Tanya Gersh kept bags packed for her and her family, in case they had to flee their home in the middle of the night. She was terrified of answering the phone. Once, she picked it up and heard only the sounds of gunshots. Another caller threatened, “we can bury you without having to touch you.”
They came in through email: “We are going to have a field day with you scumbags,” one anonymous person wrote to her. “If I was you I would suck the barrel of a shotgun or run to that s—hole in the dsert your fkn animals stole from the Arabs. We are going to keep track of you for the rest of your life and alert any and all ppl you come into contact with of how much of a piece of s— you are.”
Others emailed her colleagues at the real estate agency where she worked, to try to get her fired. Many worked together to destroy her Google results. One created a profile for Gersh on a site called “shesahomewrecker.com,” with a false accusation against her. They sent threatening messages to her husband: “Put your uppity slut wife Tanya back in her cage, you rat-faced k–e. Tell your scamming son to kill himself, too. Day of the rope soon for your entire family.”
Somebody photoshopped an image of her 12-year-old son, to make it appear is if he was being “crushed by Nazi trucks,” and sent the image to him.
“Overnight, my life was stolen from me,” said Gersh, a Jewish resident of Whitefish, Mont., in an interview with The Washington Post. Now she is suing Andrew Anglin, the man who she says is responsible for the “coordinated, repulsive, threatening campaign of anti-Semitic harassment” that targeted her family. Anglin runs the Daily Stormer, a well-known neo-Nazi website.
The complaint, filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana, details many of the more than 700 harassing messages the Gersh family received since mid-December. That’s when the Daily Stormer, published the first of about two dozen articles under Anglin’s byline mentioning Gersh, encouraging the site’s readers to participate in a “troll storm” against her. The Washington Post was provided a draft of the complaint in advance.
The harassment aimed at Gersh has to do with a dispute between residents of Whitefish and Richard Spencer, a prominent white nationalist who once considered himself a part-time resident of the town. The Daily Stormer posts cited in the complaint attempt to justify the “troll storm” by accusing Gersh of “trying to extort” Spencer’s mother Sherry. Sherry Spencer owned property in Whitefish, including one mixed-use building that was listed as the principal address for Spencer’s white nationalist National Policy Institute. While Sherry Spencer’s family was under pressure to condemn her son’s beliefs in the wake of his increased national profile, Gersh told us the accusation of an attempt at extortion was false, an incorrect interpretation of their contact with each other.
The complaint accuses Anglin of invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and violating Montana’s anti-intimidation act. The Southern Poverty Law Center is providing legal representation for Gersh, along with local counsel John Morrison. The suit is seeking seeks compensatory and punitive damages.
Richard Cohen, the president of the SPLC and one of Gersh’s attorneys, said in an interview with Gersh on Monday that the case was an adaptation of the organization’s legal strategy to “hold hate leaders responsible for the actions of their followers.” This time, however, the case is mostly about digital harassment.
“I think it’s an incredibly important lawsuit,” said Danielle Citron, a law professor at the University of Maryland who specializes in online privacy. Digital harassment is a relatively untested area for lawsuits like this, and would-be plaintiffs often face two challenges: It’s expensive to bring a case, and online harassment isn’t always taken as seriously as physical harassment by individual judges or jury members, “especially of a certain generation,” Citron said.
Victims of cyberharassment have long questioned the ability of the legal system to handle cases like theirs. Zoe Quinn, the target of threats and harassment after an ex-boyfriend’s accusations about her personal life sparked the gamergate movement, said in a 2016 interview that she often found herself explaining basic terms like “Twitter” and “doxing” and “online mobs” in her attempt to pursue her legal options against her harassers.
What makes Citron optimistic about Gersh’s case, she said, was the “sheer volume” of harassment detailed in the complaint itself. “I think it’s that volume that’s going to be persuasive,” she said. Citron, who reviewed the complaint in advance, said she was consulted by the SPLC in the early stages of the organization’s involvement.
Anglin did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday. In previous posts on the Daily Stormer under his byline, he has said that he was “not calling for threats or harassment or anything else.” In another post, Anglin wrote: “I did not ever threaten anyone with anything — if I did, I would be in jail or at least facing criminal prosecution. They just lie, because they are filthy lying Jews.”
Gersh’s harassment stemmed from a series of accusations that spread through the neo-Nazi parts of the Internet in the months following Richard Spencer’s rise in national notoriety. Richard Spencer, credited with coining the term “alt-right” as a more palatable label for white supremacist beliefs, gave a viral speech at a Washington D.C. event hosted by his organization in November. In videos, Richard Spencer shouts “Hail Trump” to Nazi salutes. The ensuing attention on Richard Spencer rekindled local tension about his Whitefish ties.
The story played out nationally as a town struggling to contend with the presence of Richard Spencer, who advocates for the creation of a whites-only “ethno-state.” But on sites like the Daily Stormer, and in Richard Spencer’s own statements about Whitefish, the discussion focused almost entirely on individual members of the town’s small Jewish population. First among them was Gersh, a real estate agent who had spoken with Sherry Spencer about selling her property and donating a portion of the sales to local anti-racist groups.
No one disputes that a phone conversation occurred, but that’s where the similarities end. Gersh said she was merely trying to help the Spencers, who don’t share their son’s extreme beliefs, when she suggested a plan to sell the property that had since become a possible target of protesters. About a month after they first spoke and two weeks after Gersh said the two last spoke, Sherry Spencer published a Medium post accusing Gersh and Love Lives Here, a local anti-racism nonprofit, of sending “terrible threats” to her to force her to sell the property.
In the Medium post, Spencer’s mother claims that Gersh laid out “conditions” in order for her to avoid protests at her business, and accused Gersh of threatening one of her tenants “with boycotts unless she moved.” As proof of her accusation that she was threatened, Sherry Spencer published emails from Gersh, without her own responses to them. Gersh implores Sherry Spencer to stay in touch with questions about “what is going on in the community,” and to consider the sale of her building.
That same day, the Daily Stormer published the first of many posts about Gersh under Anglin’s byline. He wrote:
“There are only 6,000 Jews in the entire state of Montana, yet they’re 100% of the people trying to silence Richard Spencer by harassing his mother. So Then — Let’s Hit Em Up. Are y’all ready for an old fashioned Troll Storm?”
The post then lists the contact information for Gersh and a few other members of Whitefish’s Jewish community. The contact information includes an address for Gersh. “Please call her and tell her what you think,” Anglin writes. “And hey — if you’re in the area, maybe you should stop by and tell her in person what you think of her actions.”
Anglin also includes a disclaimer, asking his readers not to do anything illegal. Gersh and her attorneys say the bulk of the ensuing communication was harassing and threatening — including toward her 12-year-old son, whose social media handles were listed in Anglin’s post as a target. Anglin calls him a “scamming little k–e” and a “creepy little f—–t.”
“It’s common for people in Anglin’s position to protect themselves with disclaimers,” Cohen said. But, he added, he believed Gersh’s case is evidence that Anglin’s “troll storms” are explicitly designed to have the effect of “making people afraid.”
“Hating people is one thing,” Gersh added. “This is a form of terrorism.”
Anglin’s byline appears repeatedly on posts about Gersh and Whitefish after that first call for a “troll storm.” In one article, he promised that “we will keep putting pressure on these Jews, Tanya Gersh in particular, until they stop harassing the Spencers and issue an apology for this brutal Jewish racketeering.”
The Daily Stormer applied for a permit for a planned January march that originally was supposed to end at Gersh’s home, he wrote in another post. He called the event the “James Earl Ray Day Extravaganza” in paperwork posted to the blog, after the man who assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. In another post, Anglin said he hoped many of the march’s attendees would be armed. Advertising materials for the march included an image that placed photographs of Gersh and her son inside a concentration camp.
“And they will rue the day, as they see two hundred skinhead Alt-Right Nazis marching with a guy from Hamas carrying machine guns through the center of their town!” Anglin wrote in early January. Whitefish rejected the Daily Stormer’s permit for a march, and the Daily Stormer eventually announced that they had “postponed” the event.
The planned march was condemned by elected officials from Montana in both political parties. When The Washington Post reached out to Richard Spencer for comment on the controversy earlier this year, he sent a statement that spoke at length about Gersh. “No laws are being broken; no one is being physically attacked,” Spencer said at the time. “Anglin & co. are expressing *opinions*, passionately and bluntly. And who can blame them? For the actions of Tanya Gersh are nothing less than outrageous.”
Gersh, however, dismisses assertions from Richard Spencer and others that the campaign against her resulted in just words. “My ability to do my job is gone,” said Gersh, who says she cannot work as a real estate agent when the threats against her put the properties of her potential clients at risk. “My sense of safety has been compromised terribly.”
The complaint says Gersh has experienced “severe emotional and physical distress” from the harassment, including panic attacks, weight gain, joint pain, and hair loss. The complaint reads: “she feels like an entirely different person than she did before the troll storm, as though she has been permanently altered.”