Whitefish stands up to neo-Nazi offensive

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In the wake of a vicious neo-Nazi online campaign to harass and “troll” Whitefish businesses, its Jewish community and the Love Lives Here advocacy group, community residents today are dropping off notes of support and gift baskets for those targeted by the social media blitzkrieg.

The fervor was created by a handful of white-nationalist websites — most prominently the Daily Stormer neo-Nazi website — which urged followers to “take action” to defend Sherry Spencer, the mother of white nationalist Richard Spencer, who continues to have ties to Whitefish and is reportedly spending Christmas in the resort town.

The Daily Stormer post on Friday included the names and contact information for three local Jewish families, even including a photo of one family’s child, along with the headline “Jews Targeting Richard Spencer’s Mother for Harassment and Extortion.” It encouraged followers to spam Love Lives Here, an affiliate of the Montana Human Rights Network.

The call to action unleashed a virulent online bashing of not only the Jewish families — who have received death threats — but also many Whitefish businesses that support Love Lives Here and its message of supporting tolerance and diversity.

Gov. Steve Bullock issued a brief statement Monday, saying “let me be very clear: there is no time nor place for hate in Montana.”

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., also issued a statement over the weekend, declaring “this is not acceptable in Montana. We will work to fight this repulsive ideology.”

Richard Spencer is the president and director of the National Policy Institute, a white-nationalist nonprofit think-tank and publishing firm that says it supports the heritage, identity and future of European people in the United States and around the world. Speaking at Texas A&M earlier this month, Spencer was quoted as saying, “America at the end of the day belongs to white men.”

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.

Richard Spencer’s beliefs flew under the radar of most people for years. When he began garnering national attention two years ago, the Love Lives Here organization urged the Whitefish City Council to address the matter, and the council adopted an ordinance that honors “the inherent worth of all people regardless of race, creed, national origin, sex or sexual orientation.”

Two weeks ago the council adopted a proclamation that states “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 tension over Richard Spencer’s continued ties to Whitefish escalated in late November, not over the city’s proclamation but rather because of a rumor circulating that indicated a group of as many as 200 protesters reportedly were going to picket Sherry Spencer’s building at 22 Lupfer Ave.

When a Whitefish real-estate agent, who happens to be a member of the Jewish community, talked to Sherry Spencer about selling the business and donating a portion of the profit to the Montana Human Rights Network, Spencer apparently perceived the correspondence as coercion.

Sherry Spencer then shared her comments in an article posted on medium.com, titled “Does Love Really Live Here?” In that article she stated the real-estate agent “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.”

That appears to be the tipping point that drew the ire of the neo-Nazi groups.

Sherry and Rand Spencer wrote an opinion piece published in Sunday’s Daily Inter Lake in which they acknowledged that Sherry’s mixed-use commercial 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.”

Rand Spencer told the Inter Lake in an email that Sherry is planning to sell the building.

The trolling by neo-Nazis has been vulgar and explicit.

Among the messages Love Lives Here has received was an email on Monday stating: “Have you started to pack your things yet? When the day comes there won’t be any time. The Goy (a Jewish name for a non-Jew) will encircle your office and demand the filthy Jew show himself. There will be an SS man reading the charges as you’re marched off to jail. There will finally be a GOY judge and not a filthy JEW, and the words guilty will mean you swinging by a rope from the nearest lamp post. Those days are not far off Jew. It’s best you leave now while you can.”

Messages targeting the Jewish families included statements such as “go choke on a shotgun and die,” and “you would all be of greater worth to society as human fertilizer than as citizens.”

Montana Human Rights Network co-director Rachel Carroll Rivas said she is working with a number of Love Lives Here members and supporters “multiple times a day” on handling the appropriate responses on harassment and actual threats. The network also is acting as a conduit to local law enforcement agencies in reporting the hate-filled messages.

“Clearly these threats are serious,” she emphasized, adding that they’re intended to instill fear.

Whitefish Police Lt. Bridger Kelch said the contact information for the Jewish residents, local businesses and Love Lives Here already was available online, so nothing illegal has taken place.

“It’s all public information,” Kelch said, but added, “they’re obviously distasteful in some of the things they’re posting in their blogs.”

Because websites such as the Daily Stormer operate out of state, local police are forwarding all reports to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Salt Lake City office, he said.

“Anything local we’ll investigate ... They’re looking into everything outside our jurisdiction, outside the state,” Kelch said.

A recent Whitefish police report indicated officers would be providing extra patrol in the neighborhood of one of the Jewish families.

Kelch also noted the Whitefish Police Department is keeping an open line of communication with all local parties involved in case the situation escalates.

Rivas said she doesn’t want the message to get lost that “there is a very unified community response against this hateful ideology.

“I’m not sure who supports Richard Spencer right now,” she said. “The guy is on the defensive. He is only accountable to a small group of extremists and online trolls. These tactics of the white supremacists are just as vile as Richard Spencer’s beliefs. These threats are short-term strategies that will not hold up to the deep work of positive community building that Love Lives Here has done.”

Whitefish businesses have been affected in varying degrees by the online trolling.

The Buffalo Cafe, a popular restaurant in downtown Whitefish, started getting anonymous phone calls from the trollers Friday night, restaurant co-owner Alex Maetzold said.

“They were ranting about Love Lives Here; I don’t know why we were in the crosshairs,” Maetzold said.

The Buffalo Cafe then began getting negative review posts on Google.

“We dealt with probably six pretty blatantly false reviews,” he said. “I bet we got a dozen or so before the town stepped in.”

Before long the restaurant had more than 60 positive reviews that drowned out — and silenced — the trollers.

“People stepped up quickly and very loud, saying ‘we got your back,’” Maetzold said. “I’m left feeling way more proud of our town and valley than I’m scared about it.”

Reviews came from patrons not only locally but in many other states.

Maetzold posted a message on Facebook late Monday, thanking the community for its support.

“The shock we first experienced on Friday night when a white supremacist group had a call to action to ‘troll storm’ Whitefish for denouncing their leader and their ideas has quickly been replaced by the overwhelming feeling of support we have been shown from the local community,” the Buffalo Cafe’s post noted. “The handful of hate-filled reviews we have received on Google have been thoroughly drowned out by the counter efforts of our community. Although your kind words in the counter-reviews were nice, it is the act itself that speaks the loudest about what our town is all about. The Buffalo is humbled by your support and thankful to have so many have our backs. Thank you so much. Stay up. We got this!”

Michelle Saurey, who along with her husband, Peter Edland, own The Walking Man Frame Shop & Gallery in Whitefish, said their business received one vulgar and harassing online comment on Google reviews, but she took immediate action to remove the post.

“My business has not been targeted to the level I believe other businesses have been targeted,” Saurey said. “We have not been targeted in a manner I feel threatened or worried. I trust my community and my patrons.”

She said the Spencer ordeal has been extremely frustrating because details of what actually transpired have been twisted and miscommunicated. While social media is how people now communicate, it’s also a breeding ground for uncivilized, reactionary discourse, she added.

Peter Edland said Sherry Spencer has been a client of Walking Man for years; they have completed upward of 20 framing jobs for her.

Walking Man displays a Love Lives Here poster in the window, and because of that had one woman stop in to say she wouldn’t shop there because of their support for the advocacy group.

Saurey said she believes the goal of the extreme white-nationalist community is to create discord.

“They want to feel like we can’t get along,” Saurey said, reiterating her support for the mission of Love Lives Here.

Whitefish Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Kevin Gartland said he has had about a half-dozen emails related to the Spencer ordeal, some reacting to what they read in the news.

“We’re trying to get people the information they need to combat this,” Gartland said. “We don’t know the extent [of the trolling]. Certainly there’s a campaign out there ... it’s pretty objectionable stuff.”

He acknowledged it’s difficult for individual businesses to combat the negative publicity linked to the trolling. The Chamber planned to email a directive to its members Tuesday, explaining steps to take if they are targeted by the neo-Nazi websites.

The Whitefish Convention and Visitor Bureau also has been involved in stepping the community through the ordeal, and provided businesses with guidelines for how to counter the trolling. (See related story.)

“Everyone is welcome in Whitefish,” Bureau spokeswoman Lisa Jones reiterated Tuesday. “We stand with our city’s recent proclamation recognizing and celebrating the dignity, diversity, and inclusion of all of its inhabitants and visitors. And we hope everyone will support our local businesses and neighbors with personal reviews, notes of kindness, and frequent their establishments. We want the world to know we are a friendly and welcoming place, always have been, and always will be.”

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

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