A Stevens County human rights coalition will be honored Saturday as one of the best among 200 bigot-battling organizations in six states.
The Upper Columbia Human Rights Coalition will receive the Tarfon Human Rights Award for Community Leadership during the party the coalition throws every year to show that tolerance is more fun than bigotry.
The Fiesta celebration is one of the reasons the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment chose the Colville-based group to receive the award.
Bill Wassmuth, executive director of the Northwest coalition, will have to compete with a dance band and some of the best cooks in Stevens County when he presents the award, according to Fiesta organizer Dennis Sweeney.
“It’s a lot of people having fun,” Sweeney said. “You don’t see that going on at too many Aryan Nations or Christian Identity or militia gatherings.”
Accentuating the positive is part of the two-edged sword the local human rights coalition wields. Otherwise, Sweeney said, efforts to combat the county’s right-wing extremists may scare away good people who are considering moving here.
“I think we need to let the rest of the nation know that there are some awfully nice, tolerant people who live in these communities,” he said.
The Upper Columbia coalition of about 100 families was formed in 1992 after an earlier, short-lived group collapsed in disputes over extending protection to homosexuals.
Officials say this year’s Tarfon award - named for a forgiving first-century rabbi - was decided before two nationally televised shootouts cast a national spotlight on Stevens County.
Former Colville-area residents Chevie and Cheyne Kehoe are still being sought for twice shooting at police in Wilmington, Ohio, on Feb. 15.
Another highly publicized case had more to do with the award, according to Eric Ward, associate director of the Northwest Coalition. He credited the Upper Columbia group for rallying public support behind Colville business operators Malcolm and Jill Friedman after they were kidnapped in June 1995 by a right-wing extremist.
The Friedmans’ tale of being robbed and abducted to Spokane by a polite militiaman who targeted them because of their Jewish-sounding name was so fantastic that even some police officers initially had doubts.
“I think the coalition dispelled a lot of the doubts,” Ward said of the group’s public statements in support of the Friedmans.
“More importantly, I think what they really did was to rally the community in support of this couple.”
The support was well placed: Last August, self-proclaimed racist Faron Lovelace confessed to the Friedman kidnapping and other crimes, including a murder. He is still awaiting trial in Bonner County, Idaho.
Ward said other factors that contributed to selection of the Upper Columbia group for the award include a public education campaign in area schools and efforts to help victims of less visible hate crimes.
Upper Columbia co-chairman Paul Lucero said one of those cases involved a black man who was alarmed to find a swastika at his work station in a local business. The same man also had some young men point guns at him outside a store, Lucero said.
“He was concerned about local law enforcement and which side they were on, and we helped facilitate that,” Lucero said, adding that police were “very helpful.”
Dr. Leslie Waters, the coalition’s other co-chair, counts it a success that the victim got a better job and decided to remain in the community. He didn’t press charges in the gun-pointing incident.
Waters said the coalition is still working on another case in which a store supervisor is offending customers and co-workers with racial slurs.
Lucero agreed with Sweeney that “a real loud, vicious, vocal minority” has unfairly tarred Stevens County’s unbigoted majority. But Waters said she worries less than some of her colleagues about improving the county’s image.
“I think our area has attracted a lot of people who would like to have a white homeland,” Waters said. “That image is at least partly deserved.”
Correcting the problem will correct the image, she said.
Waters said she expects about 450 people to take a step in that direction by turning out for the Fiesta from 5 p.m. to midnight Saturday at the Northeast Washington Fairgrounds in Colville.
Tickets for the fund-raising event are available at Cafe al Mundo, Book Depot and the North Country People’s Co-op in Colville. The price is $11 for adults, $9 for students and senior citizens, $7 for children 12 and younger, $32 for a family. Dance-only tickets cost $7.