How a Small Town Silenced a Neo-Nazi Hate Campaign

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A Montana municipality reflects connected its effort to thrust erstwhile President Donald J. Trump’s extremist supporters backmost to the fringes.

Tanya Gersh, a existent  property  agent, received hundreds of substance   messages, emails and cards from achromatic  nationalists threatening her.
Credit...Tailyr Irvine for The New York Times

Elizabeth Williamson

Sept. 5, 2021, 3:00 a.m. ET

WHITEFISH, Mont. — Richard B. Spencer, the astir infamous summertime nonmigratory successful this town, erstwhile boasted that helium stood astatine the vanguard of a achromatic nationalist question emboldened by President Donald J. Trump. Things person changed.

“I person bumped into him, and helium runs — that’s really a truly bully feeling,” said Tanya Gersh, a existent property cause targeted successful an antisemitic hatred run that Andrew Anglin, the laminitis of the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, unleashed successful 2016 aft Mr. Spencer’s parent made online accusations against Ms. Gersh.

Leaders successful Whitefish accidental Mr. Spencer, who erstwhile ran his National Policy Institute from his mother’s $3 cardinal summertime location here, is present an outcast successful this edifice municipality successful the Rocky Mountains, incapable to get a array astatine galore of its restaurants. His enactment has dissolved. Meanwhile, his woman has divorced him, and helium is facing proceedings adjacent period successful Charlottesville, Va., implicit his relation successful the deadly 2017 neo-Nazi march there, but says helium cannot spend a lawyer.

The crook of events is nary accident. Whitefish, a mostly liberal, affluent assemblage nestled successful a region that voted for Mr. Trump successful 2016 and 2020, roseate up and struck back. Residents who joined with authorities officials, quality rights groups and synagogues accidental their bipartisan counteroffensive could clasp lessons for others successful an epoch of disinformation and intimidation, and successful the aftermath of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.

“The champion mode to respond to hatred and cyberterrorism successful your assemblage is done solidarity,” said Rabbi Francine Green Roston of the Glacier Jewish Community/B’nai Shalom, who present lectures different groups connected however to ward disconnected hatred campaigns similar the 1 Whitefish endured. “Another large rule is to instrumentality threats seriously, and hole for the worst.”

Mayor John Muhlfeld agreed. “You person to enactment swiftly and decisively and travel unneurotic arsenic a assemblage to tackle hatred and marque definite it doesn’t infiltrate your town,” helium said.

On Saturday, Mr. Spencer said helium kept a “very debased profile” successful Whitefish, and though helium had been denied work successful section establishments successful the past, “I don’t person immoderate anxiousness dealing with anyone.” He said helium does not tally from Ms. Gersh and understood wherefore radical would beryllium aggravated with him.

“I don’t privation immoderate battles with them present successful Whitefish,” helium continued, “and I anticipation they instrumentality a akin attitude, that it’s champion to determination on.” His mother, Sherry Spencer, did not respond to requests for comment.

The occupation successful Whitefish started aft Mr. Trump’s triumph successful the 2016 predetermination that November. Mr. Spencer, who had called his achromatic nationalist question a “vanguard” for Mr. Trump, delivered a racially charged code astatine his institute’s league successful Washington, his words greeted by Nazi salutes. Video of the code went viral. In Whitefish, residents discussed protesting successful beforehand of a downtown commercialized gathering owned by Mr. Spencer’s mother.

Ms. Gersh said Ms. Spencer had called her.

“She flat-out asked me, ‘Tanya, I don’t judge successful my son’s ideology,’” Ms. Gersh recalled implicit java successful her bureau downtown. “‘I’m heartbroken that this is hurting Whitefish. What should I do?’”

“I said: ‘Sherry, if this were my son, I would spell up and merchantability the building. I would donate immoderate wealth to thing similar the Human Rights Network to marque a statement, and people that you don’t judge successful the ideologies of your son.’ And she said: ‘Thank you, Tanya. That’s precisely what I should do.’”

Ms. Gersh said she had arranged to merchantability the spot without making immoderate profit. But a abbreviated clip later, she said, Ms. Spencer sent an email saying she had changed her caput astir moving with Ms. Gersh. Ms. Gersh supplied names of different existent property agents.

Two weeks later, successful December 2016, Ms. Spencer posted an nonfiction connected the unfastened publishing level Medium accusing Ms. Gersh of utilizing the menace of protests to blackmail her into selling. Mr. Spencer said connected Saturday that helium and his erstwhile woman had written the nonfiction published nether his mother’s name. He repeated their claims against Ms. Gersh, adding that she had called his mother, not the different mode around. The Spencers’ accusations rapidly reverberated among the acold right. Mr. Anglin of the Daily Stormer exhorted his “fam” online to “TAKE ACTION” to support Ms. Spencer.


Credit...Tailyr Irvine for The New York Times

He shared idiosyncratic accusation and the societal media accounts of Ms. Gersh and her family, including her son, past 12. A station successful which Mr. Anglin encouraged his followers to “stop by and archer her successful idiosyncratic what you deliberation of her actions” was the archetypal of immoderate 30 articles helium published targeting the Gersh household and the Jewish assemblage successful Whitefish, according to a suit Ms. Gersh filed successful 2017 against Mr. Anglin successful U.S. District Court successful Montana.

Ms. Gersh received hundreds of substance messages, emails and Christmas cards threatening her. Her dependable message filled up respective times a day. Hateful comments astir Ms. Gersh appeared connected existent property websites. Homeowners were acrophobic to database with her.

The run swept successful Rabbi Roston, different country rabbi and his wife, and immoderate Whitefish residents and concern owners the trolls believed were Jewish.

At 1 point, Rabbi Roston realized 1 of the anonymous antagonists was the begetter of her son’s champion friend. Her household did not face the man, who has since moved away. “He had a batch of guns,” she said.

Mr. Anglin adjacent announced a march connected Whitefish, planned for Martin Luther King’s Birthday successful 2017. An advertisement for the lawsuit depicted the gates of the Auschwitz decease campy with photos of Ms. Gersh, her son, Rabbi Roston and the different rabbi’s woman superimposed.

The march was planned to extremity astatine the Gersh home.

Whitefish and Montana mobilized.

Montana’s governor, lawyer wide and legislature delegation issued a bipartisan unfastened letter, making it wide “that ignorance, hatred and threats of unit are unacceptable and person nary spot successful the municipality of Whitefish, oregon successful immoderate different assemblage successful Montana oregon crossed this nation.” The politician astatine the time, Steve Bullock, wrote editorials condemning the antisemitic run and met with the families successful Rabbi Roston’s home.

As tensions roseate successful Whitefish, Mr. Spencer and his parents made nationalist statements distancing themselves from the march and from Mr. Anglin. Behind the scenes, the constabulary and the national authorities readied themselves for a perchance convulsive event.

Mr. Muhlfeld, the mayor, said that the municipality had not refused Mr. Anglin a peculiar lawsuit licence but that Mr. Anglin had not met the town’s conditions, including a prohibition connected firearms.

“If you asked, ‘Do you deliberation they’re going to amusement up?’ they were like, ‘Nah,’ but they had a afloat program successful place,” Rabbi Roston said. “If you look astatine Jan. 6, the quickness with which radical wrote disconnected threats was dangerous,” she added.


Credit...Alex Wroblewski for The New York Times

The Anti-Defamation League, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Secure Community Network, the authoritative information and information enactment of the North American Jewish community, advised residents connected what to do.

As a result, Ms. Gersh did not talk publically astir her ordeal astatine the time. Rabbi Roston kept a debased profile, discouraging sum successful the Jewish quality media to support the congregation and debar giving attackers the attraction they craved. The congregation did not cancel its Hanukkah enactment successful December 2016 but moved it from the rabbi’s location to the league country of a motel, with 2 equipped information guards astatine the door. On each table, the rabbi placed a heap of supportive letters that had arrived from astir the nation.

Volunteers distributed thousands of insubstantial menorahs. “There were menorahs successful each model successful Whitefish,” Ms. Gersh said. An anti-hate rally drew 600 participants successful zero-degree weather. On the eve of the neo-Nazi march, Rabbi Roston organized a chickenhearted and matzo shot crockery get-together for 350 radical astatine the mediate schoolhouse successful Whitefish, successful a objection of unity and appreciation.

On Martin Luther King’s Birthday — Monday, Jan. 16 — not a azygous neo-Nazi turned up to march. “We could accidental they chickened out,” Rabbi Roston joked.

In April, Ms. Gersh, represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center, filed suit against Mr. Anglin for penetration of privacy, intentional infliction of affectional distress and violations of Montana’s Anti-Intimidation Act. In 2019, she won $14 cardinal successful damages. A squad of lawyers is inactive searching for Mr. Anglin and his assets.

The proceedings successful the Charlottesville case, Sines v. Kessler, begins connected Oct. 25. A radical of victims and counterprotesters filed suit against Mr. Anglin arsenic good arsenic Mr. Spencer, on with astir two twelve radical and groups progressive successful the “Unite the Right” rally, aft a neo-Nazi astatine the Charlottesville march plowed his car into a assemblage of counterprotesters, killing Heather Heyer, 32, and injuring astatine slightest 19 others.

Mr. Spencer’s lawyer withdrew from the lawsuit past twelvemonth due to the fact that helium had not been paid. “Due to deplatforming efforts against me, it is precise hard for maine to rise wealth arsenic different citizens are capable to,” Mr. Spencer told the justice successful a pretrial proceeding successful 2020. He is present representing himself.

As the proceedings approaches, the lawsuit has generated a fig of contempt-related fines and sanctions against the defendants.

“After 4 years of truthful small accountability, it’s important to marque wide that accountability matters and it works,” said Amy Spitalnick, the enforcement manager of Integrity First for America, the nonprofit radical that brought the lawsuit.

Separately, successful May, a federal justice successful Ohio ordered Mr. Spencer’s National Policy Institute to wage $2.4 cardinal to William Burke, a counterprotester who was severely injured successful Charlottesville.

Mr. Muhlfeld said helium had past seen Mr. Spencer successful 2019, skiing astatine the upland resort. “He walked into the Summit House and summarily was booed by beauteous overmuch everyone,” Mr. Muhlfeld said, referring to a edifice there.

“Richard Spencer wanted this to beryllium his blessed abrogation spot wherever helium could play and person fun, and radical would conscionable unrecorded and fto live,” Rabbi Roston said. “Then helium started suffering societal consequences for his hatred.”

Ms. Gersh said that she had been acrophobic to enactment again aft the hatred campaign, but that aft Charlottesville, “I knew that I had to spell backmost to enactment due to the fact that if I didn’t, they win.”

She keeps a photograph of Ms. Heyer connected her table and carnivore spray successful its drawer.

Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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