The Montana chapter of White Lives Matter held a protest Saturday at a busy intersection in Helena as part of a nationwide "Day of Action" organized by the neo-Nazi hate group, officials with the Montana Human Rights Network said Tuesday.
MHRN officials said their research indicates that most of the WLM supporters who appeared in Helena over the weekend drove in from other parts of the state.
The roughly 10 white nationalists who participated in the protest held signs and banners at Washington Street and Custer Avenue, MHRN, which monitors such activities, said Tuesday in a post online. Social media posts show WLM supporters wearing masks and holding banners urging people to "honk if white lives matter." A woman was seen in one post confronting the protesters.
Helena police received a call about the demonstration from someone who was offended, Lt. Jayson Zander said Monday, but the protesters had dispersed by the time officers arrived.
White Lives Matter, designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, was formed by established white nationalists, MHRN said. SPLC described the group as a racist response to the civil rights movement Black Lives Matter. According to SPLC, two white supremacists and the Texas-based Aryan Renaissance Society, a neo-Nazi group, “appear to be the main players behind it, hosting WLM rallies and engaging in WLM flyer distributions across the nation since 2015.”
Travis McAdam, MHRN’s program director of combating white nationalism and defending democracy, said activity for the Montana chapter has increased recently, and supporters have encouraged like-minded extremists to move to Montana.
There was some mystery as to where the group would be Saturday in Helena.
McAdam said that in the week leading up to Dec. 18, WLM extremists said they would hold a rally and hang a banner off an interstate overpass.
There were also rumors of a rally at the state Capitol, “which would have provided the optics that groups like this crave – white nationalist signage with the Capitol building and flags in the background.” “In the end, the small group of Nazis stood with their signs at a Helena intersection and left without any splashy activities,” McAdam said. “No banner hung on the overpass and no rally at the Capitol took place.”
When a counter-protester started filming WLM sign holders at the intersection, an extremist allegedly pulled out a hammer and threatened the person, McAdam said.
On the online messaging app Telegram, a member of the Montana chapter posted, “I carried a hammer at the demo Saturday lol,” McAdam said.
In another video posted on Telegram, a WLM member yells at a woman: “Why don’t you go to a health food store and quit being so fat and annoying?”
McAdam said that because their numbers are so small, WLM Montana extremists travel around the state to make it appear that their group has a statewide presence.
“Our research indicates that most of the WLM supporters who appeared in Helena over the weekend drove in from different places in the state,” McAdam said. “It’s clear that each activity in which WLM engages is designed to radicalize more people to their movement, advertise Montana as a perfect Aryan homeland, and draw white nationalists to the state.”
Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins said Tuesday he has seen online posts about people around town with White Lives Matter signs. He said they have that right under the First Amendment protection of free speech.
“I just hope it’s peaceful,” he said, adding he was sure the police were aware of the protests and would address the situation accordingly.
Collins said he knew of a previous time WLM Montana had a protest in Helena. The group had hung a banner at Prospect Avenue and Interstate 15.
“There are a few people who want to stir up things that are not there,” Collins, a Liberian refugee, said. “It’s is not going to work. This community is way too decent for the crap that two or three people are trying to pull.”
McAdam agreed about what was accomplished.
“Their plan backfired,” he wrote. “Instead of making people feel targeted and alone, their presence has brought together many community members who are organizing to share information and remove any sign of WLM’s presence as quickly as it pops up.”
McAdam said the best way to resist violent extremism is to publicly support and protect the people they target.
WLM Montana’s biggest presence had been in the Flathead Valley until recently, McAdam noted, where supporters had placed racist stickers in public spaces throughout Kalispell.
After the national group announced its day of action, WLM stickers and extremists have been spotted in Bozeman, Great Falls, Helena, Missoula and Polson.
He said the Montana chapter was trying to attract attention and new recruits for its Dec. 18 event in Helena.
McAdam said in his online post that communities should be concerned whenever groups like WLM are comfortable enough to show up in public.
He said their “sad stunt” over the weekend served two purposes: get publicity and recruit new followers, and create a presence that intimidated and threatened Jewish, Black, Indigenous and people of color and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people.
McAdam said membership in WLM can be expected to grow and the small turnout in Helena should not be interpreted as a reason to dismiss the legitimate threats that WLM presents.
“To stop groups like WLM, we all need to work to make our communities safer and healthier places for everyone,” he wrote. “What happened this weekend in Helena is a perfect time for all of us to look ahead to the new year and decide which organizations, institutions, and leaders we are going to support.”
MHRN is a nonprofit group that challenges bigotry and discrimination and advocates for legislation that honors rights, its website states.
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