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Harsh Image Won’t Go Away Reputation For Hate, Deserved Or Not, Spurs Anti-Bigotry Conference

At a recent funeral here, mourners honored the deceased with a Nazi-style salute.

“Hip, hip, hooray!” they shouted three times, raising their right arms at each cheer.

Although a family member said it wasn’t what it looked like, there was no mistaking the gesture.

Leading the salute was Richard Masker, a known anti-Semite and Aryan Nations associate, who called the woman being remembered “a valiant patriot right to the end.”

The funeral for Eva Vail, a Hayden resident and activist in anti-government circles, attracted an assortment of people who have given the region an ugly image: Richard Butler of the Aryan Nations Church, John Trochmann of the Militia of Montana, and Louis Beam, a former Ku Klux Klan leader and longtime Aryan Nations ambassador at large.

“Many of us, we don’t think the same, do we? But we love the same,” eulogized Beam. Love, he added, was their common bond.

Human rights activists would strongly disagree.

Hate and fear are what drive people like Butler and Beam to organize, circulate and recruit others to their white supremacist beliefs, they say.

And fear of hate groups and extremists is driving some minorities and diversity-loving people away from North Idaho and the region.

While some community leaders say the reputation is undeserved, human rights advocates say the grain of truth behind the region’s reputation should be a call to action.

Coeur d’Alene business leader Duane Hagadone acknowledged the problem earlier this year when he called for an image summit to counteract the negative publicity dogging North Idaho.

In response, human rights activists are holding a “Leadership Gathering” Saturday in Coeur d’Alene with the theme “Building communities where bigotry finds no home.”

The event also marks the 10th anniversary of the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment, a Seattle-based group devoted to stopping malicious harassment, bias crimes and bigotry.

Coeur d’Alene is the coalition’s birthplace. In 1986, the Rev. Bill Wassmuth’s home was bombed by white supremacists, two months after he led 1,000 residents to celebrate human rights in City Park.

Wassmuth left his Coeur d’Alene congregation to direct the coalition, and for a time local racist and extremist activities subsided.

But ever since federal agents shot Randy Weaver’s wife and son during the siege on Ruby Ridge five years ago, organized bigotry has been making a comeback.

In that time, the Christian patriot and militia movements have gained a number of followers - and not all racists.

However, “a number of people involved in the Christian patriot movement are Christian Identity believers,” Wassmuth says. “You can’t be a Christian Identity believer and be anything but a racist.”

Because it is a movement, Wassmuth says, it needs to be countered on all levels - from the passive, armchair supporter to the violent terrorists who spin off from it.

“It’s not that it’s just an image that we can have some kind of great creative advertising campaign to turn around,” says Brenda Hammond, president of the Bonner County Human Rights Task Force.

“The reality is the fact that discontent with government is fertile ground for the planting of seeds … spread by people advocating violence as a solution, the people looking to scapegoat minorities as the reason why we’re having economic problems,” she says.

Hammond cites a school meeting she attended a few years back in Priest River that dissolved into paranoid “ranting and raving.” The speakers feared new teaching methods were designed to further the agenda of the supposedly Jewishcontrolled government.

More recently, extremist groups are entering the mainstream. For instance, the Christian Patriot organization Idaho Citizens Awareness Network entered a float in Sandpoint’s Fourth of July parade last year.

Those concerned about the region’s image also point to the recent trial of Charles Barbee, Robert Berry and Verne Jay Merrell - all from North Idaho - who were charged with the bombings of The Spokesman-Review, Planned Parenthood and U.S. Bank in the Spokane Valley.

The suspects are Christian Identity followers who engaged in paramilitary training, evidence showed.

Business recruiter Bob Potter, who runs Kootenai County’s Jobs Plus, says nearly every prospective employer asks about North Idaho’s reputation. But he’s never had anyone say they wouldn’t locate here because of that.

However, it’s impossible to know how many companies don’t even inquire because of the bad image, business leaders say.

“A lot of things are simply unasked,” says Judith Mason of Spokane’s Unity in Action and the Spokane Area Chamber of Commerce. “The image does follow us.”

When Gonzaga University student Tee Williams, an African-American, drove to school from Chicago, “I sped through Idaho,” he admits. “The perception is Idaho is the home of the Klan.”

Felix McGowan, North Idaho College’s minority student adviser, says many minority students are afraid to come to NIC. But once they do come, he adds, they rarely have conflicts with racists.

“Skinheads. They’re a real minority, but they’re still the biggest voice,” McGowan says.

McGowan, who’s half Native American, believes the region’s image is undeserved, that the actions of a few extremists are overshadowing the good intentions of the majority.

“There’s no ghetto here for minorities,” Potter says. “It’s a magnificent place for people of different backgrounds to live.”

Organizers of Saturday’s gathering hope to convene a panel of minorities to learn their views.

Chances are their experiences will be mixed.

In the last two years, black Gonzaga law students were harassed with hate letters and graffiti.

One NIC student left Coeur d’Alene because of an argument between a black and white student in the dormitory. The two hurled racial slurs at each other and the white student threatened to call in his “friends” from Hayden Lake.

Coeur d’Alene attorney and human rights advocate Norm Gissel has helped three minorities in the last four months submit discrimination complaints to the Idaho Commission on Human Rights.

Last month, when the Kootenai County Commissioners passed an English-only resolution, human rights activists denounced it as “latent bigotry and prejudice,” as well as unnecessary.

Building communities free of bigotry won’t be easy, human rights activists concede.

“We need to face our own dark side, our own prejudices,” says Janet Stevenson, former chair of the Spokane Human Rights Commission. “And stop being defensive and get to work.”

Coeur d’Alene’s groundswell of support for human rights in the 1980s earned it the Raoul Wallenberg Civic Award in 1987, an award from the Holocaust Memorial Council in 1988 (then-Mayor Ray Stone also earned the Eisenhower Liberation Medal from the Holocaust Memorial Council that year), and helped win the city the All-American City Award in 1990.

In addition, the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations has successfully pushed statewide legislation establishing uniform bias crime reporting, creating the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and making possession of bombs illegal.

The task force also sponsors an annual peace camp for students, an annual Martin Luther King Jr. holiday program at NIC, and is launching a program to award educational grants for teaching tolerance.

The Bonner County Human Rights Task Force also is active, and recently brought two Holocaust survivors to speak to a standing-room-only crowd at the Sandpoint community center and 500 rapt high school students.

The task force considers it a victory that Richard Butler mentioned the pressure from human rights groups as one reason for canceling the annual Aryan Youth Congress this month.

In Spokane, Mayor Jack Geraghty and Gonzaga University formed a task force to battle bigotry, while existing minority and human rights groups formed the umbrella group Unity in Action to increase their effectiveness in fighting racism.

More education, cultural opportunities, involvement and leadership is needed to turn the region’s image around and make real headway against racism and fringe groups, human rights advocates say.

“They’re organized. They’re active. They’re dedicated,” Hammond says of the extremists. “If we are any less of any of those things, it scares me to think what could happen.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WORKSHOP The Leadership Gathering is scheduled for 7 to 9:30 p.m. Saturday at the Coeur d’Alene Inn Conference Center. Business leaders, public officials, religious and community leaders, and other interested people from the region are invited to attend. Sponsored by the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations and the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment.

This sidebar appeared with the story: WORKSHOP The Leadership Gathering is scheduled for 7 to 9:30 p.m. Saturday at the Coeur d’Alene Inn Conference Center. Business leaders, public officials, religious and community leaders, and other interested people from the region are invited to attend. Sponsored by the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations and the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment.