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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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 in Whitefish. Some residents said they thought the town’s new proclamation would put the matter to rest.
Jim Coco, who said he represented Whitefish’s more conservative “silent majority”, said he thought the new proclamation was a mistake. Whitefish had already denounced Spencer’s beliefs before. In 2014, the town passed a resolution supporting diversity and tolerance in the community, a move Spencer showed up at the city council meeting to enthusiastically endorse, noting, smugly, “Real diversity includes thinking differently.”
Coco said he did not know the Spencers and that he had no insight into Richard’s true character. But, he said, “If he’s as bad as people think he is, and you poke him in the eye, how is he supposed to respond?”
After Whitefish denounced Spencer, Richard’s wife published a letter in the local paper claiming that he had been misrepresented by the media, and that their family was the target of a Soviet-style witch hunt.
Her husband “promotes positive identity for peoples of European descent around the world”, she wrote.
That same day, ABC Fox Montana reported the real estate spat that became the center of the troll war. But what really kicked the online harassment into gear, Randall said, was the post from Richard Spencer’s mother.
Sherry Spencer published an open letter on Medium detailing allegations of “terrible threats” from the local realtor, who was Jewish, that “if I did not sell my building, 200 protesters and national media would show up outside — which would drive down the property value – until I complied.”
Facing a wave of anonymous attacks on herself and her family, the realtor has stayed silent. She did not respond to requests for comment. The FBI told the Guardian it is reviewing the incident but has not determined whether it will open an official investigation. .
In public statements, Spencer’s parents have repeatedly decried and disavowed the troll abuse and said that they are not racists and that “We do not endorse the idea of white nationalism”.
“We, too, are victims,” they wrote.
For Spencer, whose brand is being the suave and rational racist, the hometown conflict showed the cracks in his fine veneer.
In two long, rambling YouTube videos posted in December, Spencer alternated between mocking the name of a local rabbi, saying he wanted the Whitefish crisis to end, calling a city council member a “loser” and a “dork”, and defending his family’s right to “punch back” when attacked.
Spencer repeatedly dismissed the seriousness of the troll harassment as “mean words” and “pixels”. He said in a YouTube video it was “funny” to see political leaders dancing to the trolls’ tune.
At the last minute, the Daily Stormer leader “postponed” his supposed Martin Luther King march.
The day of the threatened troll march was clear and bitterly cold, and very few people turned out.
There were some Standing Rock veterans, the police chief said, as well as a group of young anti-fascists striding through town wearing face masks and carrying signs.
They had arrived early and they had not seen a single Nazi.
“Looks like the Nazis are flakes,” one anti-fascist drawled, grinning.
Asked for comment on Nazis being flakes, Anglin, the Daily Stormer founder, wrote in an email that “the Jews cockblocked my permit”.
“You’re all so fucking stupid it makes me sick,” he added.
Town residents stood on the street corner ladling out free matzo ball soup for anyone who showed up. As they stood around the soup stand, some residents wondered if the trolls would ever actually make their way to northern Montana town to protest in person. It seemed unlikely.
Despite the relative calm on Martin Luther King Day, the ugliness of the attacks still lingered.
“I didn’t realize the extent of these networks. I didn’t think these people were that organized. Now that I see, it’s alarming. And it makes my stomach churn,” one targeted business owner said.
“They want to hurt people.”
It was hard to be the “the fun-loving community we used to be when you have to watch over your shoulder for people like him”.
The town’s police department still had to spend $5,000 – an eighth of its annual overtime budget – on extra staff for the holiday Monday, in case some extremists decided to show up, the chief said. Dozens more law enforcement officers were also on call in case something happened.
In a phone interview with the Guardian on Martin Luther King Day, Spencer was defiant that he and his mother had done the right thing by making public the allegations against the realtor, and kept repeating that he had not started this fight.
“I don’t feel responsible for it, no,” he said. “Why should I? Because I have not caused any of it.”
At times, though, he also sounded sullen. He said the controversy had not been good for him and, he said, “it has not helped my mother”.
“I wish he had not done it,” he said of Anglin’s troll storm.
“If I could be a grand strategist, I would not have done this.”
On the Friday before the threatened antisemitic march, an email went out from one rabbi’s wife to Jewish families across Montana: this Friday, more than other nights, light your Shabbat candles.
“What is the best way to truly fight darkness? With light,” she wrote.
The state’s young Orthodox rabbi, Chaim Bruk, had moved here a from Brooklyn a few years before, started a Chabad House, and taken up horseback-riding, earning himself the nickname the “Kosher Cowboy”.
In response to the troll attacks, Rabbi Bruk was raising money to send a copy of the Torah to every known Jewish family in Montana – all 1,500 of them. This Chumash project had already attracted donations from around the world.
“After this whole story is said and done, we’re going to say it was a watershed moment for Jewish life in Montana,” he said. “I don’t believe that these loud, noisy white supremacists ever dreamt that their actions would actually enhance Jewish life.”
Despite their exhaustion from the attacks, several business owners said they had been “inspired” by the way the town had rallied around Jewish residents. They also said the experience had also strengthened their sense of empathy. “It does give us a little taste of what so much of the rest of the world deals with on a regular basis: the prejudice, the threats that go along with that prejudice,” one business owner said.
Hundreds of locals had turned out in subzero temperatures for a “Love Not Hate” rally the week before the Neo-Nazis had claimed they would hold their march.
Spencer has shifted his focus to his new office outside Washington DC, where his new neighbors are already complaining to the city government about the “hate group” in their midst, BuzzFeed reported. But as the fallout from the troll storm was still happening over the holidays, Spencer had been back in Whitefish with his family, strolling through town, smiling.
Many local businesses still served Spencer. One manager of a local eatery, who had personally served him, said that was company policy: to be inclusive.
“Feeding the flame is exactly what we don’t want to do,” the manager said, with weary diplomacy. “We want to go skiing.”