Flathead Valley's Response Is A Model For Others After Neo-Nazi ‘Troll Storm’
It’s been three years since a prominent neo-Nazi website called for a “troll storm” of internet harassment against Jewish people in Whitefish. Through that chaos and threats of violence, community organizers, city officials and residents learned how to systematically push back against white supremacy. That success has become a model for others.
Hilary Shaw is leading the Jewish community from throughout the Flathead Valley and Whitefish through songs in the absence of the congregation’s Rabbi Francine Roston.
They’re gathering for the first night of Hanukkah under watch of armed security. That’s a change prompted by the 2016 cyber-attack called for by Andrew Anglin, publisher of the neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer.
Shaw pauses to celebrate another year free of a large-scale attack.
“It’s important for us to take a moment and hold tight to each other, feel gratitude, feel memory, honor one another’s recovery, honor one another’s healing,” she told the congregation as they linked hands in a circle.
Back in 2016, Anglin published the personal information of some in this congregation over a perceived slight against a family member of prominent white supremacist Richard Spenser. Victims of Anglin’s attack received phone calls and social media messages containing death threats and violent anti-Semitic slurs. One voicemail included the sound of a gunshot.
Anglin was ordered by a federal judge earlier this year to pay $14 million in damages to one of the Jewish victims.
Shaw said the high-profile defeat may serve as a warning to other white nationalists hoping to target the Flathead Valley, which hate groups have long tried to brand as an Aryan homeland, according to state and national human rights groups.
“I don’t think it will impact how people feel, but it will make people think twice before they coordinate, before they are so emboldened and entitled in their white supremacist speech and activities,” she explained.
But even if it doesn’t prevent another large attack, many in the community say they’re prepared.
Flathead Valley-based nonprofit Love Lives Here formed a communication network with the Whitefish visitor’s bureau, the city, businesses and community members during the troll storm. Love Lives Here said it provided a way for accurate information to get out to the public.
“What white supremacists try to do is stir up chaos and by everyone running around not knowing what to do, then they’re actually in charge,” Love Lives Here’s Cherilyn DeVries said.
When Anglin threatened an armed neo-Nazi march through Whitefish in early 2017, Love Lives Here, the city and police pushed community members planning to block the marchers to instead put on a community party supporting the Jewish community away from the march.
The march never actually happened. Lisa Jones is the spokesperson for the Whitefish visitor's bureau's spokesperson, but the bureau partners with the city on crisis communication. She said the party gave community members a safe place to be heard.
“And there was a good energy about it instead of being on the street where there could potentially be conflict,” Jones added.
Jones said it also allowed the city to protect its reputation by providing good press about the community’s response, which is good for an area so dependent on tourism. Three years later, this partnership continues to come in handy, and it's a model locals are trying to spread.
Love Lives Here is asking the City of Kalispell to form a similar partnership following racist graffiti at a local park. DeVries spoke at a recent city council meeting.
“When it comes to white supremacy, we seem to have a revolving door in the Flathead Valley. Leaders keep coming in and thinking they can get a following,” she told elected officials.
Only a couple of council members expressed support, but non-elected city officials say they are interested in working with Love Lives Here.
The nonprofit’s efforts also caught the attention of community organizers in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho who adopted Love Lives Here’s name this fall after white supremacist flyers were found at local businesses.
Western States Center helps communities organize against white supremacy groups nationally. It’s been receiving more calls from communities asking for help dealing with white supremacy in recent years. Lindsay Schubiner with the center said it points to Love Lives Here as an example of tried and true tactics.
“When communities come together and speak out really powerfully and clearly and in a united voice, that really closes the political space for white supremacy and alt-right groups to operate,” she explained.
Schubiner said an organized response also let’s targeted community members know they’re supported.
Back at the Hanukkah celebration in the Flathead Valley, Hilary Shaw said the support in 2016 helped the local Jewish congregation move forward.
“We will be the congregation that survived this event, that was strengthened by it, was harmed by it and it’s part of who we are now,” she said.
A sign of that strength Shaw said is the ever-growing number of Jewish households that joined the congregation both during and after the 2016 attack