A white nationalist, represented by Kyle Bristow, has filed a federal lawsuit against Michigan State University over its denial of a rental request for a speech by Richard Spencer.
The university rejected the request out of concerns protesters could become violent. The decision was made in the wake of the deadly Charlottesville, VA rally. That event, called “Unite the Right” featured neo-Nazis and other white nationalists violently clashing with protesters, including those identified as part of the anarchist antifa movement. A woman was killed when a man who has been identified in videos from the event standing with white nationalists plowed into a crowd.
The lawsuit, filed Sunday in federal court, alleges MSU violated the First Amendment rights of Cameron Pudgett, 23-year-old resident of Georgia. Pudgett is Spencer’s booking agent earlier this year sued Auburn University for cancelling an appearance by Spencer. A federal judge ordered the university to allow the speech to go forward and directed it to provide enough law enforcement protection to prevent violence. The order also required university law enforcement to use an Alabama anti-mask law. The judge ultimately awarded Pudgett a $29,000 settlement.
The case against MSU is asking the Federal District Court in the Western District of Michigan to require the state university to allow the rental. It also seeks $75,000 or more in damages and seeks to have law enforcement “unmask” any protesters.
MSU spokesman Kent Cassella said Monday the university is aware of the lawsuit, but declined to enter into a rental agreement for the Kellogg Center and Conference Center on a busy thoroughfare on the campus in East Lansing saying “our first obligation is to the safety and security of our students and our community.”
Michigan Republicans Long Dance With Hate Groups
Three days after violent demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va., shocked the nation last month, Ron Weiser, chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, sent out a statement strongly rejecting the white supremacy movement.
“There is no place in our Party, our state, or our country for the vile and hateful words and actions of white supremacist groups,” he said in a press release. “We know, through experience, what events like those that occurred in Charlottesville can lead to, and I know it personally. My family members were murdered in Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp, during World War II.”
He continued, “I said then, and I will say again: the extremists who incited violence do not speak for me, nor do they speak for this Party. Together, we can fight against racism and hatred.”
A noble statement. But here’s the thing: The Michigan Republican Party played footsy with the white nationalist movement a little less than a decade ago. In fact, party leadership wrapped one of its rising stars in their embrace and declared him “exactly the kind of kid we want.”
Memories are short, and the 2000s might feel like a different time. And in comparison to today, they are. But BTL covered the rise of Michigan State University’s student hate group and its leader. The paper reported then that this was a new face of the white nationalist movement. It’s clear from that history, the poisonous flowers of white nationalism and the alt-right that bloomed in Charlottesville came from seeds planted and tended by some mainstream Republicans.
Bristow’s Rise in the MI GOP, Hate Groups
That kid the state GOP was so high on was Kyle Bristow, then a Michigan State University student studying international relations. He was, for a brief moment, an elected representative in the student government, until his fellow students overwhelmingly recalled him because of his racist political agenda, which included defunding student groups for students of color, creating a white club and helping to hunt down and deport illegal aliens.
Undeterred, Bristow took over the leadership of a group called Young Americans for Freedom. The group, with roots dating to the 1960s and conservative movement leader William F. Buckley, is ostensibly a conservative student leadership group. But under Bristow’s leadership, the group would try to host events like “Catch an Illegal Immigrant.” The organization brought in such speakers as Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo and Chris Simcox, leader of the Minutemen Civilian Defense Corps, which patrolled the U.S. southern border in search of illegal immigrants. Each event and speaker was met with louder protests. Some of them were verbally nasty, but certainly never rose to the level of what happened in Charlottesville.
Bristow was showered with praise as a leading young conservative voice by groups like the Leadership Institute. That’s a group that trains young conservatives how to battle liberals on college campuses, often using what the group called “guerilla tactics.” It provides speakers too, like Simcox. In fact, Bristow cited their advice to “make a mockery” of being labeled a hate group.
Bristow and his band of followers attracted the attention of the Southern Poverty Law Center in November of 2006 when they stood in front of Lansing City Hall holding signs with such memorable lines as “Straight Power.” They were there to protest passage of a comprehensive human rights ordinance prohibiting discrimination against, among others, the LGBTQ community. A few months later, the SPLC listed the MSU chapter of Young Americans for Freedom as a hate group. The conservative movement condemned the SPLC’s action. So did the Michigan Republican Party’s then-chairman, Saul Anuzis.
“(Bristow) is exactly the type of young kid we want out there,” Anuzis told Lansing radio host Michael Patrick Shiels in May 2007. The audio of that conversation has since disappeared from the internet, but the SPLC reported on it. And his praise of Bristow didn’t end there. “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.”
Indeed he had. Bristow had been engaged in Macomb County Republican politics for years. In 2006, as his star was rising as a conservative young leader, he was also serving as the vice chair of the Macomb County Republican Party. In 2008, he was elected a precinct delegate to the Michigan GOP.
Time hasn’t mellowed him. In 2015, the Michigan Bar Association was embarrassed into apologizing and withdrawing an honorable mention award made to Bristow in a fiction-writing contest the association sponsored. Bristow’s entry, the MBA said, was “embedded with racist cues” and featured a lawyer who stabs to death a prisoner named “Tyrone Washington” who had been convicted of killing the lawyer’s daughter.
And in a speech last year at the 2016 Alt-Right Conference in Detroit, sponsored by Bristow’s Foundation for the Marketplace of Ideas, Richard Spencer’s white nationalist National Policy Institute and Identity Evropa, Bristow said, “Make America white, er um I mean great again,” parroting then candidate Donald Trump’s campaign slogan.
Michigan GOP spokeswoman Sarah Anderson referred questions about Anuzis to the former chair, but concluded her email by writing. “The Michigan Republican Party does not now, nor have we ever, embraced white nationalism or the alt-right.”
But at the same time Bristow earned his precinct delegate status in the 2008 election, another white nationalist was also elected to a precinct delegate post in Midland. His name was Randy Gray. Gray is a member of the Ku Klux Klan, helped organize and spoke at the “Rally Against Black Crime” in Kalamazoo in 2007, where he appeared with white nationalists the SPLC called “the worst of the worst.” To celebrate his win as delegate and protest the election of Barack Obama, Gray took to the streets the day after the election in full Klan regalia.
When Midland County Republican Chair Diane Bristol was informed of Gray’s KKK ties in 2008, she said “If, in fact, he’s associated with the KKK, (then) yes, it troubles me.”
The barrage of media reports must have convinced her and other executives in the county that Gray was associated with the KKK. On Nov. 20, the Midland County Republican Party Executive Committee passed a resolution that booted Gray from the party.
The events in Charlottesville surely horrified many Republicans, who have watched individuals like Bristow and Gray grow comfortable enough in their party to be far more open in expressing attitudes moderate – or just decent – party members find repellent. Perhaps this is a lesson for political entities on both sides of today’s pressing policy questions: Be careful what you wish for, and plant your garden with care.