WHITEFISH – It began with phone calls.
“Incoherent and angry would probably be the best way to describe them,” says the restaurant owner who received them. “By incoherent, I don’t mean you couldn’t understand them, it was that trying to argue with them over the phone just wasn’t worth it. They were one-sided conversations.”
The calls were followed a day to two later by a few bad reviews – from people the owner is certain have never set foot in his restaurant – that started showing up on internet sites. One claimed to have found a pubic hair in his food. Another said his meal was delivered with a dead cockroach in it.
The Buffalo Café, one of the most popular eateries in a resort town filled with them, may have been part of the collateral damage suffered when a white supremacist website last week called for a “troll storm” against Jewish people in Whitefish.
“Maybe they thought we’re Jewish because of our last name,” says Alex Maetzold, whose parents opened the Buffalo Café in 1979.
The Maetzolds aren’t Jewish, but theirs is one of many Whitefish businesses that have felt the effects of The Daily Stormer’s “call to action” against some Whitefish residents and Love Lives Here.
Love Lives Here is a Flathead Valley human rights group that formed in 2009 in response to neo-Nazis who were showing a pro-Hitler film in Kalispell. The Daily Stormer calls Love Lives Here a “Jewish paramilitary organization” and “Jewish racketeering operation.” The website accuses Love Lives Here of targeting the mother of white nationalist movement leader Richard Spencer and trying to force her to sell a business property she developed near downtown Whitefish.
The website published photographs, names, addresses, phone numbers, and Twitter feeds for several Whitefish residents it alleges were involved, including a photograph and Twitter contact information for one resident's child. The writer, Andrew Anglin, suggested his readers contact the boy and tell him what they think of his “whore mother.”
An important part of the story, Maetzold believes, is what has happened since The Daily Stormer article.
The restaurant owner understands that what his and other businesses have been put through pales in comparison to what those whose pictures and contact information was published by The Daily Stormer have been subjected to.
“There are real people getting real threats,” Maetzold says. “People are getting attacked viciously.”
Whitefish has responded, according to Maetzold.
“I am thoroughly amazed by this community,” Maetzold says. “It was pretty cool to see how fast the community rallied behind us.”
Five negative reviews of the Buffalo Café, he says, were quickly “squashed” by more than 60 positive ones after word got out about what was happening to the restaurant.
“The town is full of good people, and the town has shown up in such a big way,” Maetzold says. “It makes me more proud of the town than scared of (the callers and internet trolls).”
“Whitefish is trying to establish who it is and what it stands for,” city councilman Frank Sweeney says. The current situation “seems to be centered around a business, but I don’t think it is. It’s whether Richard Spencer and the alt-right have a presence in town.”
Spencer is president of a white supremacist think tank called the National Policy Institute. For the last four years or so, he has often been identified as a part-time resident of Whitefish, where his parents own a home near Whitefish Mountain Resort. Sweeney says their address has been used as an address for the NPI.
The parents, Rand and Sherry Spencer, say they are not racists, and while they love their son, they reject his views. “We do not endorse the idea of white nationalism,” they wrote in a letter to the editor of the Kalispell Daily Interlake earlier this month.
Richard Spencer has gained more notoriety since Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, celebrating Trump’s election with shouts of “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!”
Some of his followers responded with Nazi-like salutes.
Ground zero for the latest Whitefish-Spencer confrontation is 22 Lupfer Ave. That’s where Sherry Spencer, Richard’s mother, built a building that opened about a year ago. It has two commercial spaces on the first floor and four vacation apartment rentals above topped by a rooftop garden with views of the ski resort.
Sherry Spencer, an artist, says she “poured my heart and soul” into the project. Her artwork decorates the four rental units and rooftop garden.
Sweeney says Richard Spencer was at one point a co-owner of the property, although Sherry Spencer is now listed as the only owner.
“To some degree she brought this on herself by not revealing his lack of ownership,” Sweeney says.
On Dec. 15, Sherry Spencer posted an article at Medium.com, an online publishing platform, titled “Does love really live here?” She accused a Whitefish Realtor of making “terrible threats” about what would happen if she did not sell the property.
Tanya Gersh “relayed to me that if I did not sell my building, 200 protesters and national media would show up outside – which would drive down the property value – until I complied,” Sherry Spencer wrote.
Gersh, through a representative of the real estate firm she works out of – which was also inundated with harassing phone calls – declined to speak to the Missoulian.
Will Randall, chairman of the board of directors of Love Lives Here, said the group never called for a protest at or boycott of the building.
“To be honest, there was talk among some people that would be a good tactic,” Randall says, “but Love Lives Here was actively trying to squelch that. It was not a good idea. The realtor said she was trying to stop a protest. None of us want to hurt the tenants in the building or the neighbors there.”
Sherry Spencer said Gersh “followed up on her conditions in a number of emails, which I’ve just made public. She even shamelessly suggested that she act as my realtor!”
Gersh also wanted her to donate profits on the sale to Love Lives Here and the Montana Human Rights Network and issue a public statement disavowing her son's views, Sherry Spencer has charged.
Randall says if Sherry Spencer felt she was being extorted, she should have gone to law enforcement “rather than throwing it to a mob of people on the internet.”
In a nearly 13-minute video he posted about the situation, Richard Spencer said, “These people who hate me, who want to attack me and go after me, are basically going to try to punish me by punishing my mother. It’s hard for me to put into words how sick I find that.”
He wasn’t as concerned with the harassment other Whitefish residents are receiving.
“It’s mean words. It’s pixels,” Spencer said. “It is simply not on the level, morally, ethically, and quite possibly legally, of trying to take away the property of an innocent woman.
“If we’re going to take away every mean tweet that someone sends,” he went on, “we’re going to ultimately take away any kind of free speech that might conceivably hurt someone’s feelings.”
The Daily Stormer story by Anglin – who is described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as being “infamous for the crudity of his language and his thinking, a contrast to his sophistication as a prolific Internet troll and serial harasser” – has generated a lot of response.
David Duke, the white nationalist, Louisiana politician, and former imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, has posted a CNN report that includes interviews with members of the Whitefish Jewish community on his Twitter feed along with the comment, “These are not good people, folks.”
That’s mild compared to most. One of The Daily Stormer readers superimposed a picture of one of the Whitefish residents targeted by Anglin on another photograph to make it appear the person was being crushed by a tank.
“Why anybody would think it’s OK to treat another human being like that is beyond me,” Sweeney says of such images. “We fought a world war over this kind of anti-Semitism.”
The Whitefish Police Department is conducting extra patrols in the neighborhoods of people who are being harassed over the phone, in emails, and on social media.
“We know they’re concerned, and we want to ensure their safety,” Whitefish Police Lt. Bridger Kelch says. “We’ve made contact with everyone who was labeled on The Daily Stormer.”
The harassing messages themselves are being turned over to the FBI. “Anything outside our area is being directed to the FBI office,” Kelch says.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock had considered holding a press conference in Whitefish Thursday to address the issue, but his office said his schedule was too tight to fit in the trip and Bullock would instead be writing an op-ed piece to be distributed across the state.
“It will encourage people to stand up to hate,” Bullock told the Missoulian. The issue, the governor noted, is not limited to Whitefish; pro-Nazi literature has been showing up in Missoula and other places in western Montana in recent days, and how Montanans react is important.
“The next generation is watching us,” Bullock said.
The Daily Stormer pounced on the news that there would be no press conference.
“The event was most likely canceled because it was deemed a waste of time – and also bad publicity for the governor to be attacking protected speech in defense of racketeering Jews,” Anglin wrote Thursday. Later Thursday, he added a post to the effect that a "big Whitefish list" of additional "targets" was being prepared for release Friday.
In the wake of the vitriol, Whitefish schools this week issued a statement “supporting a diverse and unified community based on mutual respect.”
“From Muldown Elementary to our middle school to our high school and independent high school, we teach universal behavioral expectations that evolve as students grow,” Whitefish Superintendent Heather Davis Schmidt said. “Students learn these expectations of kindness, respect, and responsibility in each classroom, and they are reinforced through positive incentives and recognition. We hope our community will join us in reinforcing these expectations outside of school.”
At 22 Lupfer Ave. earlier this week, both businesses on the ground floor were dark and their doors were locked. One of the spaces is occupied by a spa; the other appears to be be used as office space but had no sign identifying it.
There were no vacationers in the rental units either, but a friend of Sherry Spencer, who declined to identify herself because of the tensions surrounding the issue, was putting welcoming baskets in the four apartments for people who have booked them over the holidays.
Sherry Spencer had left for Dallas for a few days, where Sherry and her husband also own a home and where Rand is an ophthamologist, according to the friend.
“She’s been horrified by the backlash to the people who were trying to get her to sell,” the friend said. “She understands, because it’s the same thing she’s been getting.”
In her original post on Medium, Sherry Spencer wrote: “Whatever you think about my son’s ideas – they are after all, ideas – in what moral universe is it right for the ‘sins’ of the son to be visited upon the mother?”
Two days later, on Dec. 17, Richard Spencer’s mother posted an addendum to her original article.
“I strongly urge that everyone stays within the bounds of respectful, civilized discussion of this matter by refraining from abusive comments or targeted harassment of any of the parties involved, or their families,” she wrote. “I disavow the harassment that anyone faced as a result of these events first being brought to light by the media even prior to this publication of my side of the story. After all, my own family and I have faced – and continue to face – numerous threats and bullying on social media as well.”
As several people in Whitefish can attest, the request appears to have fallen on deaf ears.