Montana’s top elected officials in both parties have denounced plans for a white-nationalist march in Whitefish, the town that’s become home to alt-right movement writer and activist Richard Spencer. It’s the latest escalation in a controversy that started when Spencer’s mother, who recently opened a business in Whitefish, began getting pressure to denounce her son’s beliefs or sell her property.
The letter, co-signed by Gov. Steve Bullock and Sen. Jon Tester, who are Democrats, and Sen. Steve Daines, Rep. Ryan Zinke and Attorney General Tim Fox, all Republicans, attacks any effort by white nationalists to rally in Whitefish.
“We condemn attacks on our religious freedom manifesting in a group of anti-Semites,” the elected officials wrote in the letter, released by Tester’s office Tuesday morning. “We stand firmly together to send a clear message that ignorance, hatred and threats of violence are unacceptable and have no place in the town of Whitefish, or in any other community in Montana or across this nation. We say to those few who seek to publicize anti-Semitic views that they shall find no safe haven here.”
The letter rolls together a number of controversies, only a few of which involve Spencer himself. Since 2014, the outspoken president of the National Policy Institute (a think tank that promotes white-nationalist ideologies, such as the separation of whites from other races) has been persona non grata in some Whitefish businesses. But this month, when interest in the alt-right movement - a term coined by Spencer that encompasses many white-supremacist ideas - was surging, he said his mother was receiving threats.
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That led to the Daily Stormer, a racist, anti-Semitic site not affiliated with Spencer, asking if white nationalists could fight back on his behalf. Andrew Anglin, the site’s founder, published the personal contact information of progressive activists in Whitefish, encouraging critics to contact them. Later, he suggested that as many as 200 white nationalists could rally in the town to show support for Spencer.
“Montana has extremely liberal open carry laws, so my lawyer is telling me we can easily march through the center of the town carrying high-powered rifles,” Anglin wrote.
In a statement to The Washington Post, Spencer said the politicians condemning the events left out that he and his mother had tried to resolve the dispute, with Sherry Spencer speaking to Tanya Gersh, the activist leading the protests, on Nov. 22.
“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,” Sherry Spencer wrote last week. “Gersh’s other conditions included that I make a public denunciation of my son in a statement written by the Montana Human Rights Network and that I make a donation to this organization from the sale of the property. As Gersh announced on Facebook, she was ‘spear heading’ the campaign.”
“My mother did nothing for a few weeks, hoping the matter would die down,” Richard Spencer said. “Unfortunately, Gersh just wouldn’t let it go and began publicizing my mother’s property with the local media and even spoke to CNN, presenting herself, of course, as Little Miss Victim.”
According to Richard Spencer, “it was only after Gersh’s actions were publicized that Andrew Anglin of The Daily Stormer took note of the matter and launched a ‘troll storm.’ “ His mother, Spencer said, had no idea what the Daily Stormer even was.
“No laws are being broken; no one is being physically attacked,” Spencer said. “Anglin & co. are expressing *opinions*, passionately and bluntly. And who can blame them? For the actions of Tanya Gersh are nothing less than outrageous. My mother does not like the trolling and has called for all discourse to be civil and polite. I do not disavow Anglin & co., however, because I recognize that to disallow this kind of speech might lead to the end of all speech that someone might find ‘offensive.’ “
In their letter, Bullock and the others do not get into the details of the Sherry Spencer situation and do not name the Spencers or the Daily Stormer.
“Any demonstration or threat of intimidation against any Montanan’s religious liberty will not be tolerated,” they say. “It takes all Montanans working together to eradicate religious intolerance. We are encouraged that so many Montanans from a variety of religious backgrounds have joined us in condemning this extreme ideology.”