The T-shirts on the table were selling fast. Bold, blue letters on the front read, “Idaho is too great for hate.”
Snapping them up were some of the nearly 500 people who filled Sandpoint Middle School Friday night to show solidarity in denouncing the county’s growing racist presence.
“By coming here tonight you have dealt a blow to the greatest enemies of human rights - hate and fear,” said Brenda Hammond.
Hammond, president of the Bonner County Human Rights Task Force, held up to the crowd an enlarged SpokesmanReview editorial cartoon. It showed a map of the United States with Idaho portrayed as a hooded Klansman.
“We need to counteract the image of our beautiful area as a place where hate can flourish,” she said. “Let this meeting be the beginning of changing the face of North Idaho.”
The Task Force rally was sparked by several incidents here, but mainly the arrival of former Ku Klux Klan leader and Aryan Nations ambassador Louis Beam.
Beam bought 15 acres in the county and plans to move here permanently.
Beam didn’t attend the rally, but about a dozen white supremacists did, led by Aryan Nations member Timothy Bishop.
The group handed out a paper that leveled inflammatory allegations against the rally’s guest speaker Bill Wassmuth.
Wassmuth, director of the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment, verbally blasted the Aryan Nations, Louis Beam and two Sandpoint groups - America’s Promise Ministry and the Idaho Citizens Awareness Network - for their racist views.
“We come together tonight to say to these groups, ‘No, not here,”’ Wassmuth said. “We can, we will and we do stand against bigotry.”
Bill Smyth, co-founder of the Idaho Citizens Awareness Network (I-CAN), was among those in attendance who did not applaud Wassmuth’s remarks.
Smyth said I-CAN is not a racist organization.
“There may be individual citizens who have racist understandings, but the group is not a racist group at all,” Smyth said.
Sean Haines, 18, of Coeur d’Alene, lead about a dozen skinhead “Aryan youth” who piled out of a white van and distributed literature.
When Wassmuth’s remarks were over, Bishop and Tom Panzini, who also said he is affiliated with the Aryan Nations, got into a shouting match over Nazi ideology with a couple of men who had been in the audience.
Haines, who said he is the “Aryan youth coordinator,” said he resents a civil rights leader such as Wassmuth - who is from Seattle - coming to North Idaho to “tell us how to lead our lives.”
Bishop videotaped most of Wassmuth’s speech and sat with several skinheads. He said he wanted it to be a peaceful protest and informed authorities and Mayor Ron Chaney of his plans earlier.
“He (the mayor) said people like Louis (Beam) and I aren’t welcome in North Idaho. I didn’t think that was right. I’m just a person who is proud of my culture,” he said.
During Wassmuth’s speech, he told residents about racist groups in Idaho.
Before the meeting he received some surprise news. Robert Pires - the white supremacist who helped bomb Wassmuth’s home in Coeur d’Alene in 1986 - asked a reporter to pass along an apology for the bombing during a telephone interview from his jail cell.
“I started dialing his (Wassmuth’s) number many times. I know there is not much I can do now, but I would like you apologize to him for me,” Pires told a Spokesman-Review reporter Friday. “What made me feel the worst was seeing his (Wassmuth’s) face on the TV news the next morning after the bomb went off.”
Pires is still in jail at a location that is being kept secret. He testified against other white supremacists and is in a federal witness protection program.
Wassmuth said he never talked with Pires after the bombing, but, “I certainly do accept his apology.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo