The gang presence in Knoxville has grown steadily over the past twenty years, with the Aryan Nation currently having the most members. According to the Southern Poverty and Law Center, out of the 30 gangs and roughly 1500 members in Knoxville, a staggering 230 of those belong to the Aryan Nation.
“(The Aryan Nation) is not in any way associated with the Aryan Nation neo-nazi group based in Hayden Lake, Idaho. They just borrowed the name,”Mark Pitcavage explained, a senior research fellow from the Anti-Defamation League.
The Knoxville gang is a white supremacist group that became prevalent in Tennessee prisons across the state in the mid 2000s. In 2009, the Anti-Defamation League, a center known for tracking gang activity, knew of roughly 700 members across the state. Since then, Pitcavage explains that those numbers are estimated to have risen between 900 to 950 gang members.
The group has completely infiltrated the prison system, developed a large presence throughout Tennessee and are suspected to have spread to Georgia. Members are identified by their tattoos, and orders made from inside the prison system are then fulfilled on the streets, Pitcavage said.
“They’re growing and growing,” said Carter F. Smith, chief of the Gang Suppression Team and MTSU Criminology professor. “They’re not a group to be messed with.”
Though they fly somewhat under the radar, according to the Southern Poverty and Law Center, members of Aryan Nation are responsible for numerous crimes throughout the Knoxville area including armed robberies, bank robberies, home invasions and meth distribution.
In December of 2015, Fulton High School sophomore Zaevion Dobson was shot and killed while protecting three girls as a group of strangers walked up to where they were sitting on a porch. In the emotional press conference following Dobson's death, Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch said he believed that the shooting was gang related, and explained that “we really do plead with our community to step up and to stop these acts.”
And, in early April of 2016, the Knoxville News Sentinel reported that after being charged and pleading guilty to “unlawful possession of a firearm, burglary and two counts of theft,” 24-year-old Aryan Nation member Tyler Michael Higginbotham was sentenced to 16 years in prison. The young gang member was wanted for outstanding warrants in Sevier and Knox counties.
After fleeing a hotel on Asheville Highway in mid March, he was finally located, armed with a .38 caliber revolver.
However, Knoxville is not the only place with raised gang activity, according to the Southern Poverty and Law Center. They explain that the nation is seeing a jump from the 784 hate groups operating last year to 892 in 2016, and the Aryan Nation is continually gaining members as they are released from prison. They are, at this point, Pitcavage states, one of the largest white supremacist gangs in the United States.
The amount of organized and major crimes committed by the Aryan Nation has steadily grown since it’s founding in the mid 2000s. The Anti-Defamation League explains that the current trend of white supremacist groups nationwide has experienced steady growth.
Fortunately, many programs and laws are being put in place to combat gang violence. Prisons in the area and across the state are enforcing a gang enhancement law, providing those convicted of crimes associated with gangs more prison time. Not to mention the amount of help an inmate is able to receive if they chose to abandon gang life.Education programs have been set in place to help inmates, and support groups and step by step programs aid in the transition of leaving a gang.
UT Chief of Police Troy Lane said that while the amount of gang activity has been on the rise in the city, campus is not an environment conducive to such.
“We don’t deal with any gangs on campus,” he said. “But as always, report any suspicious activity, and download the Guardian App for your safety.”
Pitcavage was able to offer more insight in his explanation.
“The chances of a UT Knoxville student encountering a member on campus is extremely low, unless they habitually buy meth or other illegal drugs,” he said. “These types of groups don’t want to get near a college campus.”
Though gang violence and the presence of the Aryan Nation is on the rise in Knoxville, Knoxville Public Information officer Darrel DeBusk assures that teams are working tirelessly to eradicate the problem.