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.
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 dist