The word “YAF” has crept into many MSU students’ vocabulary this year. It stands for Young Americans for Freedom, an organization made of some of MSU’s most conservative students. The campus chapter was founded in 2001, so it’s a relatively new group on campus. The group is pro-Coke, pro-MCRI, pro-life and supports increases in severity of laws affecting illegal immigrants – stances that make them stand out on a relatively liberal campus. The group’s Web site claims, “We’ve been described as the ‘green berets’ of the conservative movement, always out on the front battling the left where ever they are.” [scum]
With an e-mail membership of 50 to 60 members, chairman Kyle Bristow said about 30 of those members could be considered active, and around 20 people attend each event. YAF is comprised mostly of members with Libertarian or Republican political tendencies, although Bristow said conservative Democrats would be welcome to join any events or protests.
Bristow, who was elected chairman on March 16, spoke animatedly and excitedly about the political direction and actions taken on many controversial issues at MSU. As chairman, Bristow chose his board of officers: a procedure atypical of many other student organizations.
Considered a “reactionary” organization, Bristow said YAF has spent the year responding to the actions of other political and activist groups. “We kept track to see what liberal groups were up to,” Bristow said. “We are truly the only active conservative group on this campus. Next year, we will be much more active. ” There was no consistent meeting schedule this year, and members communicated primarily via the e-mail network. Bristow said he plans to create a bi-weekly meeting schedule for next semester, in order to create more consistency and further unite members.
Here’s a look at some of the hot topics circulating campus and what YAF has to say about them.
Killer Coke?
Protests against Coca-Cola products have been buoyed by the University of Michigan’s recent contract issues with Coke. The University of Michigan pulled its contract with Coca-Cola in January due to student allegations over human rights and environmental issues, but did eventually resume using Coca-Cola products.
Students for Economic Justice (SEJ) has been pushing for MSU to end its ties with Coke, a push that YAF is trying to counteract. SEJ is an MSU registered student organization working to support local, national, and international economic, labor rights and human rights issues. SEJ’s e-mail list reaches about 500 people, and the group has a core of 40 to 50 active members, said perennial SEJ member Tommy Simon.
The national “Killer Coke” campaign hinges on the allegations about murdered union leaders and workers in Coca-Cola bottling plants. The Web site (www.killercoke.org) includes a list of workers who have been killed, allegedly by paramilitary men working closely with bottling plants. The campaign has been in full force nationally for several years, and SEJ began openly protesting the use of Coca-Cola products after the MSU administration finally committed to joining the Worker Rights Consortium, or WRC, last fall.
After researching the history of the Coca-Cola company, SEJ is protesting its labor practices and supports allegations that Colombian union workers were intentionally murdered by people affiliated with Coke. SEJ submitted Freedom of Information Act requests to the university, asking for all documents detailing correspondence with Coca-Cola representatives. Members of SEJ are currently pressuring the administration to inspect Coca-Cola plants.
“We are fighting for institutional change for the social good,” Simon, a social relations and English junior, said. “With student pressure, I think [the MSU administration] will come around.” SEJ has been rallying and protesting around campus, urging students to pick up 2-liter bottles of Faygo soda for the next party and to boycott drinking Coke products in residence hall cafeterias.
YAF has tried to make their voices heard at anti-Coke rallies. “We are in favor of the free market,” said Mike Wolin, a political science junior and the YAF communications director. “The accusations against Coca-Cola are false. I personally can’t understand why SEJ is doing this.” [coke]
According to Bristow, YAF members wrote pro-Coke slogans in chalk on the sidewalks snaking around the Hannah Administration Building the evening before an SEJ protest (held on Feb. 21). The activists in Students for Economic Justice brought a root beer keg to the Administration Building to discourage the university’s ties with Coke products. The writing was erased by either SEJ members or MSU maintenance before the Killer Coke protest began. Bristow said these acts will only spur further reaction from the conservative end of the spectrum.
“The harder they push, the harder we push back,” said Bristow, who is an international relations freshman. “It boils down to the more active they are, the more active we are. We go after anyone that targets capitalism.”
SEJ’s activism includes trying to help people understand the allegations against Coke. An informational packet, which is 40 pages in length, is available on their Web site. These pages detail allegations against Coca-Cola, especially in the human rights domain, and Simon said a lot of information came from United Students Against Sweatshops.
Wolin said YAF is using testimony from union workers who support Coca-Cola to refute the claims of abuse. He said the organization is seeking to find the truth behind the Coca-Cola issue, although YAF cannot “muster up” the number of supporters that stand behind SEJ.
The YAF Web site claims that Coca-Cola is being targeted by SEJ because of the group’s “socialist mindset in which they preposterously think that all capitalistic companies are evil.” Bristow said the group does not believe the claims that the company is poisoning waters in India to make citizens buy Coca-Cola products, or that union leaders and workers are being assassinated.
According to Wolin, YAF has received testimony from union workers in Colombia that certain allegations are not true, specifically the ones about the hiring of paramilitary men to kill union leaders. “We received an e-mail from a Colombian union on April 10, thanking us for defending them,” Bristow said. “They invited us down to Colombia. They will e-mail us different things to distribute to show the lies SEJ is telling.”
They weren’t lies to Luis Cardona, a union worker from Colombia, who spoke on campus earlier in the semester. He was invited by SEJ due to his involvement with the Coca-Cola corporation, and Simon said he was there to speak about the allegations that union leaders have been murdered.
However, Bristow said the e-mail, from the Cocacolos Con La Verdad union in Colombia, specifically said these allegations are not true. Bristow said union leaders in Colombia have died, but the testimony from union workers does not support that Coca-Cola was behind the deaths. A video link on the YAF Web site includes the workers from this specific union providing testimonies in defense of Coke.
Bristow said YAF supports the idea of capitalism, spreading beyond the Coca-Cola corporation. “Whether they are a small business or a big business, that’s what we’re for,” Bristow said.
Joanna Varnavas, the lobbyist for YAF, said the group began researching the background of Coca-Cola and its labor practices after the initial suspension of the contract at the University of Michigan. The YAF reactions to the Coca-Cola protest at the Administration Building were positive actions for the group, said Varnavas, a professional writing senior.
“We like to show all sides of the square; it’s nice to have other people come and support us,” Varnavas said. “We were interested, [and] we thought, there can’t be just one voice. We were concerned for the labor work force. If they were to be banned from campus, there would be a loss of jobs.” Varnavas cited Kari Bjorhus, a Coca-Cola spokesperson, in speaking about the loss of jobs for union workers, bottlers and routers should the university choose to terminate its contract with the company. Bjorhus has spoken to several media outlets in support of the corporation.
An active member since February 2005, Varnavas said she has had to deal with opposing views regarding the Coca-Cola issue from personal friends. Varnavas said she was attracted to YAF because many topics and issues struck her interest, and she “kept staying interested.”
“I think we’ve stayed pretty steady throughout the years,” Varnavas said. “It’s a way for people to come together and discuss what they think about certain issues.”
The MCRI
The issue of affirmative action has been highly publicized around the East Lansing community, and the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, or MCRI, will be on the general ballot on Nov. 7. Once the MCRI landed on the ballot, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission asked the state Supreme Court to hear an appeal to the initiative. The commission was also investigating allegations of voter fraud, but the court denied hearing the appeal. Print articles and vocal debates have abounded on campus, and YAF has taken a stance in favor of the initiative. [yafmcri]
The MCRI proposes to amend the state law to say the following: “The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.” This definition, from the MCRI committee, will apply to Michigan colleges and universities, including the University of Michigan, Wayne State University and MSU.
Bristow said if the MCRI passes, people will not be discriminated against, either in a positive or negative way, due to their skin colors. “People will stop having race determine what happens to them,” Bristow said. “Cultures are the true diversity-not skin colors.” Critics argue that putting an end to affirmative action will not put an end to hundreds of years of institutionalized racism, and that people of color continually have to deal with race determining what happens to them.
The lively debate held in B-108 Wells Hall on March 28 was sponsored by the Residence Halls Association, or RHA, and brought in two figures to speak on opposite sides of the initiative. Tim Wise, author of The Future of Affirmative Action in Michigan: A Dialogue, spoke in opposition of the MCRI, while Carl Cohen, a University of Michigan philosophy professor, took the favoring side. YAF member Jeff Wiggins said he has protested Wise before, and he admired Cohen for speaking against a man who has previously lectured at many other institutions.
About 20 members of YAF attended the discussion, joining hundreds of other students and community members to fill the lecture room. Another group of about 20 students wore “NO MCRI” T-shirts to show their dissent for the ballot initiative.
Criminal justice senior Vic Maurer, who is opposed to the initiative, said it is necessary to provide avenues for men and women in arenas to which they are not stereotypically confined, such as male nurses or female scientists.
“Anything that preferentially benefits one sex could be cut,” Maurer said. This could include after school programs for girls in the math and sciences, sexual assault centers for women, or even certain health programs targeted at women. “The more voters learn about the initiative, the more people we will be able to swing for equal opportunity.”
Bristow said he was happy with the turnout at the event, and he believes Michigan residents will support the measure. “We were applauding and going crazy when everyone was silent,” Bristow said, chuckling during his recollection of the event.
“I think Mr. Cohen had a lot of validity,” Wiggins, a history junior, said. “I believe [the MCRI] will pass. Of course, the media will not portray it as something that will pass. That’s the key: leaving it up to the voters.”
YAF will continue to spread its message in favor of the MCRI as the election draws closer, Wolin said.
“The affirmative action that was started in the ‘60s and ‘70s is different than the affirmative action we have today,” said Luke Pelican, former YAF chairman and a political science and pre-law senior. “[This] will send a strong message to the nation that we are making change.”
Making ties
The national organization of YAF was founded in 1960 in Connecticut, and active chapters are found in Virginia and Michigan and along the East Coast. Plans are in the works for a national YAF convention next year, in addition to a conservative coming-out day on campus next semester. The membership of YAF grew this year due to an influx of members from the MSU College Republicans, Bristow said.
“YAF became more active this year because many members were in the College Republicans, and they were disappointed with College Republican election results,” Bristow said. “I am happy that people take interest in politics. I think it’s sad that soldiers fight in virtually every conflict for our freedom and so many people take that for granted.” On Bristow’s personal Weblog, the tagline under his name reads “Freedom Fighter.”
International relations junior Dave Coogan said the MSU College Republicans and YAF had some joint events this year, but the College Republicans focus more on endorsing political candidates.
“A lot of YAF members are members of the College Republicans,” said Coogan, the College Republicans second vice chair. “The ideals of the two groups are what they have in common. YAF is much more about taking a stand.”
YAF is at an advantage since the group is not held to political alliances, Pelican said. For example, the proposed illegal immigration legislation has caused divides among and between political parties. “We are an issue group; we’re not partisan,” Pelican said. “That gives us the freedom to take stands on issues.”
Coogan said YAF reflects the diverse opinions of MSU students, especially involving the highly-publicized issue of the MCRI. Coogan denounced the fact that RHA and ASMSU, the undergraduate student government, have both taken official stands in opposition of the measure.
“On an issue where RHA and ASMSU have taken a stand when they are supposed to be representing students, YAF is letting students know that there are other students that don’t agree with [these organizations],” Coogan said.
Wiggins, the recently-elected chairman of the MSU College Republicans, said the two groups will be working together next year, and the College Republicans will take a more active approach.
“The College Republicans weren’t putting forth much activism on campus,” Wiggins said. “On a campus that tends to be more liberal, activism is one of the best weapons we have.”
The organizations will stay distinct, although beliefs about certain issues may coincide, Wiggins said. “I’m sure I will support YAF on some of their issues; it depends on the issue,” Wiggins said.
Speaking out
YAF has also demonstrated in support of U.S. troops. On Veteran’s Day, YAF members protested an editorial cartoon by Mike Ramsey that was printed in The State News. Group members were joined by members of the College Republicans and other students who were offended by the political cartoon, showing a World War II veteran and a modern-day soldier speaking of torture camps.
“We understand freedom of speech and freedom of the press,” Pelican said. “We weren’t protesting Mike Ramsey so much as we were showing support for our troops and utilizing free speech for the free speech we disagree with. It opened our eyes to the ideological diversity on campus.”
In order to promote the conservative voice on campus, students developed the Spartan Sword, an online publication. On the Web site, details about rallies and protests are described, encouraging activism from the MSU conservative faction. YAF, MSU College Republicans and MSU Students for Life all contribute to the publication.“We want to have a way to not depend on The State News to convey our message,” Wiggins said.
Although the Spartan Sword is technically run by members of the College Republicans, Wolin said that as the communications director, he hopes to have more control over the publication next year. The publication has not been updated since January, and YAF hopes to assemble a staff of writers and editors to run the publication next fall. YAF may also release a double-sided newsletter periodically, also beginning in the fall. Press releases are currently sent out to the local media by YAF, Wolin said, although many news organizations choose not to publish them.
Their far-right-wing stances make them an atypical campus organization and their fierce and unrelenting re-activism sets them apart from other activist organizations. Beyond that, the only thing one can assume of YAF is that MSU has not heard the last of them yet.
For more information about YAF, please visit http://www.msu.edu/~yaf. Read up on events and protests from MSU’s conservative voice at http://www.spartansword.org. To find out more on SEJ and the allegations against Coca-Cola, visit http://www.msusej.org/.

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