How Richard Spencer’s hometown weathered a neo-Nazi ‘troll storm’

An onslaught of antisemitic harassment descended upon the residents of Whitefish, a small Montana ski town, for taking a stand against the ‘alt-right’ racist in their midst. Then came the threat of a 200-person armed march 

by Lois Beckett in Whitefish, Montana / The Guardian / February 5, 2017

 

On a bitterly cold afternoon, the residents of a Montana ski town waited to see if armed neo-Nazis would show up to march through their streets.

Whitefish, a tiny town of 7,000 people, is an enclave of Clinton supporters in a largely conservative state. But on the mountain above town, near the ski resort, there is a picturesque mansion where America’s most famous white supremacist sometimes lives.

Richard Spencer, 38, is a well-groomed, well-educated advocate for the creation of a “white ethno-state” in North America. In November, he had been captured on camera shouting “Hail Trump! Hail victory!” while others gave the Nazi salute.

After he was punched in the face at Trump’s inauguration, Spencer would become an internet meme and debate: Punch the Nazi! Is it right to punch the Nazi?

Residents of Whitefish, where Spencer had lived part-time, had tried to take a more peaceful approach to confronting the extremist in their midst: they had issued a town proclamation denouncing Spencer and his racist beliefs. What Whitefish got in response was a hailstorm of antisemitic harassment and threats from Spencer’s neo-Nazi allies that generated headlines across the world.




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“Neo-Nazis urge armed march to harass Montana Jews,” the Times of Israel reported in late December.

Whitefish, a resort town, had found itself on the frontlines of a battle against rising racist extremism that is playing out across the US and Europe.

Residents are facing questions that other, larger communities might soon confront. They said they knew it was important to take a stand against hatred – especially as neo-Nazi extremists seemed to be edging closer towards the political mainstream. They also they knew their attackers craved conflict and attention, and that feeding the controversy meant the “trolls” were winning.

It was a vicious cycle that no one in town quite knew how to escape.

With Spencer, some Whitefish residents said, they faced a particular challenge. What was the best way to confront a fringe extremist – to block his rise – without simply giving him a new opportunity to paint himself as the victim?

•••

The first wave of abuse started in mid-December. A story from ABC Fox Montana reporting that Whitefish was being “torn apart by a white nationalist’s notoriety” hit 4chan, the infamous online forum, said Will Randall, the co-chair of Love Lives Here, a local group founded to oppose neo-Nazis. The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, encouraged supporters to tell people affiliated with the story they were “sickened by their Jew agenda to attack and harm the mother of someone whom they disagree with”.

ABC Fox Montana had reported that business filings listed a mountain resort home where Spencer’s mother, Sherry, lives as the main address for Spencer’s blandly named white nationalist organization, the National Policy Institute.

The story quoted a local realtor, who is Jewish, slamming Sherry Spencer for profiting off the “people of the local community” while “having facilitated Richard’s work spreading hate”.

Sherry hit back, and blamed Love Lives Here, which had publicly opposed her son’s racism, for causing “financial harm to many innocent parties”.

The Daily Stormer posted the photographs and contact information for the realtor, and for Jewish residents affiliated with Love Lives Here – including a female rabbi and the realtor’s child. The site cautioned trolls to follow the law and not threaten or engage in violence.

Later posts were accompanied by a graphic of the locals’ faces hovering over the image of the door to a concentration camp, along with antisemitic slurs and frequent references to the Holocaust.

One of the targets of the harassment, Randall said, had received a photo of a gun barrel with the message: “She needs a visit from the ‘Montana Mangler’.”

In the days that followed, Whitefish businesses deemed sympathetic to Jews were also bombarded with negative online reviews, harassing phone calls and threatening messages, owners said. “Your time is up, you leftist faggot.” “Hitler Claus is coming to town.”

The waves of antisemitic abuse stunned and appalled the tiny resort town – an outpost best known for skiing and hiking trips to Glacier national park.


whitefish richard spencer

Downtown Whitefish on Martin Luther King Day was decorated with messages of love. Photograph: Lois  Beckett for the Guardian


When the owner of Tree Hugger Soap, a local company, organized a collective gift basket to send to the realtor as a sign of community support, the Daily Stormer picked up on the news and added the soap company to a list of “collaborators” in the “Jewish extortion racket”.

“Make it clear that this is intolerable,” the Daily Stormer suggested, listing the soap company’s social media handles and contact information.

“There’s a hierarchy here in who got attacked,” Randall noted. It was misogyny, not just antisemitism, that was super-charging the attacks, he said. Jewish women – “successful Jewish women” – were the top targets, “then the businesses that support them, then maybe the men”.

By January, some of the owners of the Whitefish businesses that had been targeted would only speak anonymously, worried that any new press mentions would result in them being targeted once more.

Right around Christmas, one of the busiest times of the year, the businesses had been hit with negative online reviews. One troll from outside the country had repeatedly called a local business, trying to tie up its phone line for as long as possible. Nasty messages poured into website contact forms.

The threats and attacks did not stop after a single round. They turned and shifted.

In late December, the founder of the Daily Stormer, a site that the Southern Poverty Law Center found may have influenced mass murderer Dylann Roof, promised that his supporters would hold a 200-person antisemitic march through the streets of Whitefish in January “carrying high-powered rifles”.

The site’s founder, Andrew Anglin, set the Whitefish march date for Martin Luther King Jr Day, and named the march after King’s assassin, James Earl Ray.

Anglin had promised implausibly to bus skinheads in from the Bay Area to a tiny Montana town close to the Canadian border. The lurid threat generated a huge response.

As the media coverage of the threats rolled out, Richard Spencer distanced himself from the march, saying it was only a joke and that he wanted the whole thing to stop.

Anglin was more aggressive in his approach. But Anglin and Spencer were allies and saw themselves as fundamentally on the same page. That was what they had said, at least, in a chummy joint podcast released days before Anglin unleashed a troll storm against Spencer’s neighbors.




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“I don’t throw the first punch,” Spencer chuckled in a YouTube video about the conflict, “but I will punch back, metaphorically speaking, and other people in my broader community, they’ll fight back too, they’re going to stick up for one of their own.”

•••

A few days before the planned troll march, I met Will Randall, of Love Lives Here, at a coffee shop in a town just south of Whitefish. Randall was an unassuming man in a down vest, jeans and baseball cap.

I was here to find out how Randall, this Christian carpenter from small-town Montana, had gotten his start fighting neo-Nazis.

Northern Montana in winter is almost comically beautiful. It looks like a landscape from a videogame: vast expanses of white snow, black-green trees, the shocking blue of the sky. This landscape and its expansive sense of freedom have attracted many transplants: lawyers from Texas, rabbis from Brooklyn, survivalist preppers looking to escape the collapse of civilization and, occasionally, white supremacists looking to form their own communities in a state that’s nearly 90% white.

In 2010, a group of neo-Nazis had started showing Holocaust denial and pro-Nazi films in the basement of the Kalispell local library, Randall said. He had been one of dozens of townspeople who rallied to protest the film. The neo-Nazis showed more films. The protests got bigger – hundreds of people – and more tense. Many young veterans were just returning home from overseas in 2010, Randall said, and they didn’t “want to hear that the United States was on the wrong side of world war II, you know?” he said. One of the neo-Nazis knocked a camera from the hands of a protester. “We all realized, this is an uncontrollable situation,” Randall said.

So the group of protesters rethought their approach, Randall said.

Protests weren’t going to stop the neo-Nazis from screening films. “They like the attention,” he said.


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Anti-fascist ready to go up against the neo-Nazi march. Photograph Beckett for the Guardian


So the protesters stopped holding demonstrations outside the library and began holding counter-programming opposite the films instead. The library protest grew into a small advocacy group, Love Lives Here, that had continued to oppose racism and white supremacy, and support diversity. Randall now co-chairs Love Lives Here.

“Street protest – we’ve never done that since,” he said.

Despite the volatility of big protests, the public attention and controversy around the neo-Nazi screenings did have a positive effect.

“All these famous neo-Nazis in the area” – Randall shook his head – “they can’t get along. So we shed some light on their films and what their activities [are], and they get into infighting, then they can’t cooperate, and then it dies out.”

A similar dynamic had played out with Spencer on the national scale.

Spencer, who is widely credited with coining the term “alt-right” – which has come to signify a far-right movement in the US – had careened into the media spotlight last year as America’s “dapper white nationalist”, one of the young rightwing extremists energized by Trump’s rise. Profiles of Spencer were accompanied by brooding portraits: the racist, looking serious in a blazer; the racist, slouching picturesquely against a wall. Spencer basked in the media attention. During a one-on-one CNN segment, the interviewer noted, with obvious distaste, how gleefully he responded to the continuing coverage.

Spencer was not shy about telling reporters that image was everything, that he and other young racists were the hipster whisperers, ready to bring a new generation into the white nationalist fold. The approach he took to this was stodgier than other rising far-right provocateurs: he was a “coat and tie racist”, as the Southern Poverty Law Center put it, educated at the University of Virginia and the University of Chicago and Duke, whose speeches were sometimes reminiscent of a freshman trying to read aloud from a copy of Nietzsche that had been left in the rain.

Unlike old-school white supremacism, the “alt-right” had incubated online, fed by memes and inside jokes and vicious battles over feminism and videogame culture. The Associated Press’s standards guide defined “alt-right” in late November as “as a mix of racism, white nationalism and populism”. “In the past we have called such beliefs racist, neo-Nazi or white supremacist,” the standards guide noted.

At times, Spencer was blunt in his views. The mainstream media was waging war against “the continued existence of white America”, he told supporters at a conference in November. What was the point of conservatives fighting for limited government or to protect the constitution, he had asked in a 2013 speech, “so that the Afro-mestizo-Caribbean melting pot can enjoy the blessing of liberty?”

At other times Spencer liked to perform a kind of bigotry burlesque, making sly allusions, quoting Jewish thinkers and Martin Luther King Jr, invoking extreme views and then backing away. After his “Hail Trump!” cry prompted outrage, he told reporters that the Nazi salutes were “clearly done in a spirit of irony and exuberance”.

But the intense media coverage of the Nazi salutes, while further raising Spencer’s profile, had also splintered the “alt-right”, with some leading rightwing figures denouncing Spencer and his antisemitic beliefs. The political breaks had played out, in high school fashion, in spats over invitations to the DeploraBall, a kind of rightwing prom.

The outrage over the Nazi salutes had even led to Trump explicitly disavowing and condemning Spencer’s group to the New York Times in late November. When Trump appointed Steve Bannon, Breitbart’s executive chairman, as his chief White House strategist, the move prompted widespread alarm and protest – and seemed to cement the “alt-right’s” rise. Bannon had once described Breitbart, a popular rightwing site, as “the platform for the alt-right”.

At his inauguration, Trump, an unabashed populist, made a clear effort to separate the “white” from the “nationalism”.

“When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice,” the president said in his inaugural address.

The neo-Nazi antics had appeared to have undermined themselves. As one rightwing blogger had put it to Politico, “You don’t want to tie your brand to something that’s ultimate evil.”

•••

But 2,000 miles away, in Whitefish, some of Spencer’s part-time neighbors were outraged that their town kept appearing as a backdrop in profiles about America’s new most famous racist. A PR expert working for the town had crunched the numbers: among the deluge of news articles about America’s new most famous racist, about 20% mentioned Whitefish. The tiny town was largely dependent on tourist revenue.

On 5 December, in a packed chamber of people, the city’s mayor read aloud a new proclamation denouncing Richard Spencer: “The city of Whitefish repudiates the ideas and ideology of the founder of the so-called alt-right as a direct affront to our community’s core values and principles. The city of Whitefish rejects racism and bigotry in all its forms and expressions.”

The city’s chamber of commerce and visitors’ bureau reiterated that everyone was welcome