee seized Highlander’s land and buildings and revoked its charter; in 1966, the Ku Klux Klan firebombed its Knoxville location. After this most recent attack, Highlander staff had few expectations that law enforcement officials investigating the fire would give them answers about who caused it — but they were taken aback by their questions.
When local police arrived on the day of the fire, the first thing they asked Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, one of Highlander’s two co-directors, was “Are you beefing?”
“It was very clear to us that that there was some feeling that we might have done something to instigate this, versus white supremacy instigated this,” said Henderson, the first black woman to lead the center. “At that point, I didn’t even know what the symbol was or meant, but even when we did realize that it was a symbol of the white power movement, it’s not like we’re out there doing a tit for tat with them. I’m literally in a position where my very existence as a human is the antithesis of what they believe in.”
André Canty, who works in development and communications at Highlander, compared the line of questioning from police after the fire to that following the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in 2012 — or that often applied to black victims of police violence. “What did he do to cause his own death?” said Canty. “You’re asking me, why did your abuser abuse you? Why are racists doing racist things?”
But as federal investigators joined local police in the months following the fire, the questions posed to Highlander staff grew only more pointed and bizarre, as if they, and not their presumed attackers, were under investigation. “Who do you train?” they were asked. “Who funds you? Are you training protesters? Do you know antifa?”
“It was totally an interrogation,” said Henderson. “Instead of an investigation that’s going to produce information that tells us how we can make ourselves more safe from white supremacist violence, what tends to be true, historically, is that these are opportunities for the state to gather more information about who’s coming to Highlander, what they’re talking about, what you train them on.”
Asked about those questions, Jason Pack, a special agent with the FBI’s field office in Knoxville, wrote to The Intercept that he was not “personally aware of those issues,” but declined to comment further because the investigation is “ongoing.” A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office told The Intercept that it is the office’s policy “to neither confirm or deny the existence of or status of investigations.” Jefferson County Sheriff Jeff Coffey did not respond to a request for comment. The Fire Marshal’s Office referred questions to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, which has since taken over fire investigations. A spokesperson for the bureau wrote in a statement to The Intercept that “the cause of the fire remains under investigation.” The ATF did not respond to a request for comment.