[Ed. Note: In light of the Knoxville shooting, I’ve decided to spend most of my blogging this week focusing on hate crimes.]
I rarely set foot in a church these days, for the most part, except for weddings and funerals. I did a few months ago, when a D.C. area “welcoming church”, offered Rainbow Families DC a space to gather and decorate our tricycles, bicycles, wagons, scooters and skateboards for the Capitol Pride Parade. But if I were, I’d probably feel most comfortable in a Unitarian Universalist church.
So, when I heard about the shooting at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, and the motives behind it, my first thought was that my own family could have been sitting in that sanctuary if we lived in Knoxville. (In a place as conservative as Knoxville, the church was described as an “oasis” to the city’s LGBT community, and I suspect it was to anyone who held progressive/liberal views.) Sad to say, I’m used to the idea that my family may be targeted simply for being the kind of family we are. But what struck me was that the hatred was so deep in this case, that the gunman lashed out not just at gays, but at those who supported gay and lesbian equality.
In the pre-civil-rights south, whites who supported equality for African Americans were called “nigger lovers,” and as such were as much targets as blacks who stood up for their rights. Now, are heterosexual supporters of LGBT equality the new public enemy?
“In the movie ‘Hairspray,'” Rev. Chris Buice wrote, “the character Mabelle warns a newly formed interracial couple, ‘You two better brace yourselves for a whole lotta ugly comin’ at you from a never-ending parade of stupid.’ We forget that it was not that long ago that the law forbade such relationships, even while some prominent segregationist politicians engaged in them. Today, a gay couple might encounter harassment and derision for simply holding hands in a public park.”
Sunday morning, a whole lotta ugly entered the church’s sanctuary in the form of a man who was angry about “the liberal movement” and its tolerance for gay couples, among other things. The man started firing a shotgun he bought from a pawnshop. He killed two people and injured seven others before he was wrestled to the floor and later arrested and charged with first-degree murder.
So now we can add liberals to the list of enemy combatants in America’s culture war.
Don’t believe it. Go back and read the quotes I dug up earlier. And then tell me they had nothing to do with what happened at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church.
On Sunday, July 26, 2008, Jim D. Adkisson, 58, opened fire in the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Church, during a children’s performance, killing two adults and wounding seven others before church members overpowered him.
Adkisson, had served in the army starting in 1974. He worked as a helicopter repairman, and rose from private to specialist before returning to private before being discharged in 1977.1) He trained as a mechanical engineer, and had held jobs across the country. Adkisson been unemployed since 2006 and reportedly believed that liberals were taking the jobs he should have. He was on the verge of losing his food stamps.2) Adkisson had lived alone in Powell, TN, for the past four or five years. He told his neighbors that he had worked in a factory and driven a truck, but they were unsure if he was still employed. His neighbors describe Adkisson as a quiet, helpful person, and a motorcycle enthusiast who went by the name “David.”3)Adkisson’s criminal record consisted of two drunk driving citations. Court records show that his ex-wife — Liza Alexander — obtained an order of protection in March 2000, when the couple was still married and living in Powell. The couple had been married for 10 years when Alexander wrote in her request that Adkisson had threatened “to blow my brains out and then blow his own brains out,” and told a judge she feared for her life. Alexander once belonged to Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, which was a 20-minute drive from Adkisson’s home, but had not attended there in years. Alexander has been unreachable for comment since the shooting.4) The regular 10:00 a.m. service at TVUCC on July 26 was replaced by a musical presentation from some of the congregations children, conducted by the music director as the culmination of a summer musical theater workshop.5) About 200 people were gathered in the church to watch 25 of the children perform songs from the musical Annie. The church’s minister, Chris Buice, was on vacation at the time.6)
Adkisson arrived at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Church − on Kingston Pike, in Knoxville, TN — on the morning of July 26, carrying guitar case and a satchel, and wearing a t-shirt bearing the state flag. Inside the guitar case he carried a 12-guage semiautomatic shotgun.7) He also brought with him 76 shotgun shells. According to a witness, he approached a door leading to the classrooms where the church’s children were preparing for their program. A member informed Adkisson that the door was locked and that he would have to enter through the public entrance to the church. 8)
Witnesses said Adkisson shouted “hateful things”9) before he opened fire in the church, shooting indiscrimnately. Church Usher Greg McKendry, 60, died attempting to block the gunfire, placing himself between the gunman and the congregation.10)
A church member who arrived shortly afterward said Adkisson fired three times and was tackled when he paused to reload.11) Adkisson was pinned to the floor and held down by church members. No children were injured.12) All the victims were adults: four women and three men.13)
Police dispatchers received a report of the shooting at 10:18 a.m., and police took Adkisson into custody at 10:22 a.m.14)
Police found brass knuckles, empty shotgun shell boxes, a handgun, and several right-wing political books in Adkisson’s home.
Police officers at the scene searched Adkisson’s car and found a four-page letter. Police chief Stuart Owen said the letter expressed Adkisson’s frustration at being unable to find a job, and his “stated hatred for the liberal movement.” Owen added that the church had received publicity recently for its liberal positions. The church’s website describes its work for social change starting in the 1950s, including desegregation, racial harmony, fair wages, women’s rights and gay rights.15) Police have not made Addison’s letter public
The church — which hosts the local chapter of PFLAG — is known as an supportive place for the LGBT community in Knoxville, a conservative town that is also the home of the University of Tennessee. The church also has a large number of LGBT members. McKendry, the first victim killed, and his wife had just taken in a transgender teenager in the foster care system.
Knoxville Police Department information officer said that Adkisson’s letter blamed “liberals and gays” for ruining the country and preventing him from finding a job.16)
According to neighbors, Adkisson had issues with Christianity, and spoke often about his parents who “made him go to church all of his life.”17)
The Knoxville Police Department bomb squad and the FBI executed a search warrant at Adkisson’s home. The bomb squad was present as a precautionary measure, and the FBI provided investigative support in the event that the shooting turned out to be a hate crime.18) Knoxville police officer Steve Still requested the search warrant after interviewing Adkisson.
Of the interview, Still wrote, “because of its liberal teachings and his belief that all liberals should be killed because they were ruining the country, and that he felt that the Democrats had tied his country’s hands in the war on terror and they had ruined every institution in America with the aid of media outlets.” Adkisson told Still that “he could not get to the leaders of the liberal movement that he would then target those that had voted them in to office,” and that he’d left the house unlocked for officers because he’d expected to be killed during the assault.19)
The books found in Adkisson’s home included Liberalism is a Mental Disorder, by Michael Savage, Let Freedom Ring: Winning the War of Liberty over Liberalism by Sean Hannity, and “The O’Reilly Factor: The Good, the Bad, and the Completely Ridiculous in American Life ” by Bill O’Reilly.20)Longtime Adkisson acquaintance Carol Smallwood of Alice, TX, described Adkisson as a loner who hates “blacks, gays and anyone different from him.”21)
The Rev. Bob Galloway, of the Metropolitan Community Church in West Knoxville, asked to see Adkisson’s letter, in order to understand who Adkisson was targeting and to bring peace of mind to his congregation. Galloway said many of his members made a u-turn for home when they heard about a shooting at a liberal, gay-friendly church. Police have refused to provide a copy of the letter or identify Adkisson’s targets.
The seven wounded were taken to the University of Tennessee Medical Center.22) The injured were: brothers Joe Barnhart, 76, and Jack Barnhart, 69; Betty Barnhart, 71, wife of Jack Barnhart; Linda Chavez, 41; John Worth Jr., 68; Tammy Sommers, 38; and Allison Lee, 42.23) On July 29, three of the injured were taken of the critical list.24)
Kreager, 61, died on the evening of July 27, at the University of Tennessee Medial Center.25)
Adkisson’s bail was set at $1 million.26) He is charged with first-degree murder. Police said it appears that Adkisson was acting alone.27)