WHITEFISH – Local residents turned out in droves Monday night at the Whitefish City Council meeting to decry a white separatist think-tank’s local residency and voice support for an anti-hate ordinance barring such groups from assembling in the community.
The grassroots demonstration was organized by Love Lives Here, a Flathead Valley affiliate of the Montana Human Rights Network, and comes on the heels of renewed publicity for the National Policy Institute, whose president, Richard B. Spencer, set up headquarters in Whitefish several years ago after moving from Washington, D.C.
The not-for-profit group bills itself as “an independent think-tank and publishing firm dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of European people in the United States and around the world,” and Spencer advocates “a White Ethno-State on the American continent.”
In 2006, the Southern Poverty Law Center named NPI one of the four leaders in the world of “academic racism.”
Spencer recently re-emerged in the public purview when he was arrested for 72 hours in Budapest, Hungary, and subsequently banned from the country and most of the European Union for three years after trying to hold a conference expressing the group’s views.
In the wake of the renewed publicity, dozens of Whitefish residents banded together and packed the council chambers Monday night, urging council members to enact an ordinance barring hate-group activities in the community.
Organized by civil rights activist and local Rabbi Allen Secher, and his wife, Ina Albert, the residents offered emotional testimony in an effort to “pass a no-hate ordinance so that hate organizations cannot do business in our town,” Albert said.
One Whitefish resident said he and his partner chose the community of Whitefish in large part because of its kind and accepting nature, and the views of groups like NPI are alarming.
“As a gay couple, we chose to have our commitment ceremony in Whitefish because it is so accepting,” he said. “I would hope that we do our best to encourage Richard Spencer to conduct his business elsewhere.”
More than two dozen residents voiced their support for such an ordinance. They were local builders, business owners, former council members, mayoral candidates, attorneys, pastors, mental health professionals and community advocates.
“This isn’t about one individual, it is about a way of thinking that is despicable,” said Brian Muldoon, a Whitefish attorney. “This community I believe is standing up strongly against the kinds of ideas that Richard Spencer and his ilk promotes … and it is time to deconstruct the ideas that are so insidious. It is time to take a very clear stance. An unambiguous one.”
Many in attendance spoke of their Jewish faith, including Hilary Shaw, executive director of the Abbie Shelter, whose grandfather is a Holocaust survivor.
“My grandfather taught me that diversity makes us more beautiful. I do not want Richard Spencer to conduct National Policy Institute business freely in our town,” she said. “I am here to ask you to stop he and others who share those beliefs from doing business in our town.”
At the end of the hour-long public testimony period, Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld explained the procedural steps the council would have to take to consider such a measure, including advertising a hearing, receiving a planning board recommendation, and holding two council hearings for public comment.
“We will respond decisively, and I think we have multiple tools in our toolbox to consider this,” he said.
Similar anti-hate or anti-discrimination ordinances have been passed in other local communities, though infringing on First Amendment rights is an issue.
At the end of the lengthy, dramatic testimony, council member Richard Hildner offered his own emotional comment in support of some countermeasure to local “hate groups.”
“Hate, racism, and bigotry are not community values in Whitefish and I promise you that I will do everything in my power to protect the city of Whitefish from racism, bigotry and prejudice,” Hildner said. “I want you to know that you have my pledge.”
Spencer’s presence is not the first time that a fringe group has found purchase in the Flathead Valley, or made headlines. Both Secher and Albert referred in their testimony to a spate of Holocaust-denial films shown publicly in the Flathead Valley in 2009 and 2010. The events were organized by well-known white supremacists seeking to transform the valley into a bastion for those who share white separatist ideologies.
The films prompted the formation of Love Lives Here.
“I love this town. I adore it and I want to keep adoring it,” Secher told the council. “Let’s not even open the door to this guy.”