Whitefish's Vigil For Charlottesville Draws 150
There have been many silent moments in Montana this week.
One in Whitefish Tuesday night was held in honor of people who died and were injured while counter-protesting a white supremacy rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last Saturday.
For many of the 150 people on the lawn of the Whitefish United Methodist Church, the rally in Charlottesville was a reminder of the community’s own brush with white supremacists, who threatened to march through town last January and targeted several Jewish families with terror-inducing and hate-filled messages. Rabbi Allen Secher was one of the people targeted, but on Tuesday, he led the group through prayers from several faiths, songs and stories.
"This town set the dream. This town was beyond special," Secher said. "This town said 'not in our town,' and we felt embraced, all of us. This town is very special."
Tanya Gersh, another woman targeted, echoed that sentiment in a letter read by Love Lives Here co-chair Will Randall.
"The proposed march on Whitefish, which was to take place in January, is haunting me," Gersh wrote. "Out of precaution my family packed out bags and fled town, reminiscent of what my relatives did in Russia and Poland during the war."
Gersh is now suing Andrew Anglin, the man who instigated the online attacks on a neo-Nazi website called the Daily Stormer. She dedicated her court battle to Heather Heyer, the woman killed in the Charlottesville protest.
City officials reaffirmed Whitefish’s pledge to support a diverse and unified community. City Councilor Richard Hildner said, "we condemn racism, bigotry, Nazism, hate, white supremacy in all its forms. These are not out community values. We stand side by side, arm in arm, with the people of Charlottesville."
Reverend Mary Wellemeyer urged everyone to write a postcard to the people of Charlottesville on their way out.
"It will mean a lot to them to hear from Whitefish, they know what you've been through," she said.
Whitefish has hosted solidarity events like this before, but Tuesday’s vigil was Pam Stocks’s first one.
"With everything that's happened over the last year, I've watched from a distance, and thought, oh it's going to get better, it's gonna get better," Stocks said. "It's a small part that I'm here."
Tom Skerritt said local events like this give people a chance to localize national tensions.
"You really don't have to go too far to be in a situation of racial division. That's something Montana has a deep history in with our Native populations," he said.
Skerritt's daughter, Sheridan, said that during her moment of silence, "I thought about how there was so much hate in the world, and we need peace and love and joy to take over the hate."
Similar vigils were held in Helena, Butte, Great Falls, Missoula, Billings, Kalispell, Bozeman and elsewhere over the weekend.
Rachel Carroll Rivas with the Montana Human Rights Network says these gatherings are more than just a chance for people to grieve together. She says she’s seeing less activity from known extremist groups in northwest Montana since Whitefish’s overwhelming support of the families targeted by the neo-Nazis, and she doesn’t think that’s a coincidence.
"And it was such a strong response that I think in some ways it may have kind of quashed some of the real white supremacist activists' own activity in the area," Rivas said.
That said, MHRN says instances of discrimination are on the rise in the state this year, based on self reported complaints they’ve gathered. Those range from verbal harassment, to white supremacist propaganda drops, to losing housing based on race, gender or sexual orientation. Carroll Rivas is keeping an eye out for an uptick in copy-cat crimes after what happened in Charlottesville.
"I know that every time there's something happening at a national level with a lot of attention, we're getting more reports on our reporting forum of people's experiences being targeted," she said.
So far, she hasn’t seen anything. Instead, Carroll Rivas says she's seen community leaders and elected officials speak out against bigotry and racism, but she wants them take it one step further.
"I think we have to name those, we have exactly what those values are that this racism and bigotry are counter to, and those are values, things like inclusion, diversity and democracy," she said.
This coming weekend is the second semi-annual block party organized by the group Love Not Hate at The Coop in Columbia Falls. The event features speakers, performers, music and food, all in the name of building community and standing up to oppression from 4 to 9 p.m. on Saturday, August 19.