September 8, 2010 in City

Leaders mark 10 years since verdict that crippled Aryan Nations

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Kathy Plonka photo

Norm Gissel, a Coeur d’Alene attorney who assisted Southern Poverty Law Center attorney Morris Dees in the legal case that bankrupted the Aryan Nations, receives applause after addressing the crowd at the Veterans Memorial Plaza in Coeur d’Alene on Tuesday.
(Full-size photo)

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On Sept. 7, 2000, a Kootenai County jury rendered a $6.3 million verdict against the Aryan Nations and its leader, Richard Butler.

That action bankrupted the racist organization, severely diminishing its influence in North Idaho.

On Tuesday, 10 years later, civil rights leaders joined with leaders from Coeur d’Alene, Kootenai County, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and law enforcement to celebrate the victory at the Kootenai County veterans’ plaza. The Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations unveiled a monument made of black marble to commemorate the day.

“What a great day this is. Ten years ago and more, we had people living in this community and in this area that were full of fear,” said Coeur d’Alene Mayor Sandi Bloem. “We had many people that lived outside of this community that wouldn’t come here because they were afraid. And today, because of the heroes standing here, we can celebrate the fact that we don’t live in fear and people come to this community from all over the world.

“Silence never did win any rights,” Bloem said. “Silence never did pick up and make us a better place. And silence certainly wouldn’t have done it 10 years ago.”

On July 1, 1998, Victoria Keenan and her son, Jason, were driving past the Aryan Nations compound near Hayden when they were attacked by the organization’s security guards after their car backfired. Bullets hit their car; they were driven off the road. The guards threatened to kill them if they reported the incident. When the Keenans contacted the task force, its attorney, Norm Gissel of Coeur d’Alene, recruited renowned human rights lawyer Morris Dees and the Southern Poverty Law Center to represent the Keenans in the civil trial.

Coeur d’Alene attorney Ken Howard also joined the legal team. On Tuesday, Howard said that for years, Butler and the Aryan Nations used their notoriety to “embarrass and define this beautiful North Idaho homeland of ours as a place inhospitable to all of those who were not of the white Christian race.” For years, he said, they held parades along Sherman Avenue, and followers of Butler acted out “hatred and intolerance” by engaging in bombings, shootings and murder, but none of the violent acts could be tied to Butler.

Butler survived in this community, Howard said, because people here believed in the constitutional protections of freedom of speech and religion, despite being “deeply troubled” by the reputation of hatred and intolerance brought upon the area.

“On Sept. 7, 2000, this community’s tolerance of Butler came to an end,” Howard said. “This verdict was, in part, directed to compensate the Keenans, but largely to punish Butler and his followers and to serve to deter similar conduct in the future.”

Following the jury’s civil verdict, Butler and the Aryan Nations declared bankruptcy in federal court. The Keenans were awarded the compound, which they sold to philanthropist and human rights activist Greg Carr. He destroyed the compound and turned it into a peace park, which he donated to the North Idaho College Foundation.

“What I love most about this victory is the way the local community handled it,” said Carr, also among Tuesday’s speakers. “You didn’t take away the free speech of the other side; you just made your own voices louder. And because your cause was just, you won the argument.”

The stone for the monument unveiled Tuesday was donated by Da Vinci Stone Design of Post Falls. Artist Julie Wood contributed her services designing and engraving the stone. The monument will be displayed permanently either at the Coeur d’Alene Public Library or at the North Idaho College library, following a decision by the task force’s board of directors.

Paul Mullet, the self-described national director of the Aryan Nations, contacted the media two weeks ago when he heard about the ceremony. He said that although he has moved to Ohio due to a family death, the Aryan Nations will never leave North Idaho.

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