WHITEFISH — With the sun dipping behind the mountains girding Whitefish Lake, a crowd gathered in silence on the church lawn, a mix of faith, race and age braided together for a singular purpose — espouse love, stand up to hate.
As the scattered light cast a golden hue over the 150 community members, city leaders, school children, and activists, many of them in tears, everyone took care to pause and remember why they were here, sitting on the cool grass in the shadow of their beloved Big Mountain.
The tragic events that unfolded last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a white supremacist rally turned deadly after a man drove his car into a throng of counter-protesters, stirred up unpleasant memories for the mountain-town community of Whitefish. Residents here are still tending to wounds inflicted last winter, when white supremacists orchestrated an anti-Semitic trolling campaign against several Jewish families and a host of local businesses, threatening to stage an armed march through these garland-festooned streets, where the Whitefish Winter Carnival was underway.
Some members of the crowd wondered what might have happened had the march occurred, if it might have mirrored the gut-wrenching tragedy in Charlottesville, while others praised the community’s resolve to stand up against hate.
“This town set the dream,” said Rabbi Allen Secher, a longtime civil-rights activist whose family was targeted by the troll storm. “This town was beyond special. This town said, ‘not in our town,’ and we felt embraced. All of us.”
Secher is a member of the nonprofit Love Lives Here, a group that organized the Aug. 15 vigil, and whose members became the unsuspecting targets of a neo-Nazi campaign that unleashed an onslaught of anonymous Internet threats, phone calls and hate mail.
Bearing the brunt of the hateful, threatening torrent was Tanya Gersh, a Whitefish realtor who is now suing Andrew Anglin, the man who incited the “tsunami of threats” on his white nationalist website, the “Daily Stormer.”
Anglin launched the threats in response to perceived pressures he alleged Gersh placed on Sherry Spencer, a Whitefish resident and mother to white nationalist leader Richard Spencer, to sell her office building — a claim Gersh denies.
In a letter from Gersh, read to the crowd by Love Lives Here Chairman Will Randall, she described the wave of terror that swept over her family as she became the recipient of a deluge of personal threats, attacks and sustained harassment.
“The proposed march on Whitefish is haunting me,” she wrote in the letter. “Out of precaution my family packed our bags and fled town, reminiscent of what my relatives did in Russia and Poland during the war.”
Gersh said the community’s support in response to the threats had a profound effect on her family’s ability to return to their lives, but they all suffer from residual fear, exacerbated by events like that which took place in Charlottesville.
Speaking on behalf of the city of Whitefish, which last December passed an official proclamation repudiating racism and bigotry, City Councilor Richard Hildner denounced the hatred and intolerance swirling around the events in both Charlottesville and Whitefish.
“I want to say clearly to all of you, to all of Whitefish and to all of the people of the United States of America, we condemn racism, bigotry, Nazism, hate, white supremacy in all its forms,” Hildner said. “These are not our community values, these are not the community values of Charlottesville and these are not the community values of our nation. And we stand arm in arm, side by side with the people of Charlottesville.”
Rachel Carroll Rivas, co-director of the Montana Human Rights Network, said seven vigils have taken place statewide since the turbulence last weekend, empowering communities that have been made to feel vulnerable as white nationalist groups and members of the so-called “alt-right,” which is a white nationalist movement, are increasingly emboldened.
“These are incredibly important because they point out our connectivity as people and serve as a reminder that racism and bigotry is not just an issue in the south or in Virginia,” she said. “We have to confront racism and bigtry here, too.”
Gospel songs like “We Shall Overcome” and “This Little Light of Mine” rang out in the dying light, and while organizer Mary Wellemeyer noted that candles were prohibited due to fire restrictions and dry conditions, “we all have flames within us.”
Following the program, community members queued up before the podium and, one-by-one, selected a flower from a collection of vases and pledged their commitment to fight hatred.
“Love will surely cast out hate,” Secher said.
“I will teach other children to love people who are different,” said 9-year-old Neva Shilling, who said she was compelled to speak because she’s witnessed bullying against her peers.
Attendees filled out stacks of postcards sitting on a row of tables with messages of support to Charlottesville residents, which Love Lives Here organizers will send to faith leaders and city officials.
On Aug. 19, the second semi-annual block party organized by the group Love Not Hate will take place at The Coop in Columbia Falls, featuring speakers, performers, music and food. The event begins at 4 p.m.
The event is organized by Jessica Laferriere and Dominica Cleveras, two local women who grew determined to prove that white nationalists and neo-Nazi groups do not define the community they loved. They threw their first block party in January, drawing hundreds of people outdoors in the bitter cold to celebrate diversity and inclusion.
The event was organized well in advance of the tragic events in Charlottesville, but Laferriere said the basic tenets of the party are relevant to the recent violence.
“We want to promote inclusion, diversity and democracy,” she said.
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