The number of anti-government groups in Montana held steady in 2016 while anti-Muslim activity surged, according to census information released this month by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Of the 917 hate organizations identified in the latest report, 20 are located in Montana, including several white nationalist, anti-Muslim and anti-government groups scattered across the state.
In Montana, the groups include the American Freedom Party, the John Birch Society, the Oath Keepers and ACT for America, among others.
“It’s particularly interesting that the SPLC report notes a dramatic increase in anti-Muslim hate groups across the country, and that was definitely the case in Montana as well,” Rachel Carroll-Rivas, executive director of the Montana Human Rights Network, said on Tuesday. “We’re definitely seeing an increase in activity.”
While the Southern Poverty Law Center identified 34 anti-Muslim groups nationally in 2015, that number grew to 101 last year. Five new groups have been identified in Montana.
Much of the state’s anti-Muslim activity centered around ACT for America, according to Rivas. Chapters in the state have brought in speakers claiming to be security experts while pushing for policy changes at both the local and state level.
Rivas believes those policies hold “a negative and hateful view” of Muslims.
“While hate groups have increased, some of the hate activity in our state isn’t necessarily coming from organized entities that have a self-identified name,” said Rivas. “They’re individuals within a larger movement that isn’t necessarily identified as a hate group or organization, but they have some underlying affiliation.”
Citing an example, Rivas said that while ACT for America is part of a national network, the American Security Rally was a state group listed without national affiliation. Its leadership includes Helena hairdresser Gina Satterfield, who promotes a group known as Citizens for a Better Helena.
On Tuesday, Satterfield denied her organization qualified as a “group.” She said that while she may be Islamophobic, she was not a racist.
“If I’m such a hater, why do I have gay friends, transgender friends, blacks and Mexican friends?” Satterfield said. “If you name it, I have it as a friend.”
Satterfield said refugees cost taxpayers billions of dollars each year, citing Breitbart as her source. Her Facebook page includes a litany of fake news, including such headlines as “Obama Ran Pedophile Ring Out of Whitehouse” and “Civil War Erupts in Sweden as Irate Swedes Burn Nine Muslim Refugee Centers to the Ground.”
“The politics of Islam—I don’t care about the religion—is sugar-coated with 10 percent religion while the rest takes a social and militaristic stance,” Satterfield said. “I’m not a racist, bigot or hater. Islamophobic? Yeah, whatever.”
Last week, the Council on American-Islamic Relations sent a letter to 22 Montana legislators and the House Judiciary Committee, urging it to oppose an anti-Muslim bill poised for consideration. In particular, the letter took aim at the measure’s attempts to prohibit state courts from considering so-called “foreign laws.”
Satterfield lashed out at the letter on her Facebook page, as well as the Council on American-Islamic Relations and a well-known Montana refugee family that has lived in the state for decades. Among other things, she wrote, “Please don’t bless me with your Interfaith god that co-mingles with Allah or his prophet Mohammad or coexistence of Chrislam, aka pluralism.”
She admitted a dislike for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR.
“I don’t want CAIR around—they’re a Sharia strong-arm and sue-happy manipulators,” Satterfield said. “The amount it would cost to take a refugee here, instead of helping them over in their own country, it would cost us between 12 and 14 full-time welfare recipients.”
Recent FBI statistics indicate that anti-Muslim hate crimes grew by 67 percent in 2015. In Montana, Rivas said, that has included intimidation of LGBT and minority students in some Montana schools, along with anti-Semitic leafleting and Nazi-oriented graffiti.
Rivas said the activity has picked up over the past year, a phenomenon that the Montana Human Rights Network and the Southern Poverty Law Center attribute to Donald Trump’s early candidacy and eventual rise to the presidency.
“The hate activity focuses on racial discrimination and Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, and we’ve seen that building over the last six months or year,” Rivas said. “The candidacy didn’t create the movement, but it created a space where folks could be louder in those views.”
Montana found itself at the center of national news as a result of the mainstreaming of white supremacist ideas by Trump supporters, including Whitefish resident Richard Spencer, who incited a post-election crowd in Washington, D.C., with “Hail Trump” chants and Nazi hand salutes.
Mark Potok, editor of the Intelligence Report, said 2016 was an “unprecedented year” for hate. The rise in hate groups accelerated when President Barack Obama took office. While the activity subsided shortly after, it has since picked back up.
“The country saw a resurgence of white nationalism that imperils the racial progress we’ve made, along with the rise of a president whose policies reflect the values of white nationalists,” Potok said.
This article originally appeared on Missoula Current, an independent online newspaper, of which Martin Kidston is the founding editor.