On March 5, as many as 500 antifascists converged on the campus of Michigan State University in East Lansing to protest a speech by white supremacist golden boy Richard Spencer. The protesters — including MSU students, campus workers, antifa organizers, and people from surrounding towns — outnumbered those who had come to hear Spencer speak by an order of magnitude.
White nationalists were also vastly outnumbered by cops. According to a police document obtained by The Intercept, there were more than 200 cops on hand for the event, from eight different jurisdictions. In addition, there were nine “undercover” officers dispersed throughout the crowd, including two from the MSU Police Department.
The use of undercover police at large protests — especially those involving anarchists — is commonplace. Police in unconvincing antifa drag have become a regular feature of recent antifascist protests around the country. An April 2016 analysis by the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI described the rising threat of “anarchist extremists” and warned that they would become more lethal if “fascist, nationalist, racist, or anti-immigrant parties obtain greater prominence or local political power in the United States.” MSU’s response to the Spencer event is yet another indication of law enforcement’s preoccupation with antifascist dissent.
“We are disappointed, but not exactly surprised, that MSU would resort to undercover surveillance of its own students,” said Jonas Higbee, an MSU sophomore and member of the university’s Young Democratic Socialists of America chapter, who helped coordinate the “Stop Spencer MSU” coalition. “We tried to make our organizing for this event as open and inviting as possible. It’s frustrating that the police took advantage of that to spy on students and community members.”
MSU officials confirmed that there were officers on-site working “undercover,” but denied that their actions amounted to “surveillance.” MSU has strict regulations regarding undercover surveillance of student groups that were implemented after a high-profile infiltration of a student group was exposed 17 years ago.
“The MSU Police Department does not conduct undercover surveillance of student groups, and this was no exception,” MSU spokesperson Emily Guerrant told The Intercept. “MSU PD’s goal on March 5 was to protect the First Amendment Rights of all participants and provide a safe environment for the event. Undercover surveillance was not part of our response.”
“Any intelligence gathered for the event was open-sourced and available to the general public.”
In an email exchange with The Intercept, Guerrant emphasized the distinction between a police officer clandestinely infiltrating a student organization, which would meet the university’s definition of “undercover surveillance,” and an undercover officer merely attending a protest, which does not. “Any intelligence gathered for the event was open-sourced and available to the general public,” Guerrant said.
MSU student organizers were not altogether reassured by the administration’s explanation. “That seems like an arbitrary distinction,” said Erin Connolly, an MSU senior, Young Democratic Socialists of America member, and media coordinator for the “Stop Spencer” MSU coalition. “It feels like another effort by this administration to evade responsibility.”
The massive police presence at the event exacerbated tensions that were already running high. As Spencer’s supporters — including a battle-ready contingent from the neo-Nazi Traditionalist Workers Party — arrived, antifascists locked arms in a human chain that stretched across the length of a parking lot in front of the Pavilion for Agriculture and Livestock Education, where Spencer was set to speak. Periodic fights broke out, as antifascists sought to physically prevent white nationalists from entering the venue. According to MSU police, four cops were injured and 25 people were arrested, 13 for felonies. As one attendee put it, a daylong game of “fash vs. antifash red rover” ensued. By all accounts, including Spencer’s, the antifascists won.
Those white nationalists who did make it inside the pavilion — numbering around 30 — did so with the help of police escorts, according to videos posted to social media and interviews with activists who were on the ground. Dozens of police officers sporting full riot gear and carrying wooden batons lined the sides of the road leading to the venue. SWAT teams emerged from military-style armored vehicles. Cops on horseback and bicycle patrolled the area. Police initially took a hands-off approach, allowing skirmishes to break out between masked antifa and Spencer supporters sporting white supremacist insignia. As more white nationalists arrived, police sought to separate the two groups — often unsuccessfully.
In at least one instance, police used their bicycles to shove a crowd of protestors chanting “Nazis go home.” In video from the clash recorded by HuffPost’s Christopher Mathias, a protester can be heard yelling, “You’re hurting people! You’re hurting people!” as a Michigan State police officer repeatedly shoves his bike into the protesters’ bodies. One demonstrator holds a sign that reads, “Hate has no place on my campus.”
“They weren’t pointing their guns at the Nazis. They were pointing them at us.”
“It really didn’t feel like the police were there to protect us,” said Connolly, who used a pseudonym because she fears online harassment as a result of being a vocal antifascist organizer. “They weren’t hitting the Nazis with their bikes. They weren’t pointing their guns at the Nazis. They were pointing them at us.”
Connolly told The Intercept she believed the police show of force was intended to intimidate the antifascist protesters. Around 10:30 a.m., police prevented organizers from setting up port-a-potties in the parking lot in anticipation of the hourslong protest ahead of Spencer’s 4:30 p.m. speech. At least two of those arrested were later charged with public urination. “Their idea was, ‘We’re just going to scare them and make them uncomfortable until they leave,’” Connolly said.
But they stayed put. “We showed up to protect our community from these Nazis, because the university and the police wouldn’t,” Connolly said.
The Intercept obtained a nine-page document listing the names of police officers, and their platoon and squad assignments for the day. The roster lists the names of approximately 250 cops, including nine listed as “undercover officers.” The MSU Police Department did not respond to multiple requests for comment, including questions that would confirm the authenticity of the document, but comments from the university and open-source information confirm much of the information it contains. Guerrant, the university spokesperson who confirmed the presence of undercover officers, said she communicated with the police department in preparing her response for this article. Though many of the cops are identified only by their last names, The Intercept independently verified that 208 of the officers listed are police affiliated with the agencies that partook in the police response.
According to an MSU police press release from March 6, officers from eight different law enforcement agencies were involved in the response, including the MSU Police Department, Michigan State Police, Lansing Police Department, East Lansing Police Department, Meridian Township Police Department, Eaton County Sheriff’s Office, Clinton County Sheriff’s Office, and Ingham County Sheriff’s Office. These agencies match the jurisdictions of officers identified in the leaked document.
The largest group of officers accounted for in the document was 88 from the Michigan State Police; most of them were split between two platoons: “Disorder Response” and “Reserve.”
There were also two SWAT teams: the Ingham Regional Special Response Team, composed of officers from MSU and other local police departments and referred to by its acronym, IRSRT, in the document; and the Special Tactics and Rescue Team, a division of the Lansing Police Department known as START. Both came equipped with BEARCAT armored vehicles — 9-ton, bulletproof monstrosities used to transport SWAT teams to and from hostile situations — which can be seen looming among the protesters in photos from the demonstration. One of the vehicles had “Michigan State University Police” printed on the side. BEARCAT, manufactured by Massachusetts-based Lenco Industries, stands for Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack Truck.
Because people from outside the MSU community attended the protest, it would have been difficult to spot an unfamiliar face in the crowd.
The nine officers listed as “undercover” on the manifest hail from MSU campus police, Michigan State Police, and the Ingham County Sheriff’s Office, as well as two officers from the Department of Correction’s Absconder Recovery Unit (which hunts for fugitives). What exactly these undercover agents were doing during the protest remains unclear. None of the six protest attendees who spoke to The Intercept personally identified any undercover or plainclothes cops during the protest; because people from outside the MSU community attended the protest, and many protesters wore masks to conceal their identities, it would have been difficult to spot an unfamiliar face in the crowd.
The use of undercover police to surveil antifascist and anarchist movements has been common practice for decades. “The U.S. government, especially FBI, has always been preoccupied with policing anti-state and anti-capitalist movements,” said Michael Loadenthal, a visiting assistant professor of sociology at Miami University whose work explores the history of surveilling social movements. “But since the late ’80s, their approach has shifted from the more lethal and heavy-handed tactics embodied in the COINTELPRO era, to more clandestine, long-term infiltration.”
Take, for example, the prosecution of the dozens of people arrested during protests against Donald Trump’s inauguration, known collectively as the “J20 defendants.” While the government failed to convict the first six defendants it tried and later dropped charges against an additional 129 defendants, 59 people still face prison for their connections to the January 20, 2017 protest. Their cases rely on the testimony of Bryan Adelmeyer, an undercover D.C. cop who attended “Disrupt J20” planning meetings. Adelmeyer’s job, he testified, was to investigate the concerns of the “anti-establishment community.”
In the next trial of five J20 defendants scheduled for April 17, prosecutors intend to call an expert witness who worked for years as an “undercover agent in the anarchist extremist movement.” According to court documents, she previously infiltrated anti-G20 protests in Pittsburg in 2009 and Occupy Wall Street.
MSU has a troubled history with the use of undercover cops to surveil student political activity. In the spring of 2001, Students for Economic Justice, the MSU affiliate of the United Students Against Sweatshops, known as USAS, discovered that it had been infiltrated by an undercover MSU police officer. Officer Jamie Gonzalez had introduced herself to the group — at its very first meeting — as “Samantha Volare,” claiming to be an MSU junior studying elementary education. Gonzalez proceeded to attend Students for Economic Justice meetings for almost a year before activists spotted her in full uniform and made her identity public.
Administrators said at the time they had authorized the surveillance in anticipation of a commencement visit from World Bank President James Wolfensohn.
In September 2001, in response to backlash over the scandal, the MSU Board of Trustees adopted a resolution outlining regulations for the use of undercover surveillance against student groups. The resolution forbids undercover surveillance except under “extraordinary circumstances,” defined 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.
The university did not follow this protocol with regard to the Spencer event, Guerrant explained, because only “active infiltration” of a student organization meets the university’s definition of “undercover surveillance.”
“If you want to call the officers on site that day ‘undercover’ that’s ok with us, and accurate.”
“If you want to call the officers on site that day ‘undercover’ that’s ok with us, and accurate,” Guerrant wrote in an email to The Intercept. “It’s when you start talking about surveillance that that definition changes.”
This linguistic play, which allows the university to skirt its own rules, is “convenient,” said Connolly of Stop Spencer MSU.
To be sure, the Stop Spencer MSU coalition was not composed entirely of students. The antifascist groups Redneck Revolt and Solidarity and Defense were both partners. Student activists at MSU prioritized reaching out to the broader Lansing and East Lansing public as well. “We wanted to make the protest as accessible as possible to as many different people as possible,” said Higbee. They held two public teach-ins at local libraries and made their meetings open to the public.
But the involvement of outsiders does not invalidate the school’s procedures for undercover surveillance. The MSU resolution explicitly states that the regulations apply to registered, as well as unregistered, student organizations. “In other words,” the resolution reads, “the recommendations apply to student organizations as broadly understood.” The Young Democratic Socialists of America, which played a central role in the Stop Spencer coalition‚ is a registered student group.
“The main purpose of the recommendations,” the resolution reads, “is to protect individual liberties in the context of political and social activism.”
The evidence of political spying is another blow to the already crumbling trust between MSU administration and a student body still reeling from the trial of Larry Nassar, the USA Gymnastics team doctor and MSU osteopath who was convicted last year of molesting seven girls, and has been accused of sexual abuse by at least 250 girls and young women.
On Tuesday, Nassar’s former boss, William Strampel, was charged with sexually assaulting female students. MSU President Lou Anna Simon resigned amid the Nassar scandal in January. Since then, the university has been led by interim president and former Republican Gov. John Engler. Upon accepting the job, Engler said, “I give my commitment to do everything in my power to fix the situation, protect our students, repair the damage to MSU, and plot a course forward so we can all hold our head up high and call ourselves Spartans.”
The MSU Police Department reports to the president.
“It’s so ridiculous and frustrating to me, as a student, to know the university and university police see me as a threat, as someone who needs to be watched, when they couldn’t keep us safe from a serial rapist for 25 years,” Connolly said.
In an odd twist, multiple students told The Intercept they spotted Detective Lt. Andrea Munford — an MSU special victims unit officer who has received glowing praise of late for her role in bringing Nassar to justice — wearing full riot gear at the protest. The leaked police manifest indicates that Munford served as one of the leaders of the “Charlie” platoon, which patrolled the parking area during the protest.
“It was shocking to see someone supposedly committed to ending violence at MSU in full riot gear, escorting white supremacists into the speech with pepper spray and baton in hand,” an MSU staffer and member of the Stop Spencer coalition told The Intercept.
Max Alvarez, a co-founder of the antifascist network at University of Michigan who also attended the Spencer protest at MSU, said the use of undercover cops highlights the necessity of building solidarity and trust among antifascist activists. “Police scrutiny is more or less an inescapable part of this kind of organizing. The success of the MSU protest demonstrates the importance of showing up and being involved, not just on the day, but in the days and months before. Only then can we trust each other enough not to be undermined by infiltration.”