WHITEFISH — Calls for a non-discrimination ordinance erupted here in November 2014, when a tide of community members asked the city council to take a stand against bigotry, hatred and prejudice by enacting a “no-hate ordinance.”
Local residents turned out in droves to advocate for the ordinance, saying it was in keeping with Whitefish’s spirit of inclusiveness. The wave of support was prompted in large part by news that a white nationalist think-tank was headquartered here, and in hopes that an anti-hate ordinance would bar such groups from assembling in the community.
Citing concerns about First Amendment rights violations, the Whitefish City Council stopped short of adopting legislation aimed at “hate organizations,” but on Dec. 1, 2014, it unanimously passed a resolution supporting diversity and tolerance in the community.
In March, the council took a more aggressive step toward protecting and promoting diversity in the community when it adopted a non-discrimination ordinance, extending unmet civil rights protections to residents based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
But in the weeks leading up to and following Donald Trump’s Election Day victory, the leader of the Whitefish-based think-tank, Richard B. Spencer, has again gained prominence in national and local headlines, particularly as Trump’s views opposing immigration have emboldened the so-called “alt-right” movement.
The alt-right’s ideology — a mix of racism and white nationalism — has sprung into the nation’s collective consciousness as its members and affiliates celebrate the election results, and none more jubilantly than Spencer, even as Trump disavowed the alt-right movement in an interview with the New York Times.
Spencer divides his time between his residence in Whitefish, where his think-tank the National Policy Institute is registered, and Arlington, Virginia, although he says he is distancing himself from Whitefish to promote his views from a larger platform.
He is credited with popularizing the alt-right movement, but as scores of media profiles have sprung up on national news outlets, citing Whitefish as Spencer’s part-time home, local community members are eager to set the record straight that racist ideology is not part of the community mindset.
“Our community cannot be defined by one person’s extreme ideologies,” Mayor John Muhlfeld said. “As mayor let me assure you, all are welcome in Whitefish. It’s the people who live and work in Whitefish every day, those who run local businesses and volunteer their time to help make our town better, that represent our shared sense of community values.”
Looking back on the past two years, residents and city representatives who were instrumental in adopting the resolution affirmed their commitment to diversity.
“I was very proud of Whitefish that day,” said Councilor Frank Sweeney, who moved to adopt the resolution. “The chamber was packed with people and citizen after citizen spoke out in favor of the measure. In essence, our community was collectively saying that ‘all are welcome in Whitefish.’”
Members of Love Lives Here, a nonprofit organization committed to creating caring and welcoming communities throughout the Flathead, led the charge on the 2014 Resolution and continue to play an active role in organizing against hate-based extremism in the area.
On Dec. 9, the group will “Celebrate the Light,” to honor the coinciding of Christmas and Chanukah on the same day for only the fourth time in the last century.
“Whitefish is blessed to have dedicated faith leaders that are committed to bringing light to the darkness,” Ina Albert, a founder of Love Lives Here, said. “Separatism can only grow if the soil is receptive to prejudice. Truth, love and kindness will always win out if our community can find ways to accept and validate each others’ liberties and freedoms.”
Love Lives Here is also encouraging local businesses to display “Love Lives Here” signs in their store windows to show their patrons that Whitefish businesses support a diverse and unified community based on mutual respect.