Arrow-right Camera
Go to e-Edition Sign up for newsletters Customer service
Subscribe now

This column reflects the opinion of the writer. Learn about the differences between a news story and an opinion column.

Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: The radical threat isn’t confined to a compound in North Idaho anymore

A group of 31 men with the group Patriot Front were removed from the back of a U-Haul rental truck and arrested after a traffic stop by multiple law enforcement agencies on Northwest Boulevard in Coeur d’ Alene. The stop was made just a few blocks from where the “Pride in the Park” event was being held in Coeur d’Alene City Park, Saturday, June 11, 2022. Police say the men, dressed similarly, had shields and other gear and were intending to riot in downtown Coeur d’Alene.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)
A group of 31 men with the group Patriot Front were removed from the back of a U-Haul rental truck and arrested after a traffic stop by multiple law enforcement agencies on Northwest Boulevard in Coeur d’ Alene. The stop was made just a few blocks from where the “Pride in the Park” event was being held in Coeur d’Alene City Park, Saturday, June 11, 2022. Police say the men, dressed similarly, had shields and other gear and were intending to riot in downtown Coeur d’Alene. (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)

The day after a U-Haul full of masked, militarized white supremacists were arrested on their way to riot during a Coeur d’Alene Pride Day event – complete with written plan! – the city’s mayor insisted, “We are not going back to the days of the Aryan Nations.”

He’s right, of course. Those days are gone. What’s happening now with extremism and hatred in this region is much different than what was happening then.

In some ways, it’s worse.

No, there is no longer a camp in the woods outside of town, where the hatemongers goose-step. No, there are no longer annual neo-Nazi hootenannies at the compound and parades on Sherman Avenue. The racists no longer put on uniforms and wave Nazi flags. They no longer salute Hitler downtown.

As someone who was living in Coeur d’Alene for a part of that era, I can testify that those were distressing times, and they came on the heels of widespread regional violence from white supremacists. But there was also neat and clear understanding about the relationship between the Aryan Nations and the community at large (even if that clarity was something of an illusion).

The bad guys all but wore black hats. The moralities were simple and obvious. Hatred had an address and a bank account; it could be taken to court and sued into the ground. The whole threat seemed built along clean lines and clear distinctions.

Them. Us.

These lines are no longer clear. We can no longer tell ourselves the cancer is contained in that place, among those people. A slightly diluted version of the same poison that thrived in that compound outside of Coeur d’Alene now walks Sherman Avenue in a suit and tie. It runs for office with a GOP endorsement.

It has a Facebook page – along with Gab and Parler accounts. It publishes a “newspaper” full of wild-eyed conspiracies. It spreads hatred and lies throughout a vibrant alternative-information universe centered in this region.

Them and Us have been spun into a profoundly uncomfortable blend.

So naturally, the 31 men in the U-Haul had every reason to think that Coeur d’Alene was full of fellow travelers. Because, if you subtract two or three ounces of bile from the Patriot Front cocktail, it is.

Instead of nice, neat distinctions, what exists now is a blur of bigotry. A diverse gamut of radicalization, full of gradients ranging from “patriots” to militias to end-times Christian nationalists to straight-up white supremacists.

But the lines are not hard and fast, and there is plenty of ideological overlap, especially on a matter like LGBTQ rights. If you’re too mindful of the differences, you’ll miss what’s most insidious about it – a flowering garden of conspiratorial, anti-democratic, hateful beliefs, a number of which are now openly sanctioned by “mainstream” politicians.

The U-Haul gang arrived – two from Spokane, where they had unsurprising ties to Matt Shea’s church – following a drumbeat of vile online diatribes and threats originating in this very garden of not-quite-Nazis in North Idaho.

The Patriot Front recognized an invitation when it saw one.

Back in the day, there was a unified and admirable – if perhaps slow to build – community reaction to the Aryan Nations. These days in Kootenai County, a loathsome anti-Semite can expect cheers at a political rally and a political party’s endorsement as a school-board candidate.

Does that sound like an exaggeration? A few weeks before Pride Day, Dave Reilly, an unabashed bigot and recent transplant who has maneuvered himself into Idaho politics, appeared at a GOP rally and concert by MAGA rapper Bryson Gray in a Stateline bar.

Video and still images from the event show that it was MC’d by a local Republican committee officer, and attended by several different stripes of the radical gamut, with a particularly high representation from the leathery, OK-sign-throwing, motorcycle-club faction.

It included Mike “Viper” Birdsong, the head of Panhandle Patriots who was side-by-side with key Proud Boys in the Jan. 6 mob, and Vincent James Foxx, another extremist carpetbagger with a big online following.

Local elected officials were in attendance, as well, including Sheriff Bob Norris, who pleased the crowd by promising to prevent Bad Old Joe Biden from taking away their guns. “I’m the sheriff of Kootenai County,” he said, “and I don’t give a … what they do in Washington, D.C.”

Reilly is the kind of dude that decent folk used to be ashamed of associating with. He has a long and unambiguous record of anti-Semitism in writings and online posts. He attended the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia – just as Patriot Front members did – and is now believed to have been involved in planning it.

At the rally, he was given a big round of applause.

Just a few weeks later, Reilly and others helped drive the gusher of hateful rhetoric against Pride in the Park online.

“We are a culture of love, of kindness,” Coeur d’Alene Mayor Jim Hammond said when he was insisting the days of the Aryan Nations would not return.

It was the right thing to say, and true of many good people in Kootenai County who will not stand for the ugliness that is poisoning its politics. But the forces of love and kindness have their hands full right now. The problem facing Coeur d’Alene – and North Idaho, and Eastern Washington, and America – is not so much the folks who put on the obvious uniforms of hatred as those who made them feel so welcome.

The threat is deeper, more insidious, and much harder to combat. It’s woven directly into the mainstream of the dominant political party, and exorcising it will be more difficult than arresting 31 individuals.

We’re not going back to the days of the Aryan Nations. But if the forces of love and kindness can’t prevail – and if the leaders don’t dig any deeper into the problem than looking into the back of a U-Haul – then we’re headed to even uglier days.

More from this author