How a Story From a Middle Tennessee College Is Really About Our American Apocalypse (Part 2): The Mascot and the Damage Done

(Note: It's been a while since Part 1 of this story about how two professors protesting Turning Point USA starting a student group at their school, Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville, turned into a question of employee rights and a minor cause for right-wing media. But that's because a few events have occurred that I won't be able to expand on until Part 3. For now, enjoy Part 2.)

Another place this whole story could start is with the damned mascot because the mascot battle is what led to the flyer battle.

Right now there's a long-running conflict going on in Cookeville, Tennessee, over the mascot of one of the local schools. Algood Middle School students and staff call themselves "the Redskins," complete with a Native American in full chief headgear featured on the front page of the school's website. Hell, the website is a big, farting "Screw you, snowflakes," since its url is "algoodredskins.com." After a push last year and into early this year, including a vote in the mascot's favor by the Putnam County school board, the name is staying, and the defense of it is pretty stunning. According to one online petition, the mascot is "a Native American depiction of a strong Warrior. It upholds and honors the many Native Americans who lived in Tennessee and were forced out. The word 'redskin' is not negative or derogatory." 

And if you think that last line there is blindingly ignorant, like in a "guns don't kill people" kind of  deranged and stupid way, the petition goes on, "Mascots and names of local schools are being changed to reflect the flavor of today. To satisfy a passing fad of erasing our past to build one of hate and destruction." Beyond the atrocious syntax, their "logic" is that a derogatory word is not derogatory and it's "hate" to say we should get rid of it because of course they think it is. 

By the way, the Redskin chief mascot represents the middle school. The elementary school, no joke, is the Braves. I mean, if you're gonna crap on a people, you may as well empty your bowels. 

By the way, local Native American activist Sayota Knight said, as you might expect, yeah, that's racist. "How can a board that professes inclusiveness with anti-discriminatory policies, allow this offensive, racist term to be their mascot?" he wrote in the Nashville newspaper. Knight has lived in Putnam County for over 25 years, and he regularly is invited to teach about Native American culture at public schools there. On May 1, Sayota and the Tennessee Indigenous Coalition had a protest and march through Cookeville against racist mascots, among other activism and attention to the issue by the very people who the mascot's supporters believe they're "honoring."

Now, how does this connect to the story of Julia Gruber and Andrew Smith and their conflict with AJ Donadio? During that February school board meeting, a committee was proposed to look into changing the mascot. When it failed to get any support, Donadio, who, as mentioned in Part 1, is also a county commissioner, clapped and yelled in approval. Gruber had been one of the parents spearheading the mascot change, and it just galled her that one of her fellow professors and an elected official was cheering for racism. That's when she contacted Smith to talk about Donadio at the meeting. As Gruber wrote to me, "A few hours later, he sent me a copy of the flyer and I thought it was accurate." And then they decided to put up the flyers. 

Make of that what you will. You can certainly see it as a seemingly disconnected response to losing a fight at a public meeting. You can see it as justified, as a return of fire, if you will, against someone who supports a racist mascot and a racist organization (in case you didn't read Part 1, Donadio, a nursing professor, is the faculty advisor for the TPUSA chapter at TTU). 

But that would ignore a whole bunch of other history. Now, we could go all the way back to the early 20th century, when TTU was founded as Dixie College. Or we could talk about Dixie Avenue, which goes through town and right by the university. Instead, let's focus in on more recent events. 

See, being liberal in a place like Cookeville isn't easy, as I'm sure many of you know who live in places where you feel like someone is always thinking of gunning you down for your Bernie bumper sticker. And that means that every action you take as a liberal is treated with suspicion, and when that suspicion is compounded by right-wing media losing its mind over something like Black Lives Matter and when you know the vast majority of your neighbors buy into that propaganda, well, you're gonna face some resistance.

For instance, Smith advised a youth group organizing a BLM rally. This was one of several groups who wanted to stage events protesting the mistreatment of Black Americans by police in early June 2020. It was looking like it was going to be a larger, more organized event, but the actual KKK threatened violence if it went forward.  Cookeville has a Black population of about 5% of the total. The purpose of the event was to show support for that community, as well as for the larger movement that was growing in the wake of George Floyd's murder. For the sake of safety, several of the groups canceled. But others, like the high school and college kids, persevered. There were still multiple events, including a June 6 rally in the town square of over 200 protesters. At one event prior to June 6, a small group, primarily high school students, held signs and chanted in the square. And self-proclaimed members of the KKK showed up. And one of them actually choked one protester who exclaimed, "Fuck the KKK," which is an objectively correct thing to say. This really happened. It was caught on video. So even after direct threats and violence by the KKK, on June 6, a couple of hundred people still made sure their voices were heard.

Of course, there's more to this because I didn't even mention how the FBI showed up to question Smith and the organizers of the protest rally. Yeah, actual FBI agents from the Joint Terrorism Task Force knocked unannounced on the doors of four citizens of Cookeville to ask them if they "knew anyone in Antifa or had heard anything about Antifa coming to Cookeville." The agents indicated they had read private posts on Facebook, you know, those ones that aren't public and only your "friends" are supposed to be able to see. One thing I love about Andrew's response is that he was a total, preaching prick to the authorities who came to his house. But one organizer, Katy, dropped out for fear of what would happen to her, a fear that was totally justified considering that "agents turned up unannounced at Katy’s work, pulling her off the job and into a large truck in the gravel parking lot to question her about her connections to the upcoming rally and to antifa." Katy said, "I really thought I was going to lose my job. The whole experience was terrifying." And I'd be terrified, too.

You have to understand this atmosphere to understand where the flyer and the animosity towards TPUSA that got Gruber and Smith in trouble came from. You have to understand that social media in the town was inundated with warnings that busloads of leftist activists were about to pour into town and riot. You have to understand that there is a private Facebook group called "Protect Cookeville From Looters" with over 1600 members that is a hotbed of derision of BLM and paranoia about protests. You have to understand that a monument to Confederate soldiers was erected in 2004 at the town cemetery. Yes, 2004. It is dedicated "to the greatest fighting force ever assembled," a sentiment that is perhaps belied by the fact that it lost. You have to understand that Cookeville is not just a Trump town; it's a TRUMP town, filthy with MAGA, where every weekend lines of cars and trucks would drive up and down the main drag waving Trump signs in the run up to the election, where to express anything that wasn't Trump-worship was seen as traitorous. 

Gruber and Smith weren't being activists in a vacuum, and they are certainly not the only kickass leftist activists in this Trumpiest of places. They decided to act when the racists decided to proudly proclaim themselves at their place of work. Of course, one cannot be silent about that. Of course, they have received death threats, harassment, the possibility of sanction at their jobs, and, in Smith's case, the loss of one of his jobs.

(In Part 3, I'll get into that and into one of the great ironies of the whole situation: Gruber and Smith were placed on TPUSA's Professor Watchlist.)