Knox Still Rocks: A Pandemic Dispatch From Tennessee

Caitlin Myers


Knoxville, Tennessee has a few nicknames attached to it. Developers and other fancy sorts of people tend to prefer “The Marble City,” because it sounds noble, even though all it means is that people used to dig up marble here and haul it to D.C. to build imitation Greco-Roman government buildings. After a reporter called us a “scruffy little city by a river” in a throwaway line in a paper in 1982, some gleefully took that moniker as their own, but the ensuing years of “Scruffy City”-branded bumper stickers and beer glasses have taken some of the shine off the self-deprecating novelty.

Sometimes, when I’m feeling cynical, I like to sardonically lend it the nicknames of bigger, more storied cities. Police pepper spray teenagers in the street during a Black Lives Matter protest? “The Big Easy!” A recycling center with years of unpaid back taxes explodes down the street, blanketing my neighborhood in evil-smelling smoke for days, so thick we could hardly breathe, hardly see, hardly go outside? “The City of Lights!”

Like many cities of 200,000 or so with a little something to offer but not much, Knoxville has always yearned after glory. We hosted a dud of a World’s Fair here in 1982, and our city tourism nonprofit, Visit Knoxville, is always busy churning out reasons to visit us, the less-cool, third-most-polluted town of its size, between famous neighbors Nashville and Asheville.  Desperately, Visit Knoxville now insists, even during the pandemic, that #KNOXSTILLROCKS.

Well, in December 2020, it happened—we were on the map. On the New York Times coronavirus case count map, to be precise. We were a big, purple splotch in the middle of the country; the unenviable laurels of global COVID hotspot had passed to us, to East Tennessee. For our population density, we were the worst in the world. One in every hundred of us were sick. Over one in every thousand were dead. We could hear the helicopters coming in from the little towns whose hospitals had one or two ICU beds, or whose hospitals had shut down entirely, and we knew we’d be full up soon.

 

A history of Knoxville in hospital closures: The first hospital to be demolished was on the south side of the Tennessee River. Baptist Health, it was called, and it shuttered in 2008. The building sat across from downtown between the Gay Street and Henley Street bridges. It was turned into a regional headquarters for Regal Cinemas, a job creator, we were told. The multimillion-dollar riverwalk project jacked nearby rents up almost instantly. When I first moved to this place, South Knoxville had the cheapest housing and thus was home to an array of artists, working-class families, and young people; now, it’s one of the city’s most expensive places to live. Regal Cinemas closed all of its locations to the public after COVID-19 hit.

In 2012, the city shut down Lakeshore, a psychiatric hospital out in West Knoxville, deep in the sprawl. Historically, Lakeshore patients were those whose families were unwilling or unable to care for them. The building is empty, and some say the grounds are full of ghosts. But that won’t stop progress. Scripps Network, the corporation that owns our major newspaper, gave the city three million dollars to rechristen it as a park. The houseless population exploded after Lakeshore closed; people simply didn’t have anywhere to go.

In 1930, the old St. Mary’s Catholic hospital opened down the road from where I live now. It was the only hospital serving North Knoxville. St. Mary’s merged with Baptist Health System to form Mercy Health Partners. Then, in 2011, Mercy Health Partners sold to Health Management Associates, Inc., a for-profit organization out of Florida, known within Tennessee as Tennova. Tennova stated in 2018 that, as a part of “strategic reorganization of services,” it would shut down the old St. Mary’s hospital and another hospital nearby. The city bought the property and consigned it to a brutal afterlife as a police headquarters and city court. Every week or so, the City of Knoxville Facebook page proudly posts demolition progress pictures—back to back, sometimes, with the county’s COVID-19 numbers.  So it looks like this: 4,890 probable cases (+34). 4,316 active cases: (+194). 409 deaths (+2).  134 currently hospitalized (+6). The redevelopment project to transform the abandoned St. Mary’s hospital campus into the new $46.5 million Public Safety Complex continues.

Outside of Knoxville, the hospitals are closing and consolidating even faster.  North of us, by the Virginia line, two nonprofit hospitals have been consolidated into one health system, Ballad Health, covering an area 1.2 million people strong and as big as New Jersey, shutting down a neonatal ICU and downgrading trauma centers in the process.

We had the opportunity as a state for better healthcare, and we passed it up. Tennessee rejected the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act in 2012. We were number two in the country for hospital closures in 2019; a quarter of Tennesseeans can’t access an emergency room. Over 300,000 are uninsured.


“We can either look at things as problems,” said Kane to the TV cameras, “or we can look at them as challenges.”

Back in the day, when Kane wrestled, he liked to walk out to an entrance theme called “Veil of Fire.” He wore a mask in those days—a restriction he didn’t seem to have a problem with when it was in service of kicking some ass. He would enter in a leotard of red and black flames, under a blood-red light. The first mask of his career was full-face, hardened and red and cut like a boulder; he later graduated to one that covered everything but his mouth, the better to see him holler and yell in the ring before he demolished his enemies. Because this was WWE, he did things like electrocute them in the nuts, choke them, slam them into the ground. Later, he suited up into a version of himself called “Corporate Kane,” which involved the same mask and the same long, stringy neck-length hair, but with the rest of him clothed in an office drone’s outfit. To one day become a politician, of course, was the natural extension of his career path.

Kane, now known by his legal name, Glenn Jacobs, ran for mayor of Knox County, Tennessee in 2017, as a libertarian. Knox County contains my city, Knoxville. He called himself an anarcho-capitalist, a man caught in a paradox, running for a government position he ultimately believed should not exist. People thought it was hilarious that he was running, and also, plenty of them agreed with him. He assumed office in 2018. 

The Knox County Board of Health had initiated a mask order over the summer to mitigate spread. Jacobs/Kane saw this as a challenge to the very freedoms he had sworn to protect. He decided there was nothing to do but attempt to dismantle the entity.  Kane expressed deep concern that the existence of an unelected Board of Health defied democratic ideals and insisted that the board ought to be elected by the public. He stayed away from directly antagonizing the Board, though, only saying when asked that they were fine, upstanding people who were just doing their jobs. But the pretense of civility shattered when Kane’s video—one, he says, that was never intended to see the light of day—was leaked. (It can be seen in this recording of a Knox County Board of Health meeting, when the video was played for the board, with Kane himself present.)

The video begins solemnly, with a voiceover and an image of the Constitution; the narrator intones the mantras of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, over images of a farmer looking to the sky, a couple embracing once another, the Statue of Liberty, and a match being struck. “There are sinister forces within…” Cut to the Capitol. “Unelected bureaucrats…” A fuzzy screencap of an earlier Board of Health meeting. “Violent mobs who lust to erect a socialist utopia… and worst of all, an environment of division, suspicion, and fear…” Images of fire and broken glass from the summer’s protests flash on the screen. “Seeking to rob us of our birthright.” A baby, its eyes so blue they look like contacts, its skin pale and peachy. “It can happen here. It will happen here.”

The Board of Health denounced the video publicly, but it was too late: it had done its job. Right-wing protesters came out to make a ruckus at Board of Health meetings all through the fall. Some wore plague doctor outfits and carried signs. Others were pointedly maskless. Hundreds of them lined up outside of the Knoxville City-County Building for a chance to speak. All shouted for an end to the enormous power of the small group of public health professionals who sat blinking and reciting numbers, who, for the most part, set minor curfews and otherwise watched as the case counts went up and up and up.

A commissioner introduced an ordinance to reduce the Knox County Board of Health to an advisory body to the Health Department, undermining its ability to make policy. They postponed the decision in December when the case count shot up, but a politically motivated kneecapping of the Board of Health during the height of a pandemic is still a real possibility.

“These are the times that try men’s souls,” said Kane on Twitter that month, quoting Thomas Paine.


Our city mayor, Indya Kincannon, has often been framed by local liberals as Kane’s foil. A former Board of Education rep, Kincannon’s liberal bona fides steered her to office, succeeding another liberal. Two Democratic mayors in a row! We were a blue city, now, a blue dot in red Knox County. Material circumstances haven’t improved.

The downtown houseless encampment, home to hundreds, stands as a testament to the class interests of people like Kincannon. Developers hate it. Our kindly mayor and her police force chased the homeless off in October, and then did it again. The first time, the city’s leftists thought they could defend it. Some of us went down with coffee travelers and donuts and flags and banners. I don’t know what we thought we were going to do—stop them, somehow? “So what’s the plan?” asked one resident of the camp that morning, of us.

But we didn’t have a plan. Helplessly, we watched police and bulldozers turn people’s earthly possessions into so much refuse.  They didn’t check to see if people were still in their tents; they started to just come for them. People would throw themselves in the way, shouting and cussing—there could have been somebody sleeping in there, they could have been crushed. What could be saved was saved in city garbage bins that Kincannon’s police had brought as containers for people to stuff their tents in and haul away.

I drove a few women and their belongings to a camp down the road. We talked shit on the two mayors and laughed with the windows down, till one woman held her face into her hands and cried and said it was never going to end. Sure enough, their spot was raided again the next month. All through December and January the raids have continued, as illness cycles through the camps and the temperatures dip into the 20s. The police continue to confiscate tents and sleeping bags. Six people have been found frozen to death. 

 

We have no power but the power we take. The Board of Health protesters know that, and so do we, Knoxville’s leftists. The past few years have seen a surge of interest in local politics here, driven by Black and queer organizers who cut their teeth after Ferguson. They’ve become accustomed to having a target on their backs, but they press forward. It’s the only path to survival. A push to elect progressives to the city council rolled two of them into office, one right after the other, with a third who ran a close race and will likely run again.

You can see Mayor Kincannon’s face sour when they speak, now that every council meeting is a Zoom call. They ask questions that people never used to ask. Why is the money here and not there? Where is the hazard pay for bus drivers? Where are the social services? Why is almost two-thirds of the budget going towards police? Local organizers released a breakdown of these expenditures, and much of the community was incensed. Thanks to their efforts, and those of other organizers, many of us now pay closer attention to city and county affairs, and know, more than we did before, that power does not have our interests at heart. So we expected a clumsy pandemic response, I suppose, and, at least emotionally, we were prepared.

A word of warning: small-town officials can spread their incompetence around. The House is full of people who used to run places like mine. The path is not long. The last county mayor from Knoxville is a state Congressman now. The last governor of Tennessee was once a mayor. Watch out—you might have to meet one of ours in the ring someday. Get ready for the choke slam.

 

In late March, before things got truly bad, I walked to the top of nearby Sharp’s Ridge. From there, the town looks so little, ensconced in a narrow valley between the long, low, rolling ridges. In those days, the cars weren’t driving. The pollution receded, and you could see to the hills. I remember looking out over the winter quiet, with the spring buds just starting to poke through the dirt, and wondering how many were going to make it. Not just here, but everywhere.

In December, when we saw that map, a lot of us panicked. But everyone takes their turn at being the pandemic epicenter. Before us it was the Dakotas, then L.A. We all had our turn in that awful spotlight.  It passed over us this winter like the Angel of Death, and we marked our doors as best we could and hid our faces from its blinding light. And then it was off to the next place.

COVID exacerbates our old problems, shows us the cracks in the foundation, cracks that extend beyond any one town. For a while I was despondent here, and I thought we were in the worst place we could possibly be. But I was wrong. We are all in the worst place, and that place is Now. The place is white supremacy and corporate oligarchy and no healthcare and underfunded public services. Show me a local government that isn’t a mess.

Here, at least, we know that they are not to be trusted with our welfare, and so we take care of each other. Our mutual aid groups in town are hard at work compensating for the failures of the state. So many of us in one way or another are engaged in raising money for rent and bill assistance, delivering food to neighbors in crisis, reversing overdoses, setting bones, making herbal remedies, caring for children. We are not supposed to have to do this. But that’s survival. ♦

 

 


Caitlin Myers is a writer in East Tennessee.