Alt-right shadow hangs over Whitefish

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The national spotlight that continues to illuminate white nationalist leader Richard Spencer and his alt-right movement also has put Whitefish in the limelight in ways that are uncomfortable not only for the town’s residents but also Spencer’s own parents.

Spencer is at the helm of the National Policy Institute, a white nationalist nonprofit think-tank and publishing firm. For years Spencer, 38, has been a part-time Whitefish resident, though he spends most of his time now on the East Coast. His parents, Rand and Sherry Spencer, continue to spend time in Whitefish and Sherry owns a commercial building in the city’s historic Railway District.

Spencer’s parents wrote a letter to the Whitefish community that is published today in the Inter Lake’s opinion section. They say Sherry’s mixed-use building at 22 Lupfer Ave., and its retail tenants have been targeted because of their son’s white nationalist viewpoints.

“Our tenants are innocent victims and their businesses are threatened with boycotts for something over which they have no control. There is no justification for their sustaining collateral damage,” they stated in their letter. “We, too, are victims, having no role in any of the events that have unfolded recently.”

Sherry ultimately has decided to sell the building in response to the threats, according to an email from Rand on Saturday.

The Spencers further stressed that their son and the National Policy Institute he heads “have never had, do not have and will not in the future have any office or professional activities at 22 Lupfer.” They also do not endorse the idea of white nationalism, they said.

Richard Spencer told the Inter Lake on Friday he has spoken to his parents about the threats against them and the 22 Lupfer tenants.

“I don’t feel personal responsibility” about what has happened, he said in a phone interview. “We live in a country based on free expression. The people responsible are the ones chasing them down.

“I have never instigated violence and never have been accused of instigating violence,” he continued. “I would disapprove of any death threat.”

However, he added, “people do have the right to express themselves.”

Spencer’s self-described alt-right movement is a group of people with “far-right ideologies who reject mainstream conservatism in the United States,” according to Wikipedia. The National Policy Institute, of which he is president, supports the heritage, identity and future of European people in the United States and around the world.

His beliefs flew well under the radar of most local residents for years. When he began garnering national attention two years ago, the Love Lives Here organization, a group of local residents who promote tolerance and peace, urged the Whitefish City Council to pass an ordinance prohibiting “hate” organizations from doing business or having offices in the city of Whitefish. The council instead passed a resolution “honoring the inherent worth of all people regardless of race, creed, national origin, sex or sexual orientation.”

In a November 2014 press release, Love Lives Here co-founder Ina Albert said the National Policy Institute fits the FBI’s definition of a hate group as “an organization whose primary purpose is to promote animosity, hostility and malice against persons belonging to race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity/national origin which differs from that of the members of the organization.”

“We are not restricting his freedom of speech,” Albert said in the 2014 press release. “We are restricting his freedom to carry on hate activities in our community.”

Love Lives Here reiterated its position this month at the Dec. 6 Whitefish City Council meeting, filling the council chambers to support Mayor John Muhlfeld’s reading of the council’s newly approved proclamation in which the city “repudiates the ideas and ideology of the founder of the so-called alt-right as a direct affront to the community’s core values.”

In light of the national attention Spencer has been getting and his ties to Whitefish, organizations such as the Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau have stepped up their social-media messaging “to get the message out that everyone is welcome in Whitefish.”

Spencer on Friday reiterated that his views are not hateful.

“When people call you a hate group, it means they hate you,” he told the Daily Inter Lake in an earlier interview. “They’re looking at a mirror reflection ... I don’t harm anyone; I haven’t challenged or provoked them.”

The tension over Spencer’s continued ties to Whitefish escalated in late November when a group of protesters reportedly planned to picket Sherry Spencer’s building at 22 Lupfer Ave.

Whitefish real-estate agent Tanya Gersh said she knows some of the building tenants and was asked by one tenant to call Sherry Spencer about what could be done to ward off any confrontation.

Gersh quickly posted a message on Facebook indicating Sherry was planning to sell the business and that Richard Spencer was cutting all ties with Whitefish.

“There was about to be quite a protest in front of the building,” Gersh told the Inter Lake on Nov. 22. “The reason I put the statement on Facebook right away is because I wanted to call off the protest.”

Gersh said Sherry confided to her about being worried how the national publicity might affect not only the tenants’ businesses, but her own business interests. The upper floors of the three-story building are upscale vacation rentals. Gersh then encouraged Sherry to sell the building and give a portion of the proceeds to the Montana Human Rights Network in order to get out from under the stigma of her son’s beliefs.

“It was not my intention to call her for the listing,” Gersh said, but she added if she handled the sale she also planned to donate her commission to the human-rights organization.

What has resulted is a backlash against the efforts of both Gersh and Love Lives Here.

Sherry Spencer this week wrote an article posted on medium.com titled “Does Love Really Live Here?”

In her article she notes how her building at 22 Lupfer Ave. opened in late 2015 “and received wide acclaim from the local press.

“It was built, not just with my capital, but with my ideas and sensibility. The apartments even include my original artwork, and the rooftop garden features my ceramic mural ... In other words, I poured my heart and soul into this project,” she wrote.

Sherry emphasized that her building “has nothing to do with politics — and it has everything to do with tourism and local businesses.

“I had no intention of selling ... until I started receiving terrible threats in the last couple of weeks,” she wrote. “These threats came from Tanya Gersh, a local Realtor with links to ‘human rights’ organizations Love Lives Here and the Montana Human Rights Network,” Sherry stated. “She relayed to me 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.”

As for Gersh, she posted on Facebook that Sherry was going to sell the building and donate some money to human-rights networks. “Richard is moving to D.C. and will be done with Whitefish,” Gersh posted, but that was apparently wishful thinking.

The Spencers, in fact, continue to spend time in Whitefish. Richard told the Inter Lake he will be in Whitefish over the Christmas holiday season, adding “I’m fairly reclusive.” He has a wife, Nina Kouprianova, and a 2-year-old daughter.

Richard reiterated his ties to Whitefish in announcing Friday that he is considering a run for Montana’s lone congressional seat if Rep. Ryan Zinke becomes secretary of the interior.

“I pay taxes there and I have a Montana driver’s license,” Richard said. “I’m a resident.”

Rand said he and Richard have an estranged relationship.

“He and I have had disagreement over his polemics, societal desires and his extreme political views,” Rand told the Inter Lake.

Rand said that the National Policy Institute moved its official headquarters to an address in Arlington, Virginia in 2013, and said that his son no longer holds a stake in the 22 Lupfer building.

“Richard’s only tie to our personal home in Whitefish is that of being a family member,” Rand said.

IN HER article, Sherry wrote that she never wanted to go public with her story, but because so many news outlets have reported on it, “it forces my hand.

“Whatever you think about my son’s ideas, they are, after all, ideas,” she stated. “In what moral universe is it right for the ‘sins’ of the son to be visited upon the mother?”

Richard Spencer posted his mother’s account on his Twitter feed, calling it “heartbreaking testimony.”

The incident drew the ire of many of Spencer’s Twitter followers.

“What happened with Tanya Gersh is nothing less than a shakedown,” Richard Spencer said. “I couldn’t believe she put it in writing. The idea that something I think or say should therefore be cause to destroy my mother’s business — I don’t know how anyone can think that is moral or ethical.”

Ina Albert, who is still active with Love Lives Here, also has been drawn into the Spencer controversy. Her involvement has prompted opponents of Love Lives Here to leave threats on her phone that were reported to the Whitefish Police Department on Wednesday.

“I’ve been getting stuff on my phone and was told to report it,” Albert said.

She declined to speak further about Spencer.

“I will not give him any more ink,” she said. “It only makes people scared. We have such a wonderful town, and Love Lives Here has done so much to make it welcoming and friendly.”

Albert said a Love Lives Here rally held during the Dec. 9 Christmas Stroll in Whitefish “was one of the best nights of my life. There wasn’t a bad vibe in the whole place. That was the Whitefish I love.”

Yet Sherry Spencer remains unconvinced about the motive of Love Lives Here.

“All I wanted to do with the building was help Whitefish,” she wrote. “The people attacking me claim that love lives here. Now it’s time for them to show it.”

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by email at lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

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