A recent visit by a Kansas-based hate group once again pitted the Inland Northwest’s intolerance of hatred against an insidious outsider. Thankfully, we rose to the challenge and rallied against their inane message in a non-confrontational, dare I say, joyous way.
Before the Westboro Baptist Church arrived, however, a debate was circulating on how best to combat hate groups. Two trains of thought emerged: Ignore them so they’ll leave or meet them head-on with a differing message of equal intensity.
It’s interesting to note that when history repeats itself, we rarely heed its lessons. Hate groups thrive on that inability to learn from the past and apply it to the present.
Many will remember the recent past when the Inland Northwest’s live-and-let-live way was fertile ground for Richard Butler and his white supremacy diatribe to set up shop in Hayden, Idaho.
At first, Butler was considered a strange yet kindly old duck but with such a ridiculous quack, it was assumed no one would listen. The citizens of Hayden and surrounding communities chortled at his swastika-loving ways and figured ignoring equaled disappearing.
During that time of self-imposed ignorance, Butler amassed a hate group that grew bolder with each passing year. Without opposition, he built a compound, flew Nazi flags, held rallies and yearly gatherings of white supremacists from around the country. Since no one countered his message, strange happenings began – nooses and burning crosses were found on doorsteps, hate literature appeared on residential lawns, skinheads roamed the area seeking to pummel anyone deemed non-white and non-Christian.
A human rights commission was formed but by then, things were spiraling out of control.
In 1998 Butler announced the Aryan Nations 100 Man March down Coeur d’Alene’s Sherman Avenue. By now, it was obvious placating and ignoring didn’t spur the bully into taking his toys and going home – instead he grew angrier and more vocal. People readied to take a stand while others pleaded with the community to keep the status quo of ignoring or turning their backs in silent protest.
I was there that day for a story and had no intention of stepping into the fray. It was amazing and intense and interesting and gratifying and scary and needed. Police with rifles stood on rooftops, searched backpacks, and kept a lid on a situation that could have easily turned chaotic. A colorful and diverse crowd moved along the sidewalks holding signs “too great to hate” and “flush the Nazi turd.”
The march began and Butler, in pristine white shirt with microphone in hand, started his spiel but was drowned in a sea of opposing verbiage. I remember being amazed that no one crossed the flimsy yellow police tape used as a barricade. I remember Butler in the back of a slow-moving Jeep. I remember focusing my camera lens on a marcher carrying a red and blue flag, behind me the intense voices defying Butler’s message of hate and white supremacy grew louder and more urgent.
As the cavalcade approached, something clicked – and it wasn’t my shutter. One minute the camera was in my hand, the next I joined with the voices around me. That day remains vivid because it was a day I took a stand against hate.
The community’s boisterous response shocked the Aryan Nations. Butler’s inexperienced guards, anticipating violent retaliation, mistook a car’s backfire for gunshot as it drove by their compound. They gave chase, ran the car off the road, rifles pointed at the occupants. Butler lost his compound in the lawsuit that followed. His followers scattered. He died penniless.
Are these two events connected? I think so. When the community ignored Butler, his message of hate flourished; when the community confronted him with an opposing message of equal intensity, the winds of change began.
Unfortunately, hate will always be with us and groups will continually spout its message using God, country, politics and fear as its driving forces. This community, however, took the lessons learned in the past and applied them to the present. We know what can happen. I hope we never forget.