Temperatures were in the single digits Saturday morning in Whitefish, but that didn’t stop a few hundred people from flooding the streets downtown for a block party. With the ski hill as a backdrop, Jessica Loti Leferrier addressed a bundled-up crowd milling around heat lamps and spilling onto snowbanks.
"The extremist groups that have been making all the news do not represent us," she said.
Leferrier co-organized the so-called "Love Not Hate" rally, which showcased speeches from city and faith leaders, local singers and storytellers in what she called a stand against oppression.
"This is indeed a community where the voices that speak love and acceptance are so many more numerous than those that speak for hate and division," Leferrier said.
Whitefish recently flagged national attention after a neo-Nazi website called upon readers to target several people and businesses here with anti-Semitic online harassment. Now, locals are trying to change the narrative.
Standing on a snow pile toward the back of the crowd, Keri Kelly of Kalispell says the trolling is forcing people out of their comfort zones.
"I think there's kind of a bubble in Whitefish," Kelly said, "people believing we're this very open community and we have each other and there’s no hate here. And it's opened people's eyes that they might be living next door to it and they closed themselves off to what else there is out there. I think it’s been an awakening and inspired people to be a little more open and talk about what’s important to them, instead of just believing their next door neighbor believes the same thing."
Karsten Carlson of Columbia Falls says people in the community here have always supported each other, but the harassment has made that more visible.
"If people weren't projecting hate, no, we would not be here. But being that it's something that's reared its ugly head in our community," Carlson said. "We're out here to let anybody know that's not acceptable and we want to definitely support everyone no matter what they believe, what their religious orientation, their sexual orientation, the color of their skin. All of those things are totally acceptable."
Over loudspeakers, Hilary Shaw focused on acceptance and compassion during her speech. Shaw is Jewish and she is the executive director of the Abbie Shelter, an organization for victims of domestic and sexual violence.
"It's easy to assert that love lives here when it's business as usual," Shaw said, "but now my beliefs about welcoming openness are really being put to the test. ... If I really want love to live here, I want to hold on to that empathy."
The atmosphere of the block party was one of invigorated optimism, of a town reclaiming its identity.
But for Sean Gregory, who is looking to move back to the valley after a few years in Colorado, the rhetoric needs to be backed up with action. He watched the block party from inside the nearby Great Northern Brewing Company.
"I'm just kind of wondering whether this is kind of Whitefish showing the rest of the world, 'hey we're not racist,'" Gregory said. "And I understand that too, but you have to stand up to these people, otherwise, same thing is going to keep going on."
Gregory says the Love Not Hate event is a good start, but he’s also thinking about how the town should respond to threats of an armed march through Whitefish proposed by the same neo-Nazi website that instigated the troll-storm.
The man behind the site, Andrew Anglin, says he’s acting in defense of Sherry Spencer, mother of emerging white nationalist leader Richard Spencer. Anglin writes that he plans to bus in 200 skinheads from San Francisco, along with a representative of the terrorist group Hamas, for the march on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
But Whitefish Chief of Police Bill Dial says the city hasn’t received any of the paperwork necessary to hold a legal march. Dial addressed the weekly Glacier Country Pachyderm Club meeting in Kalispell Friday.
"Realistically, could something happen? Yes. But is it going to happen? Probably not," Dial said.
Dial confirmed his department has been closely monitoring the situation, and is cooperating with federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, including the FBI.
He said they have several plans in place to ensure the safety of Whitefish citizens, for example, setting restrictions like no loaded weapons, asking the march organizers for the names and date of birth of participants to vet demonstrators in advance and arresting any convicted felons for possessing a firearm, which is illegal.
"If they come, if they're going to protest in our city, I want them to understand they're going to do it our way, or we're going to kick their ass," Dial told the club.
He said if the march does occur, he urges people to stay home, ignore the demonstrators and know that law enforcement has "a good handle on it."
Love Lives Here will host its annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day events on January 16 and 17 regardless of the proposed march. We’ll have more information on that event, as well as the status of the proposed march, later this week.