Human rights dialogue revs up
Leaders say city lacks centralized anti-hate alliance
After racist literature was distributed throughout the region in 2009, a North Idaho anti-racism group mobilized leaders in Kootenai and Spokane counties to send a message at a news conference near the state line: Hate would not be tolerated in the Inland Northwest.
In the days following last week’s bombing attempt apparently targeting Martin Luther King Jr. Day marchers in Spokane, there was no such concerted effort. Some individuals spoke publicly to denounce the act, but no organizations emerged to the forefront to present a unified response.
North Idaho’s group, the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, plays an active and prominent role in combating racism and anti-Semitism. In the Spokane area, several groups work to address problems, but none has taken such a prominent vocal and public organizing role. A city-formed group called the Human Rights Commission runs with no funding and, until last year, few members.
“It’s always helpful if there’s a group in the community that creates a sustained effort to combat hatred,” said Ken Stern of the American Jewish Committee. “When people feel that they can get away with this, and there isn’t outrage, they take that as an endorsement.”
Spokane Mayor Mary Verner said she believes the city’s commission can be a sustained force against hate in Spokane and that she’s worked to reinvigorate it. Most of the commission’s seats were vacant until she made several appointments last year.
Spokane County Commissioner Mark Richard said he believes Spokane would benefit from having its own version of Kootenai County’s task force.
“I think it’s necessary – not only to make sure that we coordinate in combating hatred, but it’s a good way to bring the community together to celebrate the good things that are taking place.”
North Idaho has combated racism – and a racist reputation – for years, partly because of the prominence of the now-dismantled Aryan Nations headquarters north of Hayden Lake. But Spokane has trouble of its own.
In 2009, a noose was left on the doorstep of a human rights worker in north Spokane. That year, 25 hate crimes were reported in Spokane.
In the meantime, the groups fighting for change face their own challenges.
Nancy Nelson, former co-director of the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane, said that while the league has worked closely with civil rights groups and others over the years, its support of pacifism and gay rights has sometimes made a united front difficult to achieve.
“Oftentimes in Spokane we’ve allowed our differences of opinion to splinter our focus on working together to achieve a goal such as addressing the need to improve race relations,” she said.
In the 1980s, Spokane had a group focused on combating hate and racism. Called the Interstate Task Force on Human Relations, it reached out to victims of hate crimes and worked with community leaders to denounce such acts. But it faded after the city created the Human Rights Commission in the early 1990s, according to Tony Stewart, co-founder and secretary of the Kootenai County task force.
Stewart said he felt it was a mistake for the Interstate Task Force to disband because the new commission would be subject to political whims and government budget shortfalls.
“I said to them at the time that that was a really big mistake,” Stewart said. “Government groups have limits on them that private groups do not.”
Stewart’s concerns turned out to be prescient, said Nelson, the former PJALS co-director. The commission – especially in recent years – has been ineffective or completely inactive, she said.
“The leaders of the city never really wanted the Human Rights Commission to be anything like the Kootenai County Task Force on Race Relations,” she said.
V. Anne Hicks-Smith, president of the Spokane chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said she doesn’t see the need for a new group. The NAACP is open to people of all races and continues to be active in combating hate and discrimination in Spokane, she said.
The NAACP on Friday issued a statement condemning the bomb.
Lonnie Mitchell, pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, said if there’s a need for a stronger voice it would be better to use existing groups, such as the NAACP or a strengthened Human Rights Commission, rather than “reinvent the wheel.”
“There are just so many groups right now,” he said.
Stern, a board member of Gonzaga University’s Institute for Hate Studies, said that while Kootenai County has a successful model, other good options exist. Portland, for example, has a coalition representing several groups that meets monthly to focus on combating hate, he said.
“The important thing is that one way or another people know that hatred is not something that can be ignored,” he said.
Spokane Human Rights Commissioner Emmanuel Cannady said the commission has been focused on redefining itself in recent months and that the group will take a more public role in responding to incidents of hate.
The commission will discuss how to respond to the bomb incident at its next meeting at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at Spokane City Hall, he said.
“We need to come together, and we need to talk about it,” he said. “This is a group that is of the people, by the people and for the people.”
The now-defunct Interstate Task Force had large support from the religious community, said the Rev. Flora Bowers, who in the 1980s helped organize in collaboration with the task force and the Spokane Christian Coalition.
Bowers, who was the pastor of Liberty Park United Methodist Church in the ’80s, said religious leaders in Spokane are less united than they used to be, but there’s still a need for an active group like the task force.
“When the churches don’t speak, our congregants say, ‘What are we to do about this?’ ” said Bowers, who is the senior pastor of Manito United Methodist Church.
Karen Stratton, senior executive assistant to the mayor, said the commission hopes to work with other organizations to overcome its lack of resources.
“It’s just simply being creative,” she said. “We are definitely interested and want to do our part.”
Dorothy Webster, administrative services director, said she hopes that the commission not only speaks out against hate, but works to educate about human rights issues. Webster served as the assistant city manager for affirmative action and human rights when the commission was formed.
“If there’s going to be a group, it needs to be sustained over a long period of time, and it needs to be proactive as well as reactive,” Webster said. “I’d like to see it more active. I’d like to see it have a steady stream of funding so it can be functional. … So it can do more than talk.”
Stewart said the closure of the Aryan Nations compound in 2001 led to complacency on both sides of the border.
“This is a wake-up call to the people in Spokane and North Idaho,” he said.