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Antifascist Spies on East Texas Nazi Conference with Drone

A veteran's surveillance of the Aryan Freedom Network prompted a lawsuit filed by a notorious lawyer for the far right, Jason Lee Van Dyke.

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Update December 6, 2022: AFN dropped the lawsuit against Kris Goldsmith and Task Force Butler Institute.

On a warm October day, a series of cars pulled into a gas station in De Kalb, a town two hours to the east of Dallas, to ask for directions. But they weren’t lost travelers. They’d been told to meet there as a waypoint for their real destination: a conference organized by the Aryan Freedom Network (AFN), a neo-Nazi organization based in Texas.

The conference’s location wasn’t particularly inconspicuous. Around four dozen cars were parked at a house with a large Confederate flag flying outside just down the road from the gas station. In 2021, AFN held a similarly advertised conference in Longview. While the announcement of their plans drew condemnation from the city council and active precautions by local law enforcement in advance of the gathering, the location was never discovered. But this time, things were different.

Unbeknownst to the AFN conference organizers and attendees, members of the nonprofit Task Force Butler Institute (TFBI) had infiltrated AFN’s digital spaces by passing the neo-Nazi’s vetting procedures and were sitting nearby in an RV. They’d come prepared with an aerial drone so they could identify attendees and map out the neo-Nazi network without putting any of their members at risk. 

A camera films a tablet screen where footage of a drone flight above a parking lot full of parked trucks and cars is visible.
Kris Goldsmith of Task Force Butler Institute used a drone to spy on the Aryan Freedom Network conference. Twitter/@KrisGoldsmith, screenshot

“What we do is we seek to investigate and expose these folks who are causing harm to vulnerable individuals, communities, and toward democracy at large,” said Kris Goldsmith, founder and CEO of TFBI. “And impose social and economic costs on fascists.” 

Goldsmith, an Army combat veteran-turned-antifascist researcher, formed TFBI to recruit, train, and work with veterans to research and expose fascist groups across the country. Goldsmith and his team leverage the skills and experiences they built in the military to do work they see as the historical legacy of the organization’s namesake, United States Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler, who helped reveal and oppose a planned fascist coup in 1934. And when they use the word fascist, they aren’t being hyperbolic.

“I’m not calling Republicans Nazis,” Goldsmith said in an interview with the Texas Observer. “I’m talking about people who consider themselves to be National Socialists, walking around with a swastika flag, burning a swastika in their backyard, and using an Israeli flag as a doormat for the tent at their conference, all of which we have on video.”

Indeed, AFN is an openly neo-Nazi organization with links to dozens of KKK chapters and white supremacist outfits around the nation. AFN is led by Dalton Henry Stout and his father, who had previously run a KKK affiliate known as the Church of the KKK. Some of their members have been spotted at anti-LGTBQ+ protests organized by Kelly Neidert, the controversial leader of Protect Texas Kids, with whom notorious lawyer for the far-right, Jason Lee Van Dyke, incidentally met in early 2022, as we reported in The Daily Beast.

Legal letters seeking testimony from far-right figures like Enrique Tarrio, Stewart Rhodes and Jason Lee Van Dyke.
Jason Lee Van Dyke was among several far-right figures that received subpoenas from the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol. AP Photo/Jon Elswick

The day after the AFN conference on October 22, Goldsmith posted some of the drone video on Twitter, announcing the success of their infiltration. Within days, they were hit with a lawsuit filed on behalf of Stout, who owns the property and was a key organizer of the neo-Nazi conference. The lawsuit was filed by none other Van Dyke, who was once a member of the Proud Boys and has recently been retained to represent members of the neo-fascist group Patriot Front. In addition to seeking damages, it alleges that Goldsmith and his team broke the law by using a drone to fly over and film private property. 

Stout’s chances in court are unclear. The filing acknowledges that a recent decision, Nat’l Press Photographers Ass’n v. McCraw, ruled certain anti-drone surveillance laws in Texas unconstitutional, and that “there is no Texas appellate court precedent on any question concerning the extent to which Texas property owners have control of the airspace above their land to the extent necessary to prevent invasions of their privacy.” Nevertheless, the filing argues there are precedents from other jurisdictions that could provide grounds for a suit.  

Van Dyke responded to questions about the lawsuit via email. He said the case was a referral “either by another lawyer or another client,” but would not specify further. He also insisted he has “nothing to do with the Aryan Freedom Network” and that the case is not ideological but purely about privacy rights. 

“The type of event we are talking about here is irrelevant,” Van Dyke said. “If I invited a judge to a Thanksgiving dinner where I am frying a turkey in my backyard, it wouldn’t give [sic] a journalist to walk into my backyard with a video camera and start recording. That is what this case is about. Nothing else.” 

“I’m not at all surprised to find that Jason Lee Van Dyke’s also associated with the Aryan Freedom Network … But I am surprised that he’s still associated with the State Bar of Texas.”

Representation of a member of the Aryan Freedom Network court is just one instance in a long line of far-right legal battles for Van Dyke in the past two decades. In the early 2000s, Van Dyke was ousted from Michigan State University on assault and weapons charges. Shortly after, he aided white-nationalist lawyer Kyle Bristow in forming a student group labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center: Michigan State Young Americans for Freedom. In 2017, he joined the neo-fascist street gang the Proud Boys following years of embittered legal battles with a man named Thomas Retzlaff over accusations of his involvement with white-nationalist organizations and the loss of his job. During his tenure with the group, Van Dyke served as the Proud Boys’ lawyer and leader for a short period. In 2020 he allegedly attempted to murder Retzlaff with an Arizona chapter of the Proud Boys, according to documents from a police department in Oak Point. Van Dyke also attempted to join the neo-Nazi organization The Base, but was denied entry according to an article in VICE. In December of 2021, Retzlaff was found stabbed to death in the neck in his home in Arizona. Van Dyke has repeatedly denied any accusations of involvement and there is no evidence at this time to conclude who committed the murder. Most recently, Texas court documents have revealed Van Dyke to be representing two members of the fascist group Patriot Front, and leaked chats from the group indicate Van Dyke may be a member of the group himself. 

“Considering Jason Lee Van Dyke’s well-documented history of making violent threats and affiliation with violent, criminal extremist gangs including the Proud Boys and Patriot Front, and his attempt to join the terrorist organization The Base, I’m not at all surprised to find that he’s also associated with the Aryan Freedom Network,” Goldsmith told the Observer. “But I am surprised that he’s still associated with the State Bar of Texas and Marsala Law Group.”

Meanwhile, Stout has used the lawsuit as an occasion to fundraise toward a goal of $100,000 to fund his fight against Goldsmith. But even though Goldsmith is the defendant in the case, he makes it clear that playing defense isn’t his goal.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re playing chess or football or fighting in a war,” Goldsmith says. “If your strategy is to just play defense, you’re going to lose, right? So the Task Force Butler Institute is playing offense against fascism.”