By Cindy Mindell
It wasn’t long ago that the number of people who had heard of Whitefish, Montana were probably limited to, well, the people of Whitefish, Montana. Not anymore. Thanks to recent events the winter resort town of 6,600 has been thrust into the national spotlight – and a woman born and raised in West Hartford is playing a role in the saga.
It all began in 2011, when white nationalist and “alt-right” leader Richard Spencer Whitefish moved to run the National Policy Institute think tank and publishing firm. Soon thereafter, he would be followed by his parents, Rand and Sherry.
Late in 2016, in response to an incident involving Sherry Spencer, the town was thrust into the national spotlight when Jewish residents and businesses were targeted by white supremacists. Until then, Whitefish had drawn similar attention only twice before: in 2010, an antisemitic white supremacist publicly invited others of her ilk to move to the area to create Pioneer Little Europe. Five years later, a white nationalist who heeded the call tweeted threats to attack an elementary school 20 miles south of Whitefish and to shoot a local rabbi.
“It turns out that my corner of the state has gotten a lot of attention for having many white supremacists who live here,” says West Hartford native and Brandeis University graduate Hilary Barshay Shaw, who moved to the quiet town in the Flathead Valley in 2006 and heads a local domestic-violence shelter. In 2009, when a group of town residents screened Holocaust-denial films at the local library, Shaw and others organized a protest, which evolved into Love Lives Here, a regional volunteer-led human rights organization that is an affiliate of the Montana Human Rights Network.
It was a political altercation at the Whitefish Mountain Resort that first brought Richard Spencer into the national spotlight in late 2013. On the chairlift and then in the clubroom, Spencer allegedly attacked the political views of fellow Whitefish resident Randy Scheunemann, who once served as an advisor to U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and as a foreign policy aide to Sen. John McCain. In the end, both Spencer and Scheunemann cancelled their memberships in the ski club, but the story went national.
Love Lives Here and others responded to the increasingly intolerant climate by encouraging the Whitefish City Council to pass a “no-hate ordinance.” In early 2016, the council passed a non-discrimination ordinance that provides civil-rights protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity. At the same time, the Investigation Discovery channel fixed its lens on Whitefish in A Town on Fire, part of the Hate in America documentary series.
The town returned to relative tranquility until last November, when Spencer stood before an alt-right conference in Washington, D.C. and declared, “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail our victory!”
In anticipation of more negative attention on Whitefish, Shaw and her fellow human rights advocates met to discuss next steps. They started planning a “Love Not Hate” rally. There was some discussion about staging a protest in town, in front of a commercial building owned by Sherry Spencer.
“Her business has not been doing very well because her building is known as ‘the white supremacist building,’ as she’s Richard Spencer’s mother,” Shaw says. “When rumors of a potential protest outside the building hit the tenants, they freaked out, especially since their businesses had been struggling already. They called Sherry in a tizzy, and the story goes that she reached out to a local real estate agent who happens to be Jewish. Sherry and the agent started having conversations about what it would look like to list the building for sale. Somewhere in there, the story I’ve heard is that Sherry asked, ‘What can I do to make this situation better?’ and the agent said, ‘When you sell the building, you could make a donation to the Human Rights Network and to Love Lives Here.’”
The local ABC affiliate, ABC FOX Montana, picked up on the story, portraying the real estate agent with questionable intentions. Andrew Anglin of the Ohio-based neo-Nazi “Daily Stormer” website accused Jews in Whitefish of using “extortion” and “coercion” to force Sherry Spencer to sell her building, and called for a “troll storm” against the Whitefish Jewish community and its two rabbis.
“They posted everything they could find about these folks on their website, including pictures of the real estate agent’s son and his YouTube page and his Twitter feed,” Shaw says. “They called for harassment against all these folks and their businesses and all the businesses who support them and all the businesses that support Love Lives Here. It just took off and got really intense. These individuals, including the agent’s son, were flooded with phone and email harassment. She had to shut down her real estate business. There were some really horrible things on this website; they had the agent and her son’s faces Photoshopped onto 1930s Nazi propaganda, like photos of Jews being hanged in the streets.”
Anglin called for an armed march through Whitefish.
This time, the national attention was heartening. Local law enforcement and the FBI joined forces, supported by the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“The town really rallied around it too,” Shaw says. Love Lives Here encouraged all residents to hang a picture of a menorah in their windows, echoing a 1993 incident in Billings, Montana, when the home of a Jewish family was attacked during Chanukah and the city’s residents responded by displaying paper menorahs in their windows.
The human rights community held the “Love Not Hate” rally on Jan. 7.
“We wanted to have an event where we could all remember that this is not what our town is about, even though it seemed like this was what’s putting us on the map,” Shaw says. “Because of all the troll storming, people came from all around the state. It was freezing and there were hundreds of people and it was awesome. It picked us all out of our slump, to all be together and have something so celebratory and well-organized.”
The armed march never materialized.
“There are white supremacists and neo-Nazis everywhere and I don’t even know if we have a higher number of white supremacists or neo-Nazis living here per capita than any other state,” Shaw says. “We just get a lot of attention because Montana has a very pioneering, Wild Wild West, independent, live-and-let-live perception in the rest of the country. We’re not really that different from any other place and most of the people who were targeting Jews in our community are not from here; it was entirely over the Internet.”
Shaw, who grew up at The Emanuel Synagogue in West Hartford and is active in the local Jewish community, has never felt threatened because of her religious beliefs.
“There’s a tremendous activist community now and there are laws to protect me and there is law enforcement that’s going to come to my aid. It’s not 1930s Germany to me. I also have a responsibility to make it not 1930s Germany – which means not being frightened into silence, because I don’t have to be.”
CAP: Hilary Barshay Shaw