Love Lives In Whitefish, Montana, But So Do Neo-Nazis - 2017-02-12
When neo-Nazis started trolling Whitefish, Montana, the town had to make a definitive stand against hate. But the deepest-rooted intolerance in places like Whitefish isn't the kind that makes headlines.
"I'll tell you why these neo-Nazis and fascists move here," a man named Phil, who'd moved up to Glacier National Park after graduating from a liberal arts college, told me over dinner. "During the summer, I'd work at this place that rented all sorts of stuff to tourists in the park. So this woman comes in with a Southern accent, I ask where she's from, she says Georgia. She rents one of those infant backpacks — the kind you put your kid in. And then she says, 'This place is just so great — did you move here because there's no black people?'
"I pause, look at her, and say, 'Well, Kalispell has the most black people in Montana.' This isn't true, but I wanted to throw her. Then she says, 'Well, what about Whitefish?' And I say, 'Well, it's just all gay people.' Again, not true. 'Columbia Falls?' she asks, and I say 'Filled with Hispanics.'" "'Well, we just want to get away from some of the, well, drama down there,' this woman said, referring, you know, to Georgia. "So she takes off with her husband and her baby, and I don't see her again — until, months later, she comes back for a 9 mm unmarked pistol they'd forgotten in the little pouch on that infant backpack. 'We moved here!' she exclaimed. 'We're homeschooling our kids!'" The woman in Phil's story may not be a neo-Nazi, but she arrived in the Flathead Valley for the same reason that so many neo-Nazis, "Patriots," and other fascists have: Flathead County, population 96,000, is one of the whitest places in the nation (95.2%). There are other allures for people at odds with mainstream American culture: the large pockets of open space, the ability to live off the grid, the lack of restriction when it comes to gun ownership. The Montana political ethos — some mix of libertarian, conservative, and "don't fuck with me" — is inviting that way. As a local pastor put it, "It's a place where people can feel safe when they say outrageous things." The winters are frigid and last forever, but the summers are exquisite. Any direction you look, there are mountains. You can get a big house in the backwoods for under $100,000. For decades, tourists have come to town and asked shop owners the same thing: "How can I live here?" Starting in the early 2000s, white supremacists wanted in too. Gradually, Montana became home to the highest concentration of hate groups in the nation. In the Flathead — which includes Kalispell (more industrial, more sprawling, population 22,000), Whitefish (a quaint grid of a resort town, population 7,000), and Columbia Falls (a former timber town, now filling with those priced out of Whitefish, population 5,000) — they mostly keep to themselves. Sometimes there'll be a piece of Nazi propaganda slipped between pairs of expensive jeans in clothing boutiques; other times there'll be flyers for "A Nature-Based, Race-Centered Religion for White People" folded in children's books at the local bookstore. "Every place in town has a story like that," one business owner told me. But some things can't be ignored. Like in 2010, when April Gaede — better known as the "Nazi stage mom" to twin girl group Prussian Blue and a member of Pioneer Little Europe, an organization of whites-only intentional communities — began showing Holocaust denial films at the Whitefish library. Or this past December, when a neo-Nazi site, the Daily Stormer, launched a campaign to troll local Jews as revenge for perceived attacks on the mother of "academic racist" (and Whitefish resident) Richard Spencer.