Tuesday, September 07, 2021

How a Montana town silenced a Neo-Nazi hate campaign

Whitefish, Montana
Wikipedia map
When notorious white nationalist Richard B. Spencer moved to Whitefish, Montana, the town fought back. "Residents who joined with state officials, human rights groups and synagogues say their bipartisan counteroffensive could hold lessons for others in an era of disinformation and intimidation, and in the wake of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot,Elizabeth Williamson reports for The New York Times. "Leaders in Whitefish say Mr. Spencer, who once ran his National Policy Institute from his mother’s $3 million summer house here, is now an outcast in this resort town in the Rocky Mountains, unable to get a table at many of its restaurants. His organization has dissolved. Meanwhile, his wife has divorced him, and he is facing trial next month in Charlottesville, Va., over his role in the deadly 2017 neo-Nazi march there, but says he cannot afford a lawyer."

Spencer's rejection in Whitefish is "no accident," Williamson reports, as the town is a "mostly liberal, affluent community" in a county that voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020. 

Shortly afterward, Andrew Anglin, founder of the Neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer, shared personal information and social media accounts of Gersh and her family, and encouraged followers to "take action" to defend Mrs. Spencer. "A post in which Mr. Anglin encouraged his followers to “stop by and tell her in person what you think of her actions” was the first of some 30 articles he published targeting the Gersh family and the Jewish community in Whitefish, according to a lawsuit Ms. Gersh filed in 2017 against Mr. Anglin in U.S. District Court in Montana," Williamson reports. "Ms. Gersh received hundreds of text messages, emails and Christmas cards threatening her. Her voice mail filled up several times a day. Hateful comments about Ms. Gersh appeared on real estate websites. Homeowners were afraid to list with her." Other local Jewish leaders and residents were threatened as well, and Anglin announced a march on Whitefish to be held on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Then-Governor Steve Bullock, the attorney general and a congressional delegation wrote a bipartisan open letter repudiating the "ignorance, hatred and threats of violence." Meanwhile, Mayor John Muhlfeld "said that the town had not refused Mr. Anglin a special event permit but that Mr. Anglin had not met the town’s conditions, including a prohibition on firearms," Williamson reports.

As the march neared, police and federal authorities prepared for possible violence and nonprofits such as the Southern Poverty Law Center advised residents on what to do. Accordingly, Jewish residents kept a low profile and took steps to increase safety, while volunteers distributed thousands of paper menorahs; Gersh said "every window in Whitefish" had one. Locals also held an anti-hate rally that drew 600 attendees. And on the eve of the march, Rabbi Francine Green Roston of the Glacier Jewish Community/B’nai Shalom held a chicken and matzo ball soup get-together for 350 at the middle school as an expression of appreciation and unity.

The day of the planned march, "not a single neo-Nazi turned up," Williamson reports. 

Roston, who now lectures groups on how to ward off similar hate campaigns, told Williamson: "The best way to respond to hate and cyberterrorism in your community is through solidarity ... Another big principle is to take threats seriously, and prepare for the worst."

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