Montana ski town roiled by white supremacist 'troll army'

AP News
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Posted: Dec 22, 2016 6:04 PM
Montana ski town roiled by white supremacist 'troll army'

The email to a group that promotes diversity in northwestern Montana warned that white supremacists would encircle the advocacy organization's office and end with someone "swinging by a rope from the nearest lamp post."

"Those days are not far off Jew," wrote the author, identified only as Rudolf, to the group Love Lives Here in the Flathead Valley. "It's best you leave now while you can."

The ski resort town of Whitefish, 6,600 people strong in a valley just west of Glacier National Park about 60 miles from the Canadian border, is an unlikely flashpoint between white supremacist groups and residents trying to preserve the town's reputation as a welcoming vacation destination.

But white supremacists have also been drawn or actively recruited over the years to the libertarian-leaning Flathead Valley in their search of a haven where they can preach and practice their views unmolested. Richard Spencer, one of the leaders of the so-called "alt-right" movement, an offshoot of conservatism mixing racism, white nationalism and populism, is a part-time resident and his National Policy Institute is headquartered there.

Spencer, who moved to Montana in 2011, claims to have coined the term "alt-right." Both the term and Spencer gained fame during the recently ended election season with the ascendance of the far-right Breitbart News and its leader, Steve Bannon, who is set to play a prominent role in President-elect Donald Trump's administration. The presidential election, and the anti-immigration stance taken by Trump, has only heightened the divisiveness in western Montana, leading Whitefish city leaders and groups like Love Lives Here to renew their past condemnations of Spencer.

Last week, Spencer's mother, Sherry Spencer, posted an article on the website Medium titled "Does Love Really Live Here?"

She wrote that a local real estate agent tried to force her to sell her downtown Whitefish building, which houses two retail stores and four vacation apartments for rent, and donate some of the money to the Montana Human Rights Network and make a public statement denouncing her son.

That sparked a white supremacist website called The Daily Stormer, to post a call for action the next day against "Jews targeting Richard Spencer's mother for harassment and extortion." The website called for "an old fashioned troll storm" and posted the phone numbers, addresses, email addresses and social media addresses of the real-estate agent and two women involved in the group, Love Lives Here, all three of whom are Jewish, and their family members.

Since the Daily Stormer's post last week, the three Whitefish women, their families and about a dozen businesses whose owners have "Love Lives Here" signs in their windows or have supported the group in the past have received anti-Semitic messages and threats. Some trollers have gone online to target Whitefish businesses with negative reviews, prompting people within the community to launch a counter-effort to boost the online reviews and call out the negative comments as fakes.

The individuals targeted, who are all Jewish, have declined to talk to the media because they don't feel safe, Carroll Rivas said.

"This is affecting the everyday lives of people being able to carry out their business, going to school and feeling safe in their homes," said Montana Human Rights Network co-director Rachel Carroll Rivas said. "It raises the level of fear among the whole community."

The author of The Daily Stormer posts, Andrew Anglin, said in a podcast Wednesday that he is not calling for violence or threats, but if there are any, "that has nothing to do with me."

A phone number listed for Sherry Spencer is disconnected, and Richard Spencer did not immediately respond to a request for an interview. In a 12-minute video posted on Twitter early Wednesday, Spencer refused to condemn the Daily Stormer's post.

Attacking and trolling individuals is "not the kind of thing that I would do, but to be honest, at the end of the day, it's mean words," Spencer said. The harassing calls and messages do not compare to what he described as the attempt to destroy the life of his mother.

The Whitefish Police Department is passing on the communications to the FBI, but none rises to the level of a direct threat or a crime committed, officials said. Police Chief Bill Dial said Thursday that he believes the situation has been blown out of proportion.

It's just a bunch of people who sit in their basements and send out hate emails to get things going," Dial said. "I understand people's fears, but stay off it. Leave it alone. Don't fan the flames."

The FBI is reviewing the matter to determine if there has been a violation of federal law, spokeswoman Sandra Barker said in a statement.

The advocacy group that is the target of much of the trolling campaign, Love Lives Here in the Flathead, was created in 2010 in response to that year's screening of a series of Holocaust denial and pro-Nazi films in Kalispell, about 15 miles south of Whitefish. Love Lives Here Chairman Will Randall said his group has been fighting against hate messages ever since.

"I think this is always going to be a struggle," Randall said. "The reason I'm in it, is I feel in the long run that love and tolerance and inclusion is going to win."

Randall said his organization is not trying to force the Spencers out of Whitefish, and said the real-estate agent acted as an individual, not as a representative of Love Lives Here.

"I think the Spencers could resolve this by picking up the phone, calling their son and telling him to tell his followers to stop harassing people online and to take those actions down from the internet," Randall said. "That's how it can end and we can move on."

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Associated Press writer Michael Kunzelman in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, contributed to this report.

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This story has been updated to correct that the 2010 pro-Nazi films were screened in Kalispell, not Whitefish.