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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: The ‘Racist Honk and Waves’ are absurd, but nothing to laugh at

Shawn Vestal  (DAN PELLE)
Shawn Vestal (DAN PELLE)

There they were, as they sometimes are, standing on Northwest Boulevard in Coeur d’Alene one night last weekend, holding a big banner.

“ITS GREAT TO BE WHITE,” the sign said.

Who would possibly be surprised that these great white dudes – the self-proclaimed defenders of their race – can’t punctuate a simple English sentence? Or that these proud whites, out under the cover of darkness, would display their self-esteem by covering up their faces with masks?

It’s just so stupid.

Around the same time, letters from another well-known racist organization began appearing in some North Idaho mailboxes, according to social media posts – calling for a white homeland in Idaho: “ONLY ANGRY WHITE PEOPLE CAN MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.”

So, so stupid.

The occasional appearance of this kind of “flyering,” like bubbles rising off a sewage pond, stink but are unfortunately not surprising. Whether it’s stickers on light posts, flyers distributed on college campuses, signs flown on street corners and freeway overpasses, or letters showing up in mailboxes, the periodic outburst of analog communications from white supremacists are a grim, if often misspelled, reminder: They’re here.

They’re not only here, of course, and they’re not only stupid. In fact, their stupidity is maybe the least important thing about them, given that racists and white nationalists comprise our greatest domestic terror threat, and given that they seem empowered and emboldened to show up in our community lately.

The tactic of distributing flyers or waving signs, which is used by white nationalists and neo-Nazis all over the country, is partly a way for small groups to try and make themselves seem important and legitimate – to both recruit members and intimidate others, said Kate Bitz, a program manager and trainer/organizer with the Western States Centers, which helps communities organize in opposition to racist and anti-democratic actions.

“A lot of what you’re looking at is these groups attempting to intimidate communities and make themselves look bigger and more influential than they really are,” she said.

If they manage to appear as comic bumblers along the way, it’s a bit delightful – though that’s not to say it’s not serious. Bitz said some of the leaked chat conversations among Patriot Front members showed them discussing how and where to distribute flyers, targeting diverse neighborhoods for intimidation.

But that group is doing more than flyering, as we know. Thirty-one of them rode in a U-Haul truck to disrupt a Pride event after implicit invitations from the current new crop of bigoted, anti-Semitic trolls who have been welcomed with open arms by the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee.

They were amusingly inept, showing up with a written criminal conspiracy in hand. But even after members of the group were arrested in Coeur d’Alene and have begun appearing in court, they have continued escalating into violent encounters elsewhere.

The masked guys with their sign last weekend are something else. Based their online activity, they seem like a small group calling themselves White Lives Matter, out there trying to recruit a fellow traveler or two.

And yet Bitz noted that the words “White Lives Matter” – a response to Black Lives Matter that initially took hold several years ago among neo-Nazis and Klan groups – is now a rallying cry for disparate white nationalist groups across the country, who are organizing days where they are collaborating in elevating their message.

Members using that name in Montana have been active this year as well, holding similar “Racist Honk and Waves,” said Travis McAdam, program director for the Montana Human Rights Network.

The honk-and-waves may seem paltry and absurd to some, but they amount to a kind of low-level form of terrorism directed against some members of a community, from people of color to members of the LGBTQ community, he said.

On a social media channel for the Idaho group, these “activists” post videos of themselves doing their proud, masked street corner preaching. You never see a single face in these videos – they are always masked, and usually in the skull-mouth mask that is one hallmark of the modern racist.

These videos show the valiant race warriors slapping stickers on the Pike Place pig in Seattle, flying “Stop White Genocide” banners over freeways, standing there on corners in Canada or St. Maries with their signs, flashing the OK sign.

In the standout clip, four proud racists stroll through a ferny green forest somewhere in Washington, crossing log bridges and posing for a photo in the crotch of a tree, all to the strings of “California Dreamin’ ” by the Mamas and the Papas.

In masks.

Maybe the best part of the sign-waving videos is the fact that they capture the responses of people passing them in cars – people who repeatedly insult, curse and mock them.

It’s pretty satisfying to watch, if you hate racists.

But it’s always serious when the racists poke their heads out of their holes – as they increasingly feel invited to do, particularly in North Idaho, where explicit anti-Semites now operate with the formal sanction of the GOP.

“It is always worrying when these groups show up, even in a small way, because they are reading the signs our society is sending,” Bitz said. “That would not be happening if they didn’t feel they had some kind of opening in our community.”

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