Ideological hard-lines, social media run amok and a deadly worldwide virus epidemic have left tempers short and the restraining effects of good manners frayed. Walking away or noncommittal mumbling seem the wisest responses to vitriolic hate speech. However, the citizens of Whitefish, Montana, have shown us why the better option is to confront hate straight on.
Richard B. Spencer is a summer resident of Whitefish. He once ran his National Policy Institute from his mother’s multi-million-dollar home there.
Spencer is also a neo-Nazi. The Southern Poverty Law Center credits him with creating the term “alt-right” and describes him as one of the most successful leaders of the white nationalist movement, a force that has gained public traction since 2016.
Whitefish, like the Wood River Valley, is a relatively liberal affluent island. Its county voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020.
Just after the election in November 2016, Spencer gave a racially charged speech to his institute that went viral. Concern by some Whitefish residents about the consequences of the hate expressed in that speech soon morphed into a campaign of personal harassment and anti-Semitic rants by Spencer’s supporters. When the publisher of the Nazi-sympathetic Daily Stormer took up the anti-Semitic cause, Whitefish found itself threatened with a possibly violent white nationalist march scheduled in early 2017.
One option would have been to remain quiet, hoping not to provoke those spewing this vitriol. It’s an understandable choice, especially for the majority of residents who were not directly involved. Whitefish didn’t make that choice.
Targeted Whitefish residents maintained a low profile and gathered in safe spaces. Local and state officials expressed antipathy for hate groups. More impactful, however, were the hundreds of non-Jewish residents who chose to display paper menorahs in their windows and gather in support of their neighbors. In the end, not a single person showed up for the march.
Billings, Montana, has also become a symbol for how communities can stand up against hate and intolerance. Their actions were documented in “Not in Our Town,” a 1995 PBS film and a song.
There is nothing about Whitefish or Billings that should make their responses to hate speech and violence unique. They simply model what all communities, all people of good will, must do.
When hate groups openly target based on religion, race or, in the current climate, political affiliation, name calling easily becomes sticks and stones. Instead of backing away from the ugly words or threats of violence, we should follow the example of the Montana cities and have the courage to say out loud, “Hate is not welcome here.”
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