Written by David Holthouse
Wednesday, 16 January 2008
Preston Wiginton is one busy neo-Nazi.
In October 2005, he won the “Strongest Skinhead” contest at Hammerfest, a racist skinhead festival in Draketown, Ga., where he announced that he was organizing secret paramilitary training in preparation for the coming race war. In the following days, Wiginton posted more than 300 messages to the white nationalist online forum Stormfront, writing in one that “beating down a mud,” or non-white, is a “righteous act of collective preservation.”
Since then, Wiginton has continued to appear at white supremacist events across the United States — and abroad, too. Just this Nov. 4, Wiginton spoke to a crowd of 5,000 Russian ultranationalists at a Moscow rally against non-white immigration that included calls for Serbian-style ethnic cleansing. Waving his black cowboy hat, the Victoria, Texas, resident said, “I’m taking my hat off as a sign of respect for your strong identity in ethnicity, nation and race.” The audience responded with Nazi salutes and chants of “White power!” in English.
But Wiginton, ever the activist, has not neglected smaller venues. A mere 10 days before the Moscow rally, Wiginton served as master of ceremonies at an appearance in East Lansing, by British Holocaust denier Nick Griffin, the national chairman of the white supremacist British National Party.
This time, Wiginton’s venue was not a skinhead keg party, backwoods cross burning or neo-Nazi rally on foreign soil. It was a lecture hall on the campus of Michigan State University.
Wiginton, 43, is not a Michigan State University student. He’s not an alumnus or a faculty member, either. But he is chummy with MSU junior Kyle Bristow, the 21-year-old chairman of the Michigan State University chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, or MSU-YAF — the only university student organization in the country listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Acting in collusion with elder white supremacists like Wiginton, and with the financial and logistical support of a major conservative foundation, Bristow and a handful of cronies have roiled their campus and the surrounding community by hosting speakers like Griffin, issuing vicious homophobic and racist insults, and staging publicity stunts masked as political demonstrations that seem inspired in equal parts by the movie “Animal House” and the Hitler Youth.
“He’s become a divisive force,” former MSU-YAF member Kari Lynn Jaksa, an MSU junior who describes herself as a Republican with strong libertarian leanings, says of Bristow. “Frankly, he’s embarrassing.”
A YAF a Minute
In November 2006, MSU-YAF organized a “Straight Power” demonstration in downtown Lansing to protest a proposed local civil rights ordinance (which passed unanimously) protecting gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgener individuals from discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation. YAF members carried signs that read “End Faggotry” and “Go Back in the Closet.”
Also last year, Bristow and Wiginton co-administered two racist online groups — “True American Patriot” and “Jobs a White Man Won’t Do” — within the Facebook social network. (The pair also share a fondness for black cowboy hats. Bristow wore his while anti-racist protesters outside the MSU building where Griffin spoke on Oct. 26 beat a piñata effigy of Griffin with sticks.)
MSU-YAF has since cosponsored a “Catch an Illegal Immigrant Day” contest, held a “Koran Desecration” competition, jokingly threatened to distribute smallpox-infested blankets to Native American students, and posted “Gays Spread AIDS” fliers across campus.
Last spring, when the MSU leftist group Students for Economic Justice hosted a lecture by a Colombian labor organizer detailing allegations of union busting and murder by the owners of Coca-Cola bottling plants in South America, Bristow and his minions jeered, waved American flags and conspicuously guzzled from large bottles of Coke while the speaker tearfully described witnessing his best friend being gunned down by paramilitary thugs.
“YAF’s ridiculous tactics are making all conservatives at MSU look bad,” Jaksa, an international relations major, told the Intelligence Report. “It’s gotten to the point where I hate to even say I’m a conservative anymore in class discussions or private conversations, because people automatically assume that I’m with Kyle Bristow. It’s important to me that people know there are sane conservatives on this campus. We’re not all racists and fascists.”
Jaksa said that when she joined MSU-YAF her freshman year, “It was basically just the action wing of the College Republicans.” Now, according to Jaksa and other sources, the College Republicans at MSU have asked Bristow to stop attending their meetings.
“We protested in favor of fiscal and social conservatism. We held demonstrations against liberal senators who voted a way on a bill that we didn’t agree with. But our agenda was very much what I could categorize as mainstream Republican,” Jaksa said. “That was before Kyle took it over [in spring 2006] and YAF went off the deep end.”
Friends in High Places
Despite its notoriety, MSU-YAF is widely supported by mainstream conservative politicians and power brokers in Michigan. The group was influential enough in rallying support for the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative — the deceptively named affirmative action ban that Michigan voters approved in 2006 — that MCRI Executive Director Jennifer Granz thanked MSU-YAF by name in her election night victory speech.
Last May 2, a few days after the SPLC named MSU-YAF a hate group — a move that received a great deal of public attention in the state — Michigan Republican Party Chairman Saul Anuzis endorsed MSU-YAF and defended Bristow on a talk radio show. “This [Bristow] is exactly the type of young kid we want out there,” Anuzis said. “I’ve known Kyle for years, and I can tell you I have never heard him say a racist or bigoted or sexist thing, ever.”
In fact, Bristow and his minions frequently single out and ridicule individual MSU gay, lesbian, and non-white students online, posting their photos and calling them “freaks,” “scum” and “savages.” Last September, Bristow criticized MSU’s decision to establish a Chicano/Latino Studies doctoral program in a news release headlined, “MSU Offers Doctorate in Savagery.”
And last March 31, roughly one month before Anuzis defended Bristow against accusations of bigotry, Bristow posted this comment on the MSU-YAF Web site: “If Christopher Columbus didn’t bring civilization to the Americas, the Indians would still be running through forests in loincloths, scalping each other, shoving bones through their noses, worshipping pagan gods, and spreading syphilis. Thank God Christopher Columbus put an end to this backward culture.”
Bristow politely refused a request to be interviewed for this article, saying that his “legal counsel” had advised him against such an interview because he’s considering legal action against the SPLC, which publishes the Intelligence Report, for defamation.
But there are some clues to his personality.
In a recent online dating profile, Bristow wrote that he plans to enroll in law school after he graduates from MSU in the fall of 2008 with a degree in international relations. Among his hobbies are “conservative politics,” “watching the History or Court TV channels,” “shooting my pellet gun” and “looking at my coin collection.”
Several MSU students who’ve been in classes with Bristow described him as a classmate who participated infrequently in seminar discussions, rarely asked questions and generally kept his political views to himself.
Jaksa, the former MSU-YAF member, said that she and Bristow hung out together quite a bit during their first year at MSU. “He was just a relaxed, normal kid at the beginning of our freshman year,” Jaksa said. “But then he underwent this odd transition. You know how most people, when they get to college, either move to the center or become more liberal in terms of their political beliefs? Well, Kyle did the opposite. It was like he kept moving farther and farther to the right to counterbalance all the people around him he saw moving to the left.”
Ted Madsen, another MSU international relations major who’s now in his junior year, said that he first met Bristow a few days after their freshman year began in the fall of 2005. “He struck me as very driven and very strait-laced,” recalled Madsen. “He was quite vocal about the fact that he was against drinking and smoking but, all in all, he was a fairly likeable guy.”
Bristow in Power
In spring 2006, shortly after he assumed control of MSU-YAF, Bristow ran unopposed and was elected to represent James Madison College — the college attended by all international relations majors — on the Associated Students of Michigan State University, or ASMSU, the university’s student government body.
Just before the academic year ended, Bristow posted his 13-point agenda online. It included these goals: “Hunt down illegal immigrants in the Lansing area and have them deported”; “Eliminate funding for all non-heterosexual student organizations”; “Create a Caucasian Caucus and give them representation on the ASMSU”; and “Eliminate representation to ASMSU for all of the following groups: Alliance of LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] Students; the Arab Cultural Society; the Black Council; the International Students Association; the Women’s Council; the North American Indigenous Student Organization,” and practically every other non-white, non-heterosexual, or non-Christian student group at MSU.
“I was outraged when I saw it,” said Madsen. “I told him, ‘Your agenda of hate has got to stop, Kyle.’ He’s used that phrase repeatedly in a mocking fashion since.”
Madsen gave Bristow a choice: “Either resign and apologize to the James Madison community for fouling our name, or be removed from office.”
Bristow did not resign and did not apologize. It took Madsen and his supporters only two days to gather enough signatures on a recall petition to force a vote, which took place in the fall of 2006, at the beginning of Bristow’s sophomore year. Ninety-six percent of the James Madison students who cast ballots voted to recall Bristow. He was forced to relinquish his seat on the ASMSU.
“I don’t regret it [leading the recall effort], although I do realize that his being recalled only further marginalized and radicalized Kyle to the point where he’s become a joke to many people,” said Madsen. “YAF is routinely ridiculed and mocked on campus, but what many people who refuse to take Kyle seriously may not realize is that Kyle believes all press coverage is good coverage, and while 10,000 people who read what he has to say will be disgusted, one or two will be intrigued. He’s using the media coverage to reach those one or two people at a time and that’s what concerns me about YAF, because what he’s articulating is dangerous.”
The University’s Role
Whatever its potential harm to society, MSU-YAF’s offensive antics have pinned university administrators between the rock of protecting free speech and the hard place of encouraging multiculturalism. For now MSU-YAF remains a registered and officially sanctioned student organization, meaning it’s entitled to certain benefits, including the free use of MSU facilities and university accounting services.
MSU also has to pay for security at YAF events, which invariably draw heated protests. Last April, for example, the university shelled out $3,780 to rent metal detectors for one night to place at every entrance to a YAF-sponsored lecture by nativist extremist leader Chris Simcox, founder of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, a border vigilante group.
Simcox was introduced to an unruly crowd by Jason Van Dyke, a neo-Confederate lawyer based in Denton, Texas. Van Dyke once attended MSU but did not graduate. By his own account, he was kicked out in 2000 after being arrested for domestic violence, possession of a banned weapon and firearm safety violations. (Van Dyke said he was merely transporting a rifle across campus on the first day of hunting season.) Also, according to Van Dyke, MSU police found extremist literature, including the race war fantasy novel The Turner Diaries and the anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion, in his on-campus residence.
When he attended MSU, Van Dyke was a hotly controversial columnist for the State News, an MSU student newspaper. Now, like a former high school football star haunting his old campus, trying to relive the glory days, Van Dyke posts daily rah-rah messages on the MSU-YAF Web site and often travels to East Lansing for MSU-YAF happenings. He and Bristow often wear matching black cowboy hats.
When MSU-YAF held its “Koran Desecration” contest last August, Van Dyke offered this entry: “I would catch Osama Bin Laden and then take a power drill and hollow out a section of the Koran as he was forced to watch. After doing this, I would cut Osama Bin Laden’s genitals off with a rusty hacksaw, place them in the hollowed-out Koran, wrap it in an American flag infected with smallpox, and send the whole package directly to Mecca.”
Van Dyke was equally statesmanlike at the Simcox lecture, which was initially attended by about 40 Simcox supporters and about 100 anti-Simcox protesters, many if not most of them Latino MSU students. Addressing the protesters, Van Dyke said: “Remember, the First Amendment gives you the right to use four-letter words. So I have two more words for you: ‘work’ and ‘soap.’”
Already tense, the situation in the lecture hall erupted. Protesters banged on seats and shouted angrily, preventing Simcox from speaking. MSU police arrested five demonstrators and cleared the room of anyone they perceived to be anti-Simcox, which included virtually all Latinos. This in turn led to allegations of racial profiling, since the campus police officers allowed white protesters to stay.
One week after the Simcox event, a group of 11 students filed a formal complaint with the MSU Office for Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives. They accused MSU-YAF of violating the university’s anti-discrimination policy, which prohibits the bias-motivated harassment of any “University community member” but includes this caveat: “These prohibitions are not intended to abridge University community members’ rights of free expression or other civil rights.”
The complaint filed against MSU-YAF accuses the group of “systematically — as a matter of regular organization practice — targeting groups and individuals for harassment, intimidation and public ridicule.”
University officials declined to discuss the complaint with the Intelligence Report, citing a pending investigation.
Behind the YAF Brand
Young Americans for Freedom was originally a centralized organization of rabidly anti-communist university student groups created in 1960 by National Review founder William F. Buckley. The original incarnation of YAF was also strictly opposed to the civil rights movement and, in 1962, gave its first annual Freedom Award to segregationist South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond.
YAF remained active nationwide through the 1980s, but is now essentially moribund. The YAF national headquarters Web page consists of a notice of sadness at the “recent news” of Ronald Reagan’s death, which occurred in June 2004. Now, Young Americans for Freedom is basically just a brand name for radical right-wing student activism, taking form as a loose and decentralized network of campus chapters, each one appearing to act independently.
In fact, the YAF brand is being co-opted and promoted by the Leadership Institute, a hard-line conservative nonprofit organization based in Arlington, Va., that is dedicated, according to its mission statement, to “identifying, recruiting, training and placing conservatives within the public policy process in the U.S. and abroad.” Republican National Committee executive committee member Morton Blackwell — who orchestrated a campaign against Anita Hill at the University of Oklahoma after she came forward with sexual harassment allegations against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas — founded the Leadership Institute in 1979 and is still its president. Major donors include the Coors Foundation and Rich DeVos, founder of the troubled Amway multilevel marketing firm.
Christian Coalition founder Ralph Reed and disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff were both trained by the Leadership Institute, as was Jeff Gannon, the fake White House news correspondent who lobbed softball questions for President Bush from 2003 until 2005. That’s when it was revealed that Gannon had been a gay prostitute before attending the Leadership Institute Broadcast School of Journalism, after which he somehow obtained White House press credentials as a reporter for “Talon News,” Gannon’s one-man operation.
Bristow and Van Dyke both interned at the Leadership Institute last summer. There are currently more than 20 YAF organizations on campuses across the country, most of them started in the past five years by Leadership Institute-trained activists. (The Campus Leadership Program division of the Leadership Institute, according to its Web site, “fosters permanent, effective, conservative student organizations on college campuses across America.”) MSU-YAF is by far the most radical. Its most recent event, the lecture by British National Party Chairman Nick Griffin, was promoted by overtly white supremacist organizations including the American Renaissance newsletter, the Council of Conservative Citizens, and Stormfront. Attending the Griffin lecture incognito were members of the European-American Unity and Rights Organization, a white nationalist group founded by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, as well as members of the Keystone State Skinheads and the National Alliance, both neo-Nazi organizations that promote violence against non-whites, non-heterosexuals and Jews.
The only violence surrounding the Griffin event, however, was directed at MSU-YAF when a handful of its members were chased by an angry mob of anti-racist activists afterward. Bristow claimed members of the mob were carrying baseball bats and pieces of lumber. No injuries were reported.
MSU President Lou Anna Simon has been fairly tight-lipped on the ongoing MSU-YAF controversy. Reacting to the MSU-YAF sponsored “Catch an Illegal Immigrant Day” back in September 2006, Simon chided MSU-YAF for sponsoring an event she described as “demeaning to individuals and to the values of Michigan State University.”
But Oct. 25, the day before Griffin’s lecture, Simon issued a statement making it clear that putting up with racist propaganda is the price that a university must pay if it is committed to free speech.
“A university should be an open marketplace for the free exchange of ideas,” Simon said. “There are individuals who speak at campus events whose rhetoric and ideas I find reprehensible, and although I may not appreciate their positions, I do respect their right to share their views. The more extreme the view, in either direction, the more it tests us.
“Although we may disagree with one another’s positions, we must respect the rights of individuals to express their positions without fear of intimidation or physical harm. ... Acts intended to prohibit the free speech rights of any individual or group, such as destroying informational materials, preventing access to an event, or shouting down a speaker do not support this philosophy and undermine our efforts to encourage robust intellectual discourse.”
MSU student Claudia Gonzalez experienced Bristow’s favorite mode of discourse first-hand when she participated in a protest outside an MSU-YAF event featuring anti-immigration hardliner Tom Tancredo, a Republican congressman from Colorado. “He [Bristow] came up to me and told me, ‘The one thing I’m most proud of is that my granddaddy stole Aztlan from your granddaddy,’” Gonzalez said.
Shortly after that exchange, MSU-YAF named Gonzalez “Leftist Freak of the Year” and posted her photo online. A few days later, the San Bernardino, Calif.-based hate group Save Our State posted her home address, phone number and parents’ home address, along with the message, “Please go and express your views.”
“I don’t feel completely safe on campus or at my home anymore because of YAF,” Gonzalez said. “And neither do a lot of other students of color and GLBT students, because YAF is clearly networking with these other hate groups, and they’re basically issuing an open invitation to skinheads and [anti-immigration] vigilantes and Nazis to come to MSU, who otherwise would never step foot on campus. ... If it weren’t for YAF, MSU wouldn’t be on the hate group radar. But now it is.”