In March 2016, Sherry Spencer opened the doors to her passion project, a three-story, cherry red building that peeks over historic downtown Whitefish, one of Montana’s quaint, upscale ski resort towns.
The building, 22 Lupfer, houses luxury vacation apartments and commercial office space, an embodiment of the two community strongholds — tourism and small business — that keep Whitefish on the map.
But in recent weeks, the building has become the focal point of another, less-inviting slice of the town’s reputation — one that was recently thrust into the national spotlight with the victory of President-elect Donald Trump and the rise in popularity of Whitefish’s most notorious part-time resident, Richard Spencer, the white nationalist founder of the “alt-right” movement, who also happens to be Sherry Spencer’s son.
Richard Spencer, who the Southern Poverty Law Center has described as an “academic racist,” is highly educated and has worked for years to promote the creation of a minority-free “ethno-state” and pride in white identity. The “alt-right,” a term coined by Spencer to avoid being labeled racist of white supremacist, is a small movement that seeks a whites-only state.
What has the Whitefish townsfolk bothered is this: Sherry Spencer’s business, though not linked to her son’s radical agenda, was once tied to him through building documents, and her home address is still listed as the location of Spencer’s National Policy Institute’s principal office, Virginia state records show.
By late November, Sherry Spencer still had not, activists said in local news reports, publicly disavowed her son’s beliefs. As a community business owner and longtime Whitefish resident, some believed she should.
The town and Richard Spencer had tussled before, on the ski slopes and in a coffee shop, but his mother, Sherry Spencer, and his father, Rand, had kept a remarkably low profile. Rand is an ophthalmologist. Sherry owns the business.
At the time 22 Lupfer opened, Sherry Spencer’s efforts were lauded by the local newspaper.
But that was nine months ago, before Richard Spencer’s movement claimed Donald Trump as its champion and before Trump’s election pushed that movement into the national spotlight. It was before hate incidents targeting Muslims and people of color spiked in the days after Trump’s victory and before Richard Spencer inspired a Nazi-like “Hail Trump!” salute at a D.C. conference hosted by his National Policy Institute.
It was before Whitefish once again felt the need to defend its reputation from the smear of Richard Spencer’s philosophy.
The town held a vigil and the mayor reread the town’s anti-discrimination resolution at a December city council meeting, a resolution passed in 2014 when Richard Spencer’s movement first reared its head in Whitefish. But that didn’t seem like enough.
Some residents directed their attention to Sherry Spencer.
The escalating tension was chronicled in a local TV report last week that seemed to tell the simple tale of a small town deeply divided.
The specifics of what happened next remain unclear. Sherry Spencer claims she was targeted by activists, who, using the threat of massive protests as leverage, tried to bully her and her tenants into selling her commercial building and distancing herself from her son.
Those same activists tell a different story — that what transpired was the work of a tightknit community trying to defend itself.
It didn’t take long for the followers of Richard Spencer’s movement, including former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, to join the conversation.
Within days, a handful of white nationalist, neo-Nazi websites took to the Internet to defend Spencer’s mother and vilify the activists listed in the local TV story, including the founders of Love Lives Here, an affiliate of the Montana Human Rights Network, a rabbi and several Jewish community leaders.
The most prominent among the sites was the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website that promotes a “Jewish Problem” tab and once published an article after the election that called on readers to “troll” Trump opponents and drive them to suicide.
“Jews Targeting Richard Spencer’s Mother for Harassment and Extortion,” read the headline about Whitefish. “TAKE ACTION!”
In the post published Friday, which called the Jewish people a “vicious, evil race of hate-filled psychopaths,” Daily Stormer shared the names of the Whitefish activists, who are all women, and their photos, which were accompanied by sexist commentary and digitally altered with overlays of the Star of David. The post included the women’s phone numbers, Twitter handles and email addresses, plus the names and contact information for their husbands.
The post also shared the name, photo and Twitter account of one woman’s young son.
It encouraged readers to spam Love Lives Here and the Montana Human Rights Network.
“So — get to it!” the post says, reminding readers not to advocate or provoke violence. “Let these people know what you think!”
All weekend, the human rights organizations and about a half-dozen people, including all three women, have been receiving death threats.
“Go choke on a shotgun and die,” read one message. “You would all be of greater worth to society as human fertilizer than as citizens.”
City council members have been targeted, and local businesses that support human rights are being harassed on review forums.
“It’s exactly what they called for,” Rachel Carroll Rivas, co-director of the Montana Human Rights Network, told The Washington Post early Monday. “They called for an online troll storm and that’s what it is. It is very personal and incredibly anti-Semitic. These are tactics that are intended to instill fear.”
Rivas said those receiving the anti-Semitic threats are reporting them to law enforcement as they flood in. Two of the Jewish women whose identities were published asked Rivas to speak on their behalf. They are trying to lay low and wait for the harassment to subside, Rivas said.
Sherry and Rand Spencer have publicly distanced themselves from their son’s philosophy.
In the local TV story, Sherry Spencer said that as parents, she and Rand “deeply love our son, as we always will,” but, she added “we unequivocally do not agree with the extreme positions espoused by Richard.”
She reiterated in a Medium post on Dec. 16 that she is the sole owner of the 22 Lupfer building in downtown Whitefish and wrote that “she poured her heart and soul into this project.”
Sherry Spencer criticized the pressure she received from community members and directed her frustration toward one woman, a local real-estate agent, who was also a target of the Daily Stormer post.
Richard does not own the building, nor has he ever used it for his writing or publishing. Put simply, the building has nothing to do with politics — and it has everything to do with tourism and local businesses.
I had no intention of selling . . . until I started receiving terrible threats in the last couple of weeks.
Sherry Spencer never intended to “go public” with the story, she wrote, but the media coverage “forces my hand.”
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?
All I wanted to do with the building was help Whitefish.
The people attacking me claim that “loves lives here.” Now it’s time for them to show it.
In an interview Sunday night with The Post, her son, Richard Spencer, did not disavow the call to action from the Daily Stormer, but did say “that’s not really my style.”
“I would not have posted someone’s personal information, it’s not the way I do things,” Spencer said. “I think it’s important to call people out.”
Richard Spencer, who was in Whitefish for the holidays when he talked to The Post, was also highly critical of the group Love Lives Here.
“Their lives are based around creating tension and hating people,” he told The Post. “No one in Whitefish had anything ill to say about my mother.”
He said he was “shocked” by the behavior of some residents, that the last name of one Jewish activist sounded “sinister” and that the rabbi was “up to no good.”
Richard Spencer called the attacks on his mother “vicious” and “totally unwarranted.”
Spencer told The Post his mother has not yet decided if she’ll sell the building, but in an email to the Daily Inter Lake a few days ago, Rand Spencer said that as a result of the threats, Sherry had decided to sell the building.
That same day, the Daily Inter Lake published an op-ed from Rand and Sherry Spencer titled “An appeal to Whitefish: Live and let live.”
In it, the Spencers explained why they love the town and decided to settle there, then claimed Richard Spencer as their son.
We are the parents of Richard Spencer, president of the National Policy Institute and a leader in the alt-right movement. As parents we love our son. We are not accustomed to the spotlight. Furthermore, we feel we are not part of the story, nor do we wish to be a part of this story, as our son is a grown man. We are not racists. We have never been racists. We do not endorse the idea of white nationalism.
They called themselves and their business tenants “victims” for being threatened with boycotts.
There is no justification for their sustaining collateral damage. We, too, are victims, having no role in any of the events that have unfolded recently. A wise friend recently consoled us that being a parent, especially of an adult, is one of accepting responsibility without having control.
More from Morning Mix: