University of Tennessee to increase security after Nazi messages painted on Rock

 University of Tennessee Police Chief Troy Lane announced Tuesday that UTPD security presence would be increased around the Rock, after it was painted with swastikas for the second time in two weeks. 

Hand prints cover The Rock on UT's campus during a gathering on Friday, February 9, 2018, to speak out against recent racist messages painted on The Rock.

"I am concerned about any hateful speech directed toward individuals or particular groups," Lane said in a statement to the campus. "Many of you have reached out to us about our response over the weekend. We are committed to being more thoughtful in addressing these incidents moving forward."

More:Swastikas painted on the Rock at the University of Tennessee — again

He said there will be more security in front of the Rock, and UTPD has reviewed security footage from the most recent painting, done on Saturday night, and is in contact with local, state and federal law enforcement to follow up on the Rock painting incidents. 

"The safety and security of our students, faculty, and staff is my top priority," he said. "We encourage the campus community to continue to report these incidents."

Previous incidents

On Sunday, the university released a statement saying The Rock was painted Saturday night "to communicate hate," and that the messages, "which are hurtful and threatening to many members of our community, do not represent our Volunteer values."

The statement did not elaborate about the content of the messages painted on The Rock. But a photo, posted to Facebook by Sandra Starr Marquis, showed a painting of the Vols' mascot, Smokey, had been defaced with swastikas and other symbols used by neo-Nazi groups.

Less than two weeks earlier, a Jewish student group held a candlelight vigil to honor the 11 worshippers killed when a gunman with a professed desire to "kill Jews" opened fire inside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Hundreds gathered at Arnstein Jewish Community Center Monday night for a candlelight vigil to honor lives lost at the shooting Saturday at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, and to support Knoxville's Jewish Community.

At the vigil, The Rock was painted with a version of the Pittsburgh Steelers' logo that features the Star of David and the words "Stronger Than Hate" — an image that was shared widely after the shooting.

Two days later, some students noticed The Rock had been changed to say "Stronger Through Hate," and a swastika had been painted over the Star of David, according to Tara Bain, director of UT Knoxville Hillel.

Student government representatives quickly re-painted the Rock to read, "Vol Means All."

Nazi groups trying to gain foothold at UT

White supremacists and white nationalists have been trying to gain traction among University of Tennessee students since August 2017 protests and counter-protests over a Confederate monument in the Fort Sanders neighborhood drew campus attention. 

More:Counter-protesters outnumber protesters 70-to-1 at peaceful Fort Sanders rally

More:White nationalist flyers removed from university campus

Within weeks, flyers attempting to recruit students to white nationalist groups like the now-defunct Traditionalist Worker Party started popping up around campus, along with Nazi paintings on the Rock.

More:White nationalist talk at UT draws about 45 and 250 protesters for peaceful event

Former UT Chancellor Beverly Davenport condemned the white supremacists' activities on campus in a statement in January.

"I find their values and teachings despicable, hateful, divisive, and incendiary, and as I have said before, they are completely at odds with our Volunteer values and ethics," she said. "Across the country, white supremacist groups are targeting colleges and universities, hoping to promote their beliefs and recruit members."

A masked protester burns a Confederate flag at UTK on Saturday, Feb. 17, 2018.

In February, Matthew Heimbach, who was involved in the 2017 "Unite the Right Rally" in Charlottesville, along with about 45 Traditionalist Worker Party members, hosted a speech on the University of Tennessee campus, which met the Nazi group with a massive protest. 

More:Deadly violence erupts at 'Unite the Right' rally in Charlottesville

Heimbach was arrested and charged with domestic violence a month later when his wife and stepfather-in-law reportedly caught Heimbach having sex with his mother-in-law at their Orange County, Indiana, trailer park. 

Heimbach reportedly assaulted his wife and her stepfather, who managed the Traditionalist Worker Party's web presence. Heimbach pleaded guilty in September to battery resulting in bodily injury and was sentenced to a year in prison.

More:White nationalist leader Matthew Heimbach charged with domestic battery

The Traditionalist Worker Party disbanded after the incident. 

It is unclear whether the Nazi symbols being painted on the Rock at UT now are associated with another Nazi group or the act of a single person.