Idaho's fight against the far right, then and now
COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho — The mass arrest earlier this month of 31 white nationalists allegedly en route to riot at a Pride event in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, drew attention to the unprecedented increase in threats to the LGBTQ community. But the events reminded locals of another time when far right extremists sought to use their turf as a national stage to promote intolerance and hatred – and how their community fought back.
"We're not going back to the days of the Aryan Nations," said Coeur d'Alene Mayor Jim Hammond, two days after the Patriot Front arrests on June 11. Hammond was referring to a neo-Nazi group headquartered in that region between 1974 and 2000.
But many Coeur d'Alene residents said the events that day, and the hostilities that built up to them, felt eerily similar to that earlier chapter in the region's history.
"There's a lot of people that know what's going on and they know something's not right," said Jessica Mahuron, with the North Idaho Pride Alliance. "I have heard people say it feels like when the Aryan Nations were at its peak. It feels like that."
Driving out Aryan Nations
In 1974, an engineer named Richard Butler bought 20 acres of farmland in Hayden, Idaho, a few miles outside of Coeur d'Alene. There, he established a compound and organization for neo-Nazis called Aryan Nations. The property held a neo-Nazi church, a modest home where Butler and his wife lived, a watchtower and barracks for young white men.
"Butler's goal was to choose five states and make that a white enclave and drive people out that weren't white," said Tony Stewart, a resident of Coeur d'Alene and founding member of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations. The "white homeland" that Butler sought to establish would be in the Pacific Northwest, and he made North Idaho its starting point.
"They were very quiet until 1980, and in 1980 they targeted a Jewish restaurant in Hayden, Idaho," Stewart said, noting that the group vandalized the establishment with anti-Semitic graffiti.
After that, the group's criminal activities escalated to include bombings, bank robberies, and even the firebombing attempted assassination of Bill Wassmuth, a prominent local Catholic priest and human rights activist. Aryan Nations had also assumed a key role among racist organizations. Every year it hosted an annual conference that drew Klan members and neo-Nazi skinheads, among others, from around the nation.
But in 1998, members of the compound committed a crime that would bring the group's days in North Idaho to a close. On a July night, an Indigenous woman named Victoria Keenan and her 18-year old son were driving along the road next to the compound. When the son dropped something from the car, they retraced their path. Aryan Nations members heard the car backfire, and started giving chase, shooting as they pursued the Keenans' vehicle.
The Keenans were injured when their rear tire blew out and the car stopped in a ditch, where neo-Nazis beat them through the windows with rifles. Traumatized by the incident, Victoria Keenan reached out to members of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, including Stewart and a local attorney named Norman Gissel. Gissel brought their story to the attention of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
"And boy they put on a hell of a lawsuit, let me tell you," said Gissel.
Led by SPLC attorney Morris Dees, the Keenans won a $6.3 million judgment against Butler and the Aryan Nations. The result bankrupted the organization, and the compound property was auctioned in 2001.
After the dissolution of the compound, Butler remained in Hayden, Idaho, and died in 2004 at the age of 86.
Gissel credits the work of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, founded in 1981 to push back against the hate and terror that Aryan Nations attempted to sow in the community, with laying the groundwork for the legal victory.
"Our jury were not people of leadership in this community. They were – as it's designed to be in the jury system – ordinary people doing ordinary things and leading ordinary lives," said Gissel. "And they had been informed by us for 20 straight years [about] freedom, equality, fairness and the rule of law."
A new far right unites against a fresh target
Today, North Idaho continues to occupy a special place in the imagination of the far right as a potential haven for hardline conservatives. Most recently, a survivalist author rebooted the concept by proposing the "American Redoubt" in 2011 – a geographical territory comprised of Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and parts of Washington and Oregon, as a territory for Christian conservatives. Many local residents say these proposals have produced noticeable results.
"There's been a real influx of individuals in the last 10 to 12 years here. And some of them moved here escaping diversity, and they say so," said Stewart. "And so if Butler was here and it was his organization today ... a number of them might join because they truly are racist."
At the Pride in the Park event in Coeur d'Alene, some of the most visible anti-LGBTQ protesters identified as recent transplants to the state.
One man, who declined to share his name with NPR, showed up roughly 20 minutes after opening remarks were delivered on the Pride event stage. He paced the perimeter of the gathering wearing full camo, including a hat, sunglasses and mask that obscured nearly his entire face. On his back, he carried a semi-automatic rifle.
"I don't want it in North Idaho," he said, referring to the Pride activities. "You know, there's so many places you can go and celebrate this. Why Idaho? Everyone is fleeing from states to try to have one conservative haven, and yet it ends up here. So where do we go from here? Do we go to Alaska? You know, there's not a lot of other places we can go."
The degree to which disparate actors on the far right have recently unified against LGBTQ people and events has presented an unprecedented threat to that community and its supporters. Across the country, it has exacted a steep toll during what otherwise would be a Pride month full of celebration of inclusiveness and varied identities. In Keizer, Ore., organizers cancelled that city's Pride Fair after concluding that they could not ensure attendees' safety in the face of harassment and threats.
"There has been a mass spreading of a lot of misinformation, skewing of what the activities that are occurring in this park [would be], and the intent and who is sponsoring it," said Mahuron. She said that she, her organization's board members, event vendors and even city officials had endured weeks of organized and targeted harassment at the hands of local mom-and-pop churches, white nationalist social media figures and their followers, and far right pro-gun groups.
One of those pro-gun groups, the Panhandle Patriots Riding Club, had scheduled its own event just minutes walking from the Pride in the Park gathering. At a table, the group's head, Michael "Viper" Birdsong displayed several books that the group had borrowed from the Hayden Library. Birdsong claimed that the books contained "pornographic" material intended to "indoctrinate" children – a claim that falls in lockstep with a narrative that falsely claims that LGBTQ people harm children.
Kristy Redfield, a resident of nearby Post Falls, Idaho, whose children were at the Pride event, was alarmed by flyers that the pro-gun group had posted for its gathering. The flyer encouraged attendees to bring firearms, and featured a line that she considered inflammatory: "If they want to have a war, let it begin here."
"When guns come up, I'm not against the freedom, but I feel like we need to be responsible," Redfield said. "When you're advertising 'bring your guns' and 'this means war,' what part of that is bringing responsible people?"
A short distance from the pro-gun gathering, a self-identified Christian nationalist named Dave Reilly led a Catholic rosary prayer in opposition to the Pride event. Reilly, himself a transplant to Coeur d'Alene, participated in the racist 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. Among those praying with Reilly were several young men with blue baseball caps sporting the "America First" slogan, merchandise associated with a white nationalist group.
Idaho as a bellwether state
Many observers say the display of weaponry by anti-LGBTQ protesters in and around Coeur d'Alene's Pride event starkly showed the volatile climate that can result from the mix of hyperpartisan disinformation; permissive gun laws; and a heightened sense of grievance among the far right as a Democrat occupies the White House. But those who track anti-democratic movements warn that it would be wrong to view North Idaho as an outlier in America.
"We really see Idaho as kind of a bellwether state," said Kate Bitz, a program manager and trainer organizer with the Western States Center.
Her organization, based in Portland, Ore., promotes inclusive democracy in the Pacific and inland northwest. Bitz points to anti-transgender bills that Idaho lawmakers considered in 2020, including prohibiting transgender girls from playing team sports and barring transgender minors from receiving hormone therapy or receiving gender-affirming surgery. She said Idaho was among the first to consider such measures. Since then, several other states have passed similar legislation.
Bitz also noted that the recent trend of white nationalists moving back into the region – two decades after Aryan Nations was forced out – also offers a warning lesson to other places that have seen anti-LGTBQ rhetoric on the rise.
"As some parts of the, I suppose, mainstream political establishment in North Idaho become more hostile toward the LGBTQ+ community, white nationalists are hoping that they can use this to demonstrate that they're part of that same faction and that they deserve attention and mainstreaming and a platform," said Bitz.
Drawing on a region's pro-democracy infrastructure
But Bitz also said the history with Aryan Nations also spurred a level of pro-democracy organizing that has effectively protected and advanced human and civil rights.
"I think that these communities have a lot of the tools that they need to educate people, bring them up to speed, make it clear what the actual live-and-[let]-live ethos of Idaho really is," she said.
Members of the Kootenai County Task Force also emphasize this point. They point to the fact that when Victoria Keenan first shared the story of her and her son's trauma at the hands of Aryan Nations, it was with members of the task force. The relationship that the task force built with her, said Stewart, made her less distrustful than she had previously been in working with local law enforcement. It was also the task force members' resourcefulness that ultimately won the Keenans representation in court by the SPLC.
The task force continues its work today, and its members say they sometimes work closely with other regional human rights groups to promote inclusive democracy. They cite their recent efforts to push back against a takeover of the North Idaho College Board of Trustees by far right ideologues.
Christie Wood, a member of Coeur d'Alene's city council and current head of the task force, said the work is more challenging as far right conservatives move into the region with the goal of transforming it. But she noted that these new residents often find the area is less hospitable to their aims than they expected.
"What they find when they get here ... are people like us. Our organization and all the citizens in Coeur d'Alene and Kootenai County that absolutely do not embrace [their ideologies]," Wood said. "Do all of those good citizens get the media coverage? No, not really. It's usually the extremists that get the coverage."
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