- Interview by
- Eric Ruder
Emboldened by the election of Donald Trump, neo-Nazis with connections to alt-right leader Richard Spencer announced they would hold an armed march in Whitefish, Montana, on Martin Luther King Day. Calling their march a “James Earl Ray extravaganza,” Andrew Anglin used his Daily Stormer website to urge neo-Nazis to spread their blunt message of antisemitism and racism. Antiracist activists in Whitefish and surrounding communities debated how best to respond and eventually mobilized enough public support that Anglin and the Daily Stormer announced they would “postpone” the event.
An activist from Missoula, Montana, spoke with Eric Ruder about how the activist response was organized and the larger significance of this victory.
I’m sure you consider it a big victory that the neo-Nazis canceled their plans for an armed march on Martin Luther King Day in Whitefish. Can you talk about what led up to this moment?
It absolutely is a huge victory. I think it’s a victory not only for the people of Whitefish, who have been dealing with this for years — and more sharply in the last couple of months, but also a victory for anybody who is beginning to mobilize against all of the hard-right elements emboldened by the incoming Trump administration.
And it even has international implications. I say that because the catalyst for the march, Richard Spencer, has tried to position himself as a leader of a new white nationalist movement, sometimes called the “alt-right.” Spencer lives part time in Whitefish, and his family still lives there. He’s setting up headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia, where he is hoping to create an “alt-right hub,” and he has just bought the domain name “altright.com.” He aims to seize that language and to start unifying both the US and European extreme right.
I think he’s in a position to do that. He has a kind of sickening charisma and is media savvy, and I think the media is playing to him in a way that is disgusting. So in some respects, what’s happened in Whitefish is a model of how we need to respond — calling the Nazis out for exactly who they are and drawing the links between the so-called alt-right and the actual Nazi movement. In many respects, they’re pretty much one and the same.
So I think our ability to shut down the Daily Stormer march was huge. I think they were using this moment to test how far they could take their brand of rabid, unalloyed Nazi propaganda. They also seem to be intentionally wading into the boundary between “free speech” and actual terrorist activity, as they targeted specific individuals who then received graphic death threats. Given that the Trump administration is legitimizing and using all sorts of scapegoating and racism to explain peoples’ suffering, a Nazi victory would have confirmed this whole perspective and emboldened the far right even further.
While I cannot confirm this, I think the ACLU decided not to get involved because they recognize that there’s a big difference between holding unpopular ideas, which we create space for, and calls to action that are used to incite deliberate and threatening behavior. The Daily Stormer very much engaged in a call to action, and the fact that they were forced to back down is huge.
Can you talk more about what happened on the ground after you and the rest of the community learned of this planned march? How did this victory come about?
First, the community of Whitefish, Montana, has been dealing with this menace over the course of years. As a result, there were already organizations that had grown in response to such openly racist ideas. Before the Daily Stormer called for the march, these antiracists were mostly responding to Internet trolling. The city of Whitefish condemned antisemitic ideas, and one of the local organizations led an anti-hate poster campaign and held very widely attended forums and rallies. The whole community had already been mobilized and had even issued proclamations against Spencer.
Because everybody in Whitefish was familiar with Richard Spencer, they all had an appreciation for how toxic these people are. So there was a fairly vibrant and broad anti-hate group already on the ground in Whitefish. It is precisely this vibrant community that helped compel all of Montana’s federal elected officials to come out against antisemitism and against the march, specifically.
But there was also a problem. In the past, they were somewhat isolated in taking on the fight against these guys. So when the Daily Stormer dramatically escalated its tactics by calling for an armed march and announced that they planned to mobilize a large number of racist skinheads from California, they were a bit unprepared for the massive amount of energy that new folks wanted to bring from other areas of Montana. Because of the rise in hate crimes after the election, people from all over wanted to address this markedly more dangerous level of hate.
The human rights groups on the ground in Whitefish are consistent and tireless organizers. Without them, this organizing effort would not have worked. They are the backbone of all of this. But developments all around us were posing the following question: When does it no longer make sense to attempt to “ignore” the power these Nazis are trying to generate? At what point must our own opposition become highly visible? In the face of such dramatically escalated hatred, what tactics do we offer besides countering hate with love?
At the same time that local Whitefish organizers were still aiming to “deprive the Nazis the attention they seek,” other groups from Missoula and around the country felt it necessary to go beyond keeping the response indoors. So we had a lot of conversations of this sort. This discussion included a new post-election organization that emphasized nonviolence, and activists and antifascist groups from around the United States that formed since Trump’s election. These antifascist groups were more direct-action oriented, and though they were relatively inexperienced, they were sharper in their anger and decisive about the need for direct action.
When the antifascist group announced that they were going to come and confront this march, it was like dropping a bomb into carefully thought through, but overly timid plans. At that point, the Whitefish organizers were planning to hold a party in a school building — away from the Daily Stormer march. The whole orientation was about drawing attention away from the march and “ignoring” them. So they discussed shutting down the streets, shutting down all the businesses, going behind closed doors, going inside the school.
On the other hand, the nonviolent activists from Missoula were troubled by an “inside-only” protest — but did not want to alienate the Whitefish community. While this group was far more immediately respectful of the stated wishes of the Whitefish community, they did not easily grasp that the implications of this Nazi march were bigger than Whitefish. This nonviolent group was therefore initially quite open to dividing protesters on the basis of their insider (Montanan) and outsider status.
In my view, there were problems with all three approaches: fly-in direct action, going indoors, and insider/outsider differentiations. Because I was already knee-deep in organizing for the January 21 Women’s March On Montana (in solidarity with the women’s march in Washington, DC), I had some degree of legitimacy in taking part in and pushing some pretty intense discussions with a wide range of activists — from the anarchists who planned to arm themselves and march against the Nazis to the mainstream anti-hate organizations based in Montana to various progressives who had been learning lessons from the protests at Standing Rock. I suddenly found myself right in the middle of all these debates.
I was largely motivated by three different and pretty awful scenarios. First, I felt that the issue had grown larger than Whitefish and we couldn’t stop protesters from showing up even if we wanted to. But more than that, I felt it was wrong to “go indoors.” I felt it was wrong to cede the streets to the Nazis. I thought it would be absolutely devastating to have images flashed across social media and newspapers of unopposed and armed Nazis marching in Whitefish.
Secondly, as much as I personally had qualms about the fly-in direct action strategy of the anarchists, I understood and sympathized with their strong arguments for direct action. But more than that, I though the language of “outsiders” versus “insiders” could lead to dangerous scapegoating and would fuel destructive media reports about how protesters can’t even get along as they fight the Nazis. The attention would invariably get focused on our divisions and not unequivocally on the deeply horrifying Nazi march.
Thirdly, Montana is an open-carry state. Consequently, when antifascist forces started talking about armed direct action, it created a real sense of panic. As I repeatedly explained to them in long-distance midnight calls, these antifascists had not laid any groundwork in introducing, much less explaining themselves or their tactics. I could easily envision a confrontation between armed Nazis on one side and armed non-local anarchists on the other. Obviously, that would have been an unbelievable disaster in every respect.
I thought any three of these scenarios would have been profoundly demoralizing and would have represented a significant setback for both the Whitefish community and for all of us trying to build a strong resistance to all that Trump enables and represents.
Driven by a desire to avoid these three scenarios and push back the Nazis, I focused nearly all of my contributions on four essential points. First, I urged the antifascists to ratchet down their rhetoric and take time to know the landscape. Second, I argued that we can’t and shouldn’t try to stop the massive influx of counter-protesters; third, that even as we won’t agree on tactics, we must recognize that we are all on the same side against the Nazis; and fourth, that in response to any press attention, we would keep the entire focus on the Nazis and project unity in purpose, if not in tactics.
I think my contributions made a difference. It is also crucial to note that people were open. That says a lot about the political period. People are learning all kinds of political lessons so quickly. There is an interesting level of non-defensiveness right now — at least where I am — where people are receptive to a whole host of different ideas and a whole host of new and different strategies. They are not hardened, precisely because a lot of them are new activists.
The conversations were exciting, really, even if they were sometimes difficult and intense debates. They always felt fruitful and that these were not the same-old arguments with the same-old people holding fast to their same-old positions. It was not that way at all.
Ultimately, where things landed, before the Daily Stormer called things off, was that the “behind closed doors” folks came to value and appreciate the nonviolent protesters who sought to rally outside at the base of the Nazi march. The nonviolent protesters, in turn, carved out spaces where they would coordinate on the ground with the folks more engaged in direct action. So while not everyone agreed to participate in or endorse direct action, we were able to create enough of a framework that we saw each other as all on the same side.
It may not have been a coalition in name, but it essentially acted as one: unity in purpose, diversity in tactics. By the end of the discussions, no one questioned the need for a public show of opposition and no one was using the language of outsider/insider. To me, those two shifts were extremely important.
I can’t help but think that the Daily Stormer, who watched us as much as we watched them, became aware that there was going to be this broad array of forces, not only including the more traditional groupings of human rights organizers, hippies, and anti-fascists, but also quite new forces: progressive military veterans and water protectors. You can imagine what that would have looked like — in the town of Whitefish, Montana!
So we were able to mount what started to look like a pretty overwhelming opposition. Of course, there’s a combination of reasons that they backed down. Certainly, I think they realized that they overreached and that they couldn’t pull it off. Furthermore, at the height of ski season tourism, the town had exactly zero interest in making things easy for the Nazis to march.
And finally, all of the years of hard work from human rights organizers and all of the clear statements about a large, unified public protest that emerged more recently — all of that convinced the city to deploy every legalistic argument it could find. And this, coming from a city official who praised Andrew Anglin’s sense of humor in naming the march “the James Earl Ray extravaganza.”
I do think the final straw was the Daily Stormer’s own incompetence, or perhaps self-sabotage. They submitted a permit request that was ridiculously incompetent. It gave the city a very easy, legalistic mechanism to deprive them of the right to march. And one can’t help wondering if that was a deliberate move by the Daily Stormer because it gave them a way out.
So they backed down. And while they continue more targeted and hideous trolling, at least we have drawn a line in the sand. For now. We have stopped this most visible show of force that could have mobilized and terrorized a huge number of people.
Questions do remain about what the far-right forces in and around Whitefish and the rest of Montana are up to. For example, the relationship between Richard Spencer and the Daily Stormer feels a bit like good cop/bad cop or cat and mouse. I think before Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Montana) was nominated by Trump to be in his administration, Spencer hoped to ride this wave as much as he could until our opposition made it inconvenient.
But now that Zinke’s seat may be open, Spencer is trying to legitimize his current of the white nationalist movement. He is thinking about running for Zinke’s seat in the US House of Representatives, and he’s seeking national attention. So while I think he was initially quite happy to have things all stirred up, I think he is also quite fine with things mellowing out a bit.
Although this can’t be confirmed, my suspicion is that Richard Spencer initially brought in the Daily Stormer. I have every reason to assume that he did, otherwise Anglin would not have had key names and information. I also think that Spencer put his mother up to this at some level, and that his mom allowed herself to be publicized in far-right corners as the “innocent victim” of mean and heavy-handed Jewish real estate agents who wanted Spencer out. When things became uncomfortable for them in the media, he came up with a fallback narrative. Spencer claimed he merely wanted an apology for his mother. In some grotesque, manipulative spin, Spencer positioned himself as a loyal son defending his innocent mother. Claiming not to want the march, he stated that “mothers should not be blamed for the sins of their sons.”
In an interesting cat-and-mouse performance, Anglin refused Spencer’s call to back off the march. He asserted that it was not Spencer’s call to make and that the Nazis needed to prove their strength. I think this may be reflective of tensions within the alt-right about how to move forward in this next political period. I think Spencer is looking to insert himself into the political dialogue in a legitimized way, and I think Anglin is looking to use direct action and violence to build his brand. And I think they need each other, I think they’re absolutely dependent on each other, but they position themselves in interesting ways.
So having scored this victory, what will it mean for fighting racism and Trumpism generally in the coming weeks and months?
The residue of this victory has big implications locally and beyond. I think every person involved feels this to be a tremendous victory. I go back to the day after the election, when people were in despair and shock. I’m a psychotherapist, and in my practice, people could be diagnosed quite literally with acute distress disorder after the election. You go from that kind of panic and fear and potential passivity to a feeling of being emboldened, that we won. I don’t think the consequences of that can be overstated.
I think it’s huge to imagine starting the Trump administration on the feeling of a victory. It sets us up for a very different next four years. And victory begets confidence, and confidence begets more mobilization. And statewide, I think it has an effect even on those people who weren’t directly involved. For the people that were involved, it has hardened them. It has made possible new spaces for real debate, and that is something that has been lacking for a long time in the virtual world of social-media organizing where people don’t actually confront each other and have real discussion.
People have been won over to the idea that we actually need to talk about tactics, that we need to be in the same room, or at least on the same call if we’re spread out across the state, in order to debate. People are less afraid of that debate and more able to come back the next day and say, “We’re still on the same side, what do we do next?” Again, the lessons of that cannot be overstated.
So this was significant both as a specific victory and as part of the more general process of building the Left. And I think that as we go into the Women’s March on Montana, we’re looking at having potentially three thousand people there. It may not sound huge, but this isn’t like Los Angeles where you can snap your fingers and have a block party of three thousand people. These are people coming from all over the state, who are willing to travel eight hours in 20-degree weather to commit themselves to marching for three hours and to hear an amazing array of speakers. And coming again off of the victory over the Nazis, this march is feeling tremendously celebratory, and we have the feeling that momentum is on our side.
If we had lost, I think that the women’s march would have had a kind of demoralized, beleaguered feeling, as opposed to “we are on a roll, and we are going to reclaim what it means to be in state like ours.” Some of us are thinking about a plan to travel around Western Montana to give talks about the history of multiracial organizing in Butte, to provide a completely different narrative about immigration and the history of Montana, including the history of organizing by Joe Hill and the Industrial Workers of the World. We need to project a different idea about what Montana is, who lives here, how and why we can unite to fight the far right.
The victory in Whitefish helps set us up to do that in a way that gives us confidence and makes people more open to it as well.