“Are y’all ready for an old fashioned Troll Storm?” publisher Andrew Anglin wrote. “Because AYO – it’s that time, fam.”
With that, Tanya Gersh, a real estate agent in the picturesque resort community of Whitefish, Montana, saw her life upended. Gersh, her husband and their 12-year-old son were flooded with vile phone calls, text messages, emails, and social media posts, many of which contained death threats and anti-Semitic slurs. Gersh, who is Jewish, was told that she should have perished in the Holocaust, and received chilling voice mails with the sound of a gun firing again and again. She began experiencing panic attacks that left her vomiting and short of breath.
“I was frightened to the point that we couldn’t think straight,” Gersh told reporters after a court hearing last week. “We talked about waking our children in the middle of the night – to run from Nazis.”
On Monday, a federal judge recommended that Anglin should be ordered to pay Gersh more than $14 million in damages, finding that the neo-Nazi had “acted with actual malice” when he posted her contact information online and encouraged his followers to harass her. (“Tell them you are sickened by their Jew agenda,” wrote Anglin, whose whereabouts are now unknown.) Though it’s unclear whether she will ever see any of that money, Gersh said Monday that the judge’s findings sent a clear message to Anglin and other extremists.
“This lawsuit has always been about stopping others from enduring the terror I continue to live through at the hands of a neo-Nazi and his followers,” she said in a statement.
The barrage of online invective and threats that Gersh and her family received followed accusations that she tried to extort the mother of prominent white nationalist Richard Spencer. In late 2016, Sherry Spencer, who owned a commercial building in Whitefish, began facing scrutiny because of her son’s racist views, and some residents discussed protesting outside the property.
After she learned about the potential protests, Gersh contacted some of her friends who rented space in the building to give them a heads-up, according to the lawsuit that the Southern Poverty Law Center filed on her behalf. She subsequently received a phone call from Sherry Spencer, asking for her advice.
Gersh suggested that Spencer sell the building, make a donation and publicly disavow her son’s views, the lawsuit says. At first, Spencer seemed receptive, but she soon changed her mind. In a since-deleted post on Medium, she accused Gersh of trying to threaten her into selling.
The following day, Dec. 16, 2016, a blog post titled “Jews Targeting Richard Spencer’s Mother for Harassment and Extortion – TAKE ACTION!” appeared on the Daily Stormer. It was the first of at least 30 articles that the site would publish about Gersh, according to the lawsuit.
Anglin allegedly included phone numbers, email addresses and links to social media profiles for Gersh’s immediate family, friends and colleagues, encouraging his followers to “make your opinions known.” If they were in Whitefish, he suggested, they could even “stop by and tell her in person.” By April 2017, when the SPLC filed its lawsuit against Anglin, Gersh and her family had received more than 700 hate-filled messages. (Sherry Spencer condemned the trolling in a public statement on Medium, according to NPR.)
After unsuccessfully trying to get the case dismissed on First Amendment grounds, Anglin failed to show up at any of the court hearings, according to the Missoulian. His whereabouts are unclear, and he lost his chance to mount a defense against the lawsuit when he refused to travel to the United States for a deposition in April, claiming that he was no longer an American citizen and would face violence and harassment if he returned.
His decision may also have been motivated by the fact that he faces a number of other lawsuits from people targeted by the Daily Stormer. In June, a federal judge ordered him to pay $4.1 million to the Muslim comedian and radio host Dean Obeidallah, who sued for libel after Anglin falsely accused him of plotting a May 2017 terrorist attack that killed 22 concertgoers at an Ariana Grande show in Manchester, England.
After Anglin forfeited the opportunity to contest the Montana lawsuit, his lawyers withdrew from the case, leaving him without legal representation. He did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
In court last week, Gersh described how she had spent years building a career and a life in Whitefish, only to contemplate fleeing after Anglin edited Holocaust imagery into photographs of her and her 12-year-old son, the Missoulian reported. Her therapist testified that she developed post-traumatic stress disorder from the unrelenting harassment and hasn’t been able to fully heal because threatening messages keep coming. The troll attack also caused her income from her real estate business to take a nose-dive, according to testimony.
Calling Anglin’s conduct “particularly egregious and reprehensible,” Magistrate Judge Jeremiah C. Lynch recommended on Monday that he be ordered to pay Gersh more than $4 million in compensatory damages, as well as the state maximum of $10 million in punitive damages. In court last week, he categorized what the real estate agent experienced as an “atrocity,” according to the Missoulian.
The recommendation is subject to the approval of the chief judge for the U.S. District Court in Montana, and given that Anglin appears to have gone underground, it’s unclear whether he will ever pay up. The Daily Stormer was banned by both Google and the Web-hosting company GoDaddy in 2017 but continues an active online presence, frequently posting articles authored by Anglin. Gersh’s legal team told the Missoulian on Monday that it intends to enforce an order that blocks him from operating the site through any domestic domain company. The attorneys also categorized the judge’s findings as a symbolic victory.
“We will spare no effort in attempting to collect Andrew Anglin’s real and personal and intellectual property that is subject to collection in the United States, but the real story here is that Tanya Gersh, a small-town realtor from Montana, stood up to the internet’s most notorious Nazi, and she won,” David Dinielli, the deputy legal director for the SPLC, told The Washington Post in an email.
“Andrew Anglin didn’t have the courage even to give a private deposition in an undisclosed location,” he added. “Tanya Gersh, by contrast, testified in public in a federal court and proved definitively that Anglin’s efforts to terrorize and dehumanize her because she is Jewish did not and will not succeed.”
(c) 2019, The Washington Post · Antonia Noori Farzan