While the former student hate group may be a thing of the past, uncovered documents surrounding student surveillance raise new questions about Michigan State’s prior decision to let the early Alt-Right group off the hook
Fourteen years ago, Michigan State University became home to the country’s first-ever student-based hate group designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center, MSU Young Americans for Freedom. When pushed by students to investigate potential violations of the school’s anti-discrimination and harassment policy, MSU exonerated the group on freedom of speech grounds. Today, previously unseen documents from the FBI show just one month after the school’s decision, the FBI alongside MSU campus police and other law enforcement agencies conducted covert surveillance of the student group regarding potential domestic terrorism. The documents can be found below.
Today, two leading members of the MSU Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) chapter have ascended to powerful ranks within the Alt-Right and Proud Boy movements, utilizing several of the same strategies which shielded them in college as a blueprint for more recent alt-right legal battles. Former MSU YAF Chairman Kyle Bristow, International Relations major of the James Madison College, has established himself as a leading white nationalist attorney. Bristow continues to tout his involvement ghost-writing the ACLU’s legal brief defending Jason Kessler’s pursuit to host the deadly ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. In March of 2018, alongside Cameron Padgett, Bristow successfully sued Michigan State to allow white nationalist Richard Spencer the opportunity to speak on campus.
Former political theory and constitutional democracy major at the James Madison College at MSU, Jason Lee Van Dyke was suspended in 2001 for illegal firearms possession and domestic abuse. He took up the mantle as MSU YAF’s legal adviser and co-provocateur during Bristow’s tenure as MSU YAF chairman. Van Dyke had been active online within the white supremacist organization Council of Conservative Citizens and had a CSPAN feature on the issue of conservatism on college campuses. Since then, self-identifying as the “meanest attorney in Texas,” he’s tried and failed at confronting revenge pornography online, and gotten himself suspended from social media for vitriolic racial epithets. Additionally, he served as the lawyer for the Proud Boys, trademarking their name as well as crafting their bylaws and constitution. For a brief moment, Van Dyke lead the neo-fascist movement, before being ousted only days after his ascension for accidentally doxxing his fellow extremists. In 2019, Van Dyke was suspended from practicing law after threatening to murder his legal opponent and rival, Thomas Rezlaff. Recently murdered, Jason plotted to kill Retzlaff in coordination with the Arizona chapter of the Proud Boys. Van Dyke has since claimed he was not involved in his homicide. More recently, Van Dyke, in a leaked phone-call, had been revealed to have attempted to join the neo-Nazi terrorist organization The Base, explaining in detail his infatuation with national socialism.
When Bristow sued MSU to allow Richard Spencer to speak on campus, the Intercept reported Michigan State University sent nine ‘undercover’ cops to the event protesting Richard Spencer in 2018. The incident came under scrutiny surrounding a 2001 University resolution to forbid the use of undercover surveillance except under “extraordinary circumstances.” In the case of Richard Spencer, the University argued the actions of the undercover officers did not amount to ‘surveillance,” and therefore were not in violation of school policy. In the FBI’s 2008 effort, the intelligence agency uses the word “surveillance,” to describe an operation surrounding Bristow’s attempt to bring Canadian neo-Nazi Paul Fromm to the Cadillac Club in Lansing, but without the use of the word “undercover,” questions remain unanswered as to whether the University violated its own policy on student surveillance.
In Spring of 2008, the university’s Office for Inclusion and Intercultural Initiative concluded a lengthy investigation into whether MSU YAF and the College Republicans violated the school’s anti-discrimination policy (ADP), following complaints by several students alleging a repeated pattern of harassment and discrimination. On March 12th of that year, the school stated, “the facts alleged by the complainants do not constitute harassment or discrimination in violation of the ADP” and that a “pattern of prohibited harassment and discrimination” based on protected characteristics “is not supported by the evidence and the standards established under applicable case law and federal guidance.”
Just one month after the school exonerated the group, documents unclassified by the FBI detail a covert “surveillance operation” conducted on April 12, 2008, by the FBI, Detroit Division, Lansing Resident Agency as well as “members of the Michigan State Police (MSP), Lansing Police Department (LPD), and Michigan State University Police Department (MSUPD).”
The surveillance operation in question was spurred by a speaking event organized by Bristow for the Cadillac Club in Lansing on April 12. The meeting would feature a keynote speech by Canadian neo-Nazi Paul Fromm as well as Bristow himself, whom, two months prior had announced his resignation from the hate group. Bristow had initially planned the event and gone to great lengths to keep it hidden from the public. Grand Rapids independent media organization, Media Mouse reported on it back in 2008 after it was announced to the public in a statement by Michigan Against White Supremacy.
In the documents, which were declassified in 2012, Bristow was subject to the surveillance, among others. The operation included a total of six team members; two Special Agents (SA) from the FBI, and three Task Force Officers (TFO) of the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force from Lansing PD, Michigan State PD, and Michigan State University PD, and one Lieutenant from the Michigan State PD, Michigan Intelligence Operations Center.
The FBI states the surveillance was conducted in part, because Bristow’s meeting “was advertised as a forum for facilitating a unification of these groups…to promote a direct course of action rather than to merely talk about the issues or problems.”
Media outlets had reported after the fact that the meeting had been cancelled, following one venue barring them entry, but these documents show officers had been aware of several possible meeting places and had tracked Bristow and other extremists to a Marriott Hotel lobby where they were spotted exiting. Investigators entered the building and found discarded speech notes in the hotel’s trash, which included an outline of Bristow’s presentation, attached within the Bureau’s documents.
Within the notes, Bristow states he believes Western Civilization can rise again, but only “if our land does not become balkanized,” and points to several other far right and white nationalist strategies abroad. He went on to identify main priorities he believed were crucial to expanding their white nationalist movement, as well as tips and tricks to further their agenda and win debates. Speaking briefly on his time at MSU while chairman of YAF, he takes pride in their efforts to host speakers and shift debate on campus from arguing “whether or not illegal aliens should get amnesty, we began debating whether or not they are even human.”
These papers were not unclassified by the FBI until July of 2012 and were later posted online four years later by Bristow on his white nationalist law group, the Foundation for the Marketplace of Ideas. The page has since been deleted and Bristow resigned from the organization following the events of Charlottesville, Virginia. One year following the deadly event, Spencer and Bristow sued MSU to allow them to speak on campus, sparking violent riots in East Lansing.
Writer Sam Adler-Bell wrote for the Intercept a piece examining the school’s decision to send nine “undercover” cops “to protect the First Amendment Rights of all participants and provide a safe environment for the event,” but made a distinction that undercover officers at Spencer’s event did not amount to surveillance.
This specificity was made following a 2001 MSU resolution banning the use of undercover surveillance except under “extraordinary circumstances” the school defines as “situations in which reasonable cause exists to conclude that actions of MSU student groups on campus could lead to loss of life, physical harm or substantial property damage.”
“Under the rules, the police chief must inform the university president before conducting undercover surveillance. It’s then up to the president — in consultation with the university’s general counsel, vice president for student affairs and services, and the provost — to decide whether the conditions for extraordinary circumstances have been met. If the president authorizes undercover surveillance, the university is required to prepare and maintain documentation indicating that undercover surveillance was conducted and that it was approved in accordance with the school’s guidelines, a list of officials consulted in making the decision, the dates of surveillance, and information about any arrests or convictions that occurred as result of the operation.”
He goes on to report MSU did not follow the protocol as it relates to Richard Spencer because only “active infiltration” of student organizations meets MSU’s definition of undercover, according to MSU spokesperson Emily Guerrant.
Regarding the 2008 surveillance, FOIA request to all local agencies involved in the operation, including the FBI, responded that no such records of the investigation could be found, and more questions remain unanswered as to the extent to which the university is aware of terrorism task force operations that involve MSU police department members. Additionally, the question between covert surveillance and undercover surveillance leaves open the possibility of a number of gray areas the school could employ to skirt accountability protocols in the future.
In a recent interview, Investigative Divisions Commander Captain Chris Rozman of MSU PD said he was unable to comment on the question of undercover operations conducted by officers of the JTTF and MSU Police. Additionally, he says their department does have a police task force under the commanding control of the FBI, and limited information is shared back with the department unless there is a potential threat posed to the community.
Regarding the nine undercover officers sent at the Richard Spencer’s event, Rozman said “We did not have any undercover officers at that event” and says any statement that their department did would be incorrect. The Intercept reported “MSU officials confirmed that there were officers on-site working “undercover,” but denied that their actions amounted to “surveillance,” but Rozman says “I would have never told the MSU spokesperson to use the word undercover,” and that Guerrant’s statement was incorrect. The University did not respond to requests for comment.
In 2006, Bristow had gained a seat in student government, ASMSU, and proposed a 13-point agenda which included eliminating all representation for minority groups, and to instate a “Caucasian caucus,” which resulted in him being the first student to be recalled from student government at the university. Later in the year he had been inspired by the University of Michigan’s YAF chapter, and planned a “Catch an Illegal Immigrant Day.” A game “that the U.S. government needs to play about 13 million times,” he told the Michigan Daily. In other bombastic events, his group paraded around campus with signs that read “End Faggotry” and “Gays Spread Aids.” Online, Bristow and Van Dyke utilized their group’s blog, The Spartan Spectator, to target individual students with racist and homophobic attacks, as well as recruit and promote engagement among more popular conservative institutions such as the Leadership Institute and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.
“I was an Alt-Right shit lord before there was an Alt-Right, and before shit lords were even around” Kyle boasted in a 2018 interview to Henrick Palmgren, white nationalist host of the podcast Red Ice, a subsidiary of Stormfront.
Similar to what’s seen of the Alt-Right on college campuses over the past decade, MSU YAF made it their staple to invite increasingly xenophobic and far-right guests onto the East Lansing campus. Initially, guests such as the anti-affirmative lawyer Jennifer Gratz and the head of the nativist Center for Immigration Studies, Mark Krikorian were brought in to speak. Soon after, speakers became more overtly racist and bigoted, with YAF hosting British Holocaust-denier Nick Griffin, anti-gay author Ryan Sorba, and Chris Simcox, founder of the anti-immigrant vigilante group, the Minute Men. Additionally, Bristow’s YAF chapter had neo-Nazi skinhead Preston Wiginton speak. The group was forced to cancel their event featuring American Renaissance’s Jared Taylor after National YAF Chairman Erik Johnson threatened to revoke their YAF charter.
Today, National YAF has repeatedly lied about their organization’s past involvement with Bristow’s chapter. In a recent email, the current national Chairman, Grant Strobl said: “Kyle Bristow’s group at Michigan State University was never a chartered Young Americans for Freedom chapter and used our name without authorization.” But archives at the MSU Special Collections on Radicalism have preserved a lengthy full-page advertisement the National YAF organization put out in the State News in support of Bristow’s group, which they call “a YAF Chapter in good standing.” They add “National YAF applauds their activism and courage.”
Even before the University released its decision to exonerate the student group, Kyle Bristow had already begun sending out invitations for his next and arguably the most blatant display of violent white nationalism, hosting Canadian neo-Nazi Paul Fromm in Lansing. Fromm, the international director for the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens, has led conferences on the myth of white genocide and musings about ethnic cleansing for Stormfront and American Renaissance. Conspiring with Bristow to put on the event was Evan Thomas Kuettner, a notorious white nationalist organizer in Michigan, a man who today is active in the hate movement and was reported to have attended the deadly Unite the Right rally.
The fascist event was first announced to the public by the group Michigan Against White Supremacy, asking activists to picket the event as well as call the owner of the Cadillac Club, the original venue. Reporting done by MediaMouse of Grand Rapids at the time obtained multiple screenshots of Bristow’s Facebook messages organizing the event, as well as mentioning an event featuring white supremacist Jared Taylor later in the month. He says in the March message, “Neither of these events will be open to the public or even advertised publicly. It is a word-of-mouth kind of thing only. We don’t want the leftists knowing about them.”
Due to the efforts of Michigan Against White Supremacy, the events were reported to have been cancelled. But according to the documents from the FBI, the event was relocated to the Courtyard by Marriot on 2710 Lake Lansing Road, Lansing.
While unaware at the time of the FBI’s surveillance, independent journalist Todd Heywood took numerous photos leading up the event with Bristow, Thomas, and other MSU YAF student members. Heywood, working alongside former student Philip Rodney-Moon, had spent years reporting on MSU YAF’s activities in their watchdog blog YAF WATCH.
Heywood confirmed the meeting prior with the former Lansing police officer Ray Hall, and photographed Bristow and others in the parking lot of the St. Vincent DePaul thrift store South of Lansing at around 3:20 in the afternoon.
Pictures taken by Heywood show Bristow and another student in his car, as well as photographs of another Michigan white nationalist Evan Kuettner (Evan Thomas, Evan Cutner), and a fourth individual.
Shortly thereafter, several vehicles were reported by the FBI to have arrived in succession “in the area of the Cadillac Club,” but were later lost by investigators after their departure almost an hour later, and notes “none of them were tracked to Coscarelli’s, a local restaurant where surveillance officers identify they were “covertly positioned.” But while it was observed that employees were preparing a place setting for a private event, no one had arrived as expected.
Twenty minutes later, law enforcement were able to track down Bristow and other attendees where the meeting had been relocated at the Marriott East Lansing, where “Kyle Bristow and two unidentified while males were observed walking into…” and “within minutes, Bristow and the 2 men left the hotel, and the surveillance team members are unable to observe their direction of travel.” Officers then pursued leads at the Bluegill Grill in Haslett where “Bristow had been reported to have held meetings or frequented in the past” but failed to locate them.
The documents go on to state: “Believing the meeting had been cancelled or moved to an unidentified location, the surveillance was terminated at approximately 6:15pm.”
Later, officers claimed to have “checked an additional location and located the meeting,” at the Courtyard by Marriott on Lake Lansing Road where the meeting was eventually held, and officers waited until it’s close to enter and continue their investigation.
Afterwards, two task force officers and one special agent entered the lounge area and a room “accessible to the public through two unlocked doors.” There, they found chairs, tables, and a podium “indicative of a speech presentation format.”
“In the room’s sole trash container, on top of the discarded refuse, there was four pieces of 8 ½ x 11 paper folded together. Printed on the paper were speech notes in outline format for Bristow’s presentation,” and attached the speech information thereafter.
In it, Bristow describes his view on how to form a broad white nationalist coalition and said the Right needs to improve their name branding, suggesting, as Pat Buchanan once did in his famous book, Death of the West, the need to invent their own critical theory to be “as ruthless as leftists.” He defines this theory as “essentially destructive criticism of all the main elements of liberalism,” including deviancy, racial diversity, and multiculturalism, among other things.
Bristow writes, “History is written, but the future is not. Our revolution will not be won with guns, but with the pen.”
Today, former students who were targeted by this student group still bear the wounds of the deep trauma they faced while attending Michigan State University. When given every opportunity, the university not only turned a blind eye to their repeated pleas for help, but actively allowed for this abusive behavior to occur for years at the hands of Kyle Bristow, Jason Lee Van Dyke, MSU Young Americans for Freedom and other students. These events not only leave a deep stain on the university’s history, but in many ways paved the way for a much larger and more destructive impact both statewide and across the nation. This period involving MSU Young Americans for Freedom may be closed today, but it’s legacy will forever remain a deeply harmful chapter in the course of American history.