Northwest Montana’s recent history with hatred and extremism can be best described as erratic.
Scroll through the Southern Poverty Law Center’s online “hate map,” and the cluster of dots indicating groups they designate to be hate-oriented fluctuates wildly. In 2002 the Law Center labeled only two groups on its map. By 2009-10, the Law Center tallied 13 hate groups in the state. The number dropped to six by 2015, before spiking again a few years later. The most recent map showed seven hate groups that call Montana home, including three in Northwest Montana.
While these designated hate groups, ranging from neo-Nazi to white nationalist, have filtered in and out of the state over the last 20 years, one thing remains consistent: Montana’s unyielding rejection of their ideologies. And make no mistake, this is absolutely a point of pride for local residents who have seen groups like the neo-Nazi Creativity Movement stake claim on the Flathead Valley, only to see them lose traction in spreading their ideologies and eventually fizzle out.
Certainly we recognize assertions that the Southern Poverty Law Center has grappled with its own biases, and we encourage readers to seek out facts about the nonprofit’s work. But whatever you decide about the Law Center’s criteria for defining extremism and hate, their map puts to rest the false narrative that this corner of the state is a place where hate groups can flourish.
“Montana sort of has a bad rap of being this place that attracts extremist groups and individuals,” said Travis McAdam, a research director for the Montana Human Rights Network. “But the second part of that story doesn’t get told as much.”
That second part being the community’s resilience and the lesser-told stories of locals rising up to combat hate. Most recently, the valley was tenacious in its outright rejection of white supremacist Andrew Anglin’s call for an armed march in Whitefish.
But while Montana has pushed back on extremism time and time again, experts warn that this area is by no means immune to such events.
FBI Director Christopher Wray told lawmakers in Congress in April that “underlying drivers for domestic extremism … remain constant.
“The danger of white supremacist violent extremism — or any other kind of violent extremism — is, of course, significant. We assess that it is a persistent, pervasive threat.”
Wray said there are new challenges with tracking extremist groups, saying “It’s less structured, less organized, fewer groups, more uncoordinated, one-off individuals as opposed to some structured hierarchy.”
Social media is also playing a more significant role in recruitment, he warned.
Officials ask that people who witness hate incidents — whether online, in the work place or places of worship — should contact local law enforcement immediately.
Now is not the time to rest on our laurels — let’s stay vigilant and consistent in pushing back on hate.