WHITEFISH – Love not only lives here, it apparently can survive in below-zero temperatures with no problem.
Bitterly cold weather Saturday morning did not deter hundreds of people from showing up next to Depot Park to remind the rest of the world that Whitefish is more than a town that, these days, is often identified with a leader of the white nationalist movement.
Speakers spoke, singers sang, dancers danced and children and adults painted signs promoting harmony among the human race at a two-hour event organized by two local women who decided they “needed to do something” in the wake of media coverage that focused on the politics of part-time Whitefish resident Richard Spencer and the so-called alt-right.
They felt the stories didn't represent the views of most people in Whitefish. Jessica Laferriere and Dominica Cleveras said they expected to set up a small public address system, invite two or three people to talk, and hoped to draw 100 people when they began planning the event shortly after the November election.
That, of course, was before a white supremacist website encouraged its readers to “take action” against some Whitefish residents after Spencer’s mother said she had been threatened with protests if she did not sell a commercial building she owns two blocks from the site of Saturday’s gathering.
The ensuing internet “troll storm” brought death threats to local Jewish people, and the collateral damage was felt by several local businesses that were targeted by the trolls as well.
Rabbi Francine Green Roston told the crowd of a story when God told Moses to stop praying, and act instead.
“I’m not telling you this because I don’t believe in prayer,” Roston said. “I pray every day, and even more, recently.”
But, she went on, it has been the actions of Montanans that have helped her community get through the past few weeks.
“In our darkest nights this winter, this state, our elected representatives, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, you all lifted us up,” Roston said through tears. “You let us know we are not alone.”
Eleven miles away at Glacier International Airport, it was, officially, 11 degrees below zero half an hour before Laferriere and Cleveras opened the program at 10:30 a.m.
The frigid temperatures didn’t keep people away. Kristen Ryan and her four children left Butte at 5:30 a.m. to attend, and the sign her 8-year-old daughter Hazel made for the event caught a lot of eyes.
“There’s no hate in my state,” it read.
“The political climate is kind of scary right now,” Kristen said, and when she read stories about what has been happening in Whitefish she decided, “That’s too close to home.”
Ryan and her children made the long drive from Butte after seeing news about the rally on Facebook.
They were treated to music by Blackfeet musician Jack Gladstone and Halladay Quist, daughter of Rob Quist of Mission Mountain Wood Band fame. Dancers from the Halau Ka Waikahe Lani Malie hula school did their best to put a tropical feel on the frigid morning.
If the Ryans ventured into the lobby of the nearby O’Shaughnessy Center to warm up, they found hot coffee and cocoa awaiting them, plus loads of baked goods donated by Flathead Valley merchants.
It was here they could join others in painting one of countless signs that will be displayed around Whitefish promoting peace and harmony, or write a similarly themed message on a Post-it note for others to read.
The signs included one that quoted Martin Luther King – “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now” – and another that read “Love Trumps Hate.”
The Post-it notes on the “Wall of Empathy” were as simple as “All are welcome in Montana” or “We’ve got your back.”
The 120 T-shirts organizers had for sale at $15 apiece – with the words “love,” “hate” and “Whitefish” and a line through the word “hate” – sold out long before the last speech of the day.
On another table, hundreds of letters from around the nation addressed to Love Lives Here, a local human rights organization, were on display.
“The whole world is watching to see whether the U.S. will allow or support the continued harassment and discrimination against marginalized people,” read one from Cashmere, Washington. “Thank (you for) your bravery in standing up to ensure all residents are treated equally under the law.”
The crowd was encouraged to support Whitefish businesses that were harassed during the internet “troll storm” encouraged by Andrew Anglin, identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as the neo-Nazi founder of The Daily Stormer website.
Organizers called it “solidarity shopping day,” and the list included Amazing Crepes, the Buffalo Café, Imagination Station, Northwind Shirt Company, Stumptown Snowboards, Sweet Peaks, Third Street Market, Walking Man Frames, Wasabi Sushi Bar and the Whitefish Hostel.
Also on the list: Whitefish Aesthetics, a spa located at 22 Lupfer Avenue in the building owned by Richard Spencer’s mother, Sherry, who rents out two commercial spaces on the ground floor and vacation apartments above it. Like other businesses that have nothing to do with the politics involved, it has been impacted by recent events.
So, too, has Hilary Shaw.
Shaw is executive director of the Abbie Shelter, which provided services to victims of domestic and sexual violence in the Flathead Valley. She also happens to be Jewish, and is the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor.
Her grandfather taught her to never judge a book by its cover, Shaw told the crowd. Not all Germans were bad, he told her, and he passed on stories of the Germans who helped him survive Hitler’s regime.
The recent threats and ugly comments from neo Nazis directed to local families anger her, Shaw said, but also pose a problem.
“How do I not cross the line into hate?” she asked.
By understanding that people who hurt others are people who have been hurt, she said.
“Fear is a reaction, not a decision,” Shaw said, and in those moments when she feels more safe than angry, she can catch a glimpse of desperate, lonely people who choose to anonymously terrorize people they’ve never even met.
Her advice: “Get outside.” Meet and interact with people.
That’s what hundreds of people in Whitefish did Saturday morning, putting a different spin, for a day at least, on the northwest Montana resort town.