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Hate’s legacy: Neo-Nazi group adopts language, iconography of the past in North Idaho, prompting human rights response

Christian Identity Pastor Richard Butler is seen speaking with reporters at his Aryan Nations compound near Coeur d’Alene in this July 2000 photo. The language and iconography of Butler’s movement has been adopted by a neo-Nazi group that says it will gather this weekend in North Idaho, but whose members and reach are far more nebulous.  (Kristy MacDonald)
Christian Identity Pastor Richard Butler is seen speaking with reporters at his Aryan Nations compound near Coeur d’Alene in this July 2000 photo. The language and iconography of Butler’s movement has been adopted by a neo-Nazi group that says it will gather this weekend in North Idaho, but whose members and reach are far more nebulous. (Kristy MacDonald)

The language and images may be familiar, but the purported gathering of neo-Nazis in North Idaho this weekend is unlike anything Tony Stewart’s seen before.

And he’s seen a lot, as one of the founding members of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, including Richard Butler’s parade down the streets of Coeur d’Alene in 1999.

“This is the first time in our over 40 years a meeting is supposedly scheduled by a neo-Nazi group in northern Idaho but seems to be like a ghost,” Stewart said Thursday. “We may never learn all the details.”

A group calling themselves the Aryan Freedom Network has pledged to hold a gathering on Saturday in Hayden, the former headquarters of Butler’s Aryan Nations movement that spawned terrorist attacks, murder and crime sprees before collapsing after a crippling financial settlement in a civil lawsuit.

The Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office said it’s aware of the reported gathering, but because it’s on private property and attendees have free speech rights, law enforcement’s role will be in keeping the peace, said Lt. Ryan Higgins, a spokesman for the office.

“We’ll deal with any criminal activity,” he said.

The adoption of the language and iconography of its antecedents should have the community concerned, human rights groups warned of the organization while remaining skeptical about its potential reach.

“What drives the dangerousness are the ideas that glorify seeing people of color as inferior, seeing Jews as demonic,” said Kenneth Stern, the director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate and one of the founding members of Gonzaga University’s Center for the Study of Hate. “Those are the ideas that are the same.”

While onlookers and counterprotesters could clearly see the adherents of Butler, carrying swastika-branded flags and performing fascist salutes, in the late 1990s, the lack of details about the current group – a member would not give The Spokesman-Review his full name when interviewed – could be part of the intimidation tactics such far-right groups have employed in the past, said Rachel Carroll Rivas, a research analyst lead for the Southern Poverty Law Center who’s studied hate groups in the region for decades.

“The reality is either way they are trying to create a spectacle,” said Rivas, comparing the organization’s nebulous public commitments to staging an event with planned marchers and camera appearances of the past. “They’re being cagey, maybe trying to intimidate communities through this fear of not knowing how many are, or who is, going to show up.”

Though the SPLC has little information about the organizers of the group, their language and use of symbols has prompted enough concern that the organization added the Aryan Freedom Network to their list of hate groups to watch in 2021.

That language and iconography should be explained for what it is, said Kristine Hoover, director of Gonzaga University’s Center for the Study of Hate. Particularly the elements of Christian Identity, adopted from Butler’s blending of white supremacy with Christian beliefs, which can be seen in some of the materials the organization has posted on its website and has been found on fliers and leaflets in Texas and elsewhere.

“When we talk about pride in being white, it doesn’t sound on its surface violent,” she said. “We talk about Christian beliefs, and they’re being twisted and warped from the way most people understand Christianity.”

Certain numbers, such as 83 (for “Heil Christ,” because of the sequence of the letters H and C in the alphabet) and 14 (for the Fourteen Words, an affirmation of white supremacy tied directly to the Order, the terrorist group whose adherents were members of Butler’s community in Hayden) are mingled with religious iconography and Biblical passages, hiding a violent meaning, Hoover said.

“We know how dangerous the Order really was,” she said. Members of the Order were convicted for crimes that included the murder of a Jewish talk show host in California and detonating bombs in North Idaho in the late 1980s. “We need to be clear on what our values are.”

That’s where the actions of human rights groups, who have announced activities counter to the plans of the hate group, come in, experts said. What may seem like symbolic messages of inclusion and rejection of the ideology are important affirmations that racial hatred is unwelcome, Hoover said.

“You never want to ignore hate,” she said. “You want to take the opportunity to demonstrate that this does not reflect the community.”

Stewart said his organization, the Kootenai County Human Rights Task Force, along with other similar regional groups supporting human rights and faith leaders, had a strong message to send while monitoring the potential presence of neo-Nazis in the community.

He released a letter Thursday invoking the memory of Timothy McVeigh, the terrorist tied to white supremacy who bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 198 people, and the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where neo-Nazi sympathizers openly carried symbols of white supremacy.

“Let us be clear to any future visitors to our region that are purveyors of hate, you and your messages of hate will not find fertile ground and we will monitor your actions for any violations of the peoples’ rights,” the letter, which includes the signatures of multiple faith leaders and other human rights organizations, reads.

Those who witness incidents of hate should also report them, to get a clearer idea of the problem in a community, experts said.

Hoover mentioned the Spokane County Human Rights Task Force’s Report Hate website as a place to ensure hateful acts don’t go unreported, and thus undocumented, in a community.

In addition, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Washington launched an online portal Thursday, allowing residents to report potential hate crimes to the FBI. Plans to increase outreach to communities victimized by hate crimes in Eastern Washington were in place before the announcement of the planned neo-Nazi gathering in Hayden, as the office was selected last fall as one of three districts in the country to participate in a United Against Hate initiative.

The goal in standing up to such hatred today is the same as it has been, Hoover said.

“We never want to be silent, but the size of the response, and what the response is, has to be incredibly strategic, and grounded in a commitment to always standing with, and for, one another,” she said.

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