This holiday season, the city of Whitefish was blanketed in snow and bedecked in its annual holiday array of festive lights when it found itself in an unlikely and unwanted position — the target of harassment and intimidation by a throng of white supremacists.
The rapid succession of events unfolded almost entirely online, beginning with a campaign of harassment against members of the local Jewish community who live and own businesses here, and culminating in a neo-Nazi website’s vow to organize an armed march through the streets of Whitefish. The website — The Daily Stormer — called its actions an “old fashioned troll storm.”
But the local and statewide response has been deeply visceral while fear of retaliation has crept through the community.
Still, residents of all stripes have banded together in a unified front, not of opposition but of solidarity. In the face of harassment and threats of violence, they have held Hanukkah celebrations and vigils in the streets while business owners have hung paper menorahs in their storefronts as widespread symbols of support and of the community’s spirit of inclusion.
City leaders have taken a firm stance against the harassment, decrying the ugliness of the hate-filled messages that spread through social media, targeting businesses and individuals and striking fear in local Jewish leaders.
Last week, Montana’s elected officials, including the governor, attorney general, both U.S. senators and its lone congressman, condemned the anti-Semitic and white-nationalistic views that have tormented the town, telling its residents that, “rest assured, any demonstration or threat of intimidation against any Montanan’s religious liberty will not be tolerated.”
“We stand firmly together to send a clear message that ignorance, hatred and threats of violence are unacceptable and have no place in the town of Whitefish, or in any other community in Montana or across this nation,” the officials wrote in an open letter. “We say to those few who seek to publicize anti-Semitic views that they shall find no safe haven here.”
The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes also joined in condemning “hatred and bigotry.” The tribes issued a statement saying they stand with Montana’s elected leaders in sending a clear message that “ignorance, hatred and threats of violence are unacceptable and have no place in the town of Whitefish, or in any other community in Montana or across this nation.”
Meanwhile, a flurry of national media attention has swirled around one man and his tenuous relationship to Whitefish — Richard Spencer, a part-time Whitefish resident who has emerged as the leader of a white nationalist movement called the “alt-right,” and whose racist brand of ideology has been publicly renounced in a mayoral proclamation describing his views as “a direct affront to our community’s core values and principles.”
Spencer’s self-aggrandizing claims that his vision of a white ethno-state has gained ground in the wake of President-elect Donald Trump’s ascendancy has more than piqued the media’s interest, giving him and his National Policy Institute a lofty platform even as Trump disavowed the movement in an interview with the New York Times.
National news articles and viral videos have opened the flue to the firebox, and the groundswell of unwanted attention shocked Whitefish residents who watched in horror as their town was referenced in connection to Spencer and the alt-right.
When accusations surfaced online that a local realtor had pressured Spencer’s mother, Sherry Spencer, to sell her Whitefish real estate venture in order to divert protests by human rights advocates, the publisher of The Daily Stormer, Andrew Anglin, commenced the “troll storm.”
Anglin said he planned to organize an armed march in Whitefish for the second week of January. The march would be “against Jews, Jewish businesses and everyone who supports either,” Anglin wrote.
He has since entertained the notion that he would call off the march.
Spencer, who is not affiliated with The Daily Stormer, said he’d had “vague contact” with Anglin but did not support a march or the “troll storm” targeting Whitefish residents and businesses.
“If I’d known that was coming, I would have said steer clear,” Spencer told the Beacon.
Spencer posted a YouTube video on Dec. 30 titled “Let’s End This” that he said was addressed to the community of Whitefish, which includes a majority of people who would “like it to end.”
“Well, I’d like it to end, too,” he said in the video.
He continued, “I do not want to make Whitefish the center of white nationalism or whatever you want to call it … We need to get over this. This is over. Let’s end it.”
According to the local human rights advocacy group Love Lives Here, the Daily Stormer posts have unleashed a torrent of harassment against local businesses and community members, including threats of violence via social media, phone calls and emails.
Officials with the Whitefish Police Department are monitoring the situation. The communication is mostly coming from Internet accounts on the East Coast and nothing illegal has occurred locally, according to authorities.
Whitefish Police Chief Bill Dial said his department has received a significant amount of inquiries about the potential march in Whitefish, along with residents expressing concern and anxiety.
Dial said his department is working with federal and county law enforcement authorities to devise a plan if the armed march does occur.
“I’m hoping for the best, planning for the worst,” he said.
“If they do come, we’re just hoping it’s a peaceful march. I’m sure there will be those protesting at the same time.”
He added, “It’s our job to make sure we keep the community safe, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
City Manager Chuck Stearns said earlier this week that the city had not received an application for an event permit.
Meanwhile, the idea for an event to celebrate Whitefish’s inclusivity sprung forth when two locals began discussing how discouraged they’d become with the increased news coverage, both locally and nationally, of the white supremacist groups and the attention paid to Spencer.
Jessica Laferriere, 34, and Dominica Cleveras, 33, grew determined to prove that white nationalists and neo-Nazi groups did not define the community they loved, so they hatched a plan for a communitywide celebration of diversity and acceptance of all people regardless of their ethnicity, religious beliefs, gender and gender identification, physical abilities and socio-economic status.
The event is called “Love Not Hate.”
“We were feeling so discouraged because these extremists were dominating the news cycle but represent such a small fraction of the population,” Laferriere said. “It has been heartbreaking to see the attacks on the Jewish community and our beloved businesses in town, but the community has really rallied behind those individuals and showed an outpouring of support.”
The Jan. 7 block party to celebrate diversity and take a stand against racism and other forms of oppression begins at 10:30 a.m. between Depot Park and the O’Shaughnessy Center in downtown Whitefish. It will feature performances by Blackfeet singer and storyteller Jack Gladstone and his daughter, Mariah Gladstone, as well as remarks by Whitefish City Councilor Richard Hildner, Mennonite Pastor Jeryl Hollinger and Hilary Shaw, executive director of the Abbie Shelter.
For more information about the “Love Not Hate” event, visit https://www.facebook.com/events/169186313551133/.