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North Idaho Praised For Fighting Racism Human Rights Leaders Cite Region’s Progress

Aryan Nations leader Richard Butler pulled into North Idaho in the late 1970s, hoping to form and lead a racist nation.

Twenty years later, he struggles to be more than a troublesome outcast, say two leaders in Coeur d’Alene’s human rights movement.

That, they say, is a feather in Kootenai County’s collective cap.

“He came here knowing it was a mostly white community,” said Norm Gissell, president of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations. “But he wrongly equated ‘white’ with ‘racist.”’

As the nation honored its most famous slain civil rights hero - the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. - on Monday, Gissell and fellow task force member Tony Stewart urged North Idaho residents to celebrate their triumphs over racism.

But the two men also asked that residents not weaken their resolve to rid the region of hate.

“My hope would be that we, in the future, would become unimportant because that would mean that the opposition has become unimportant,” Gissell said. “That’s not the case yet.”

Progress has been made, both men said.

Now in its 16th year, the task force has successfully pushed the state to ban paramilitary training and create laws against malicious harassment and crimes of prejudice.

The Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment - a task force brain child - has become a national leader in the civil rights movement. This year, the group will push for laws banning bomb-making.

Democratic Gov. Cecil Andrus led the state in 1990 to finally recognize MLK day. While serving as a legislator, Republican Phil Batt convinced fellow lawmakers to authorize a state Human Rights Commission.

Now governor, Batt last year pushed to require farmers provide compensation insurance for the state’s 35,000 farm workers - most of whom are Hispanic.

At home, Panhandle residents are quick to defend victims of hate crimes and oppose intolerance, they said.

Stewart, an instructor at North Idaho College, said that when a student recently suggested “equality” was not one of the country’s founding principles, the rest of the class exploded, rejecting the argument.

He recalled residents’ outrage a few years ago when it was discovered that a Sherman Avenue bar had a “No Colors” sign in the window. Stewart and others were relieved to learn the sign was there to deter bikers from wearing gang colors.

“I mention those examples to show our (the region’s) attitude isn’t accepting of intolerance,” Stewart said.

But Gissell and Stewart also pointed to the bombing-robberies in Spokane last year and the continued fracturing and reorganizing of right-wing extremist groups.

In addition, the Soviet Union’s collapse means some residents are casting about for an enemy, they said.

As a result, the Panhandle must be vigilant in coming years to make sure no minority group - religious, racial or otherwise - becomes a scapegoat, Stewart said.

And the region must work to publicly denounce its image as a place accepting of racist groups.

When Gentleman’s Quarterly magazine wrote a cover story last year focusing on Butler and suggesting average North Idahoans viewed minorities as outsiders, the task force wrote a critical review that later was published in the magazine.

“There are still a lot of (hate) groups out there who are looking for a place to go, some place they can grow,” said Stewart. “We have to continue to make sure that place isn’t here.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 color photos