COEUR D’ALENE, IDAHO — This is not a hate-filled community, and never has been. But for more than two decades Coeur d’Alene, a community beautifully nestled between mountain slopes and an alpine lake, was nearly synonymous with the ugliness of racism.
Coeur d’Alene and Bozeman share many similarities. The two cities are roughly the same size. Built on logging and agriculture, the cities are better known now for amenities like outstanding scenery and outdoor recreation. They’ve both grown fast in recent years.
Coeur d’Alene’s Sherman Avenue, the city’s main east-west artery, slants down through the historic and well-preserved downtown to hotels and boat docks and North Idaho College, all on Lake Coeur d’Alene. It’s an idyllic scene, as stunning as Bozeman’s setting against the Bridger and Gallatin Ranges.
That community’s response would ultimately change Idaho law, change the way hate groups were dealt with and become a model for response for other communities across the country. Coeur d’Alene, a city which to many outsiders had come to epitomize intolerance, in 1990 became Idaho’s first All-America City. It won the award because of its human rights work.
But that came later, after years of battles, after white supremacists had held marches, harassed and assaulted residents, and bombed homes and businesses.
A quiet beginning
Richard Butler moved to Coeur d’Alene in 1973. He bought 20 acres of land near Hayden Lake, about 10 miles north of Coeur d’Alene, and called it the world headquarters of his Aryan Nations.
For the next seven years the compound was pretty quiet. Locals knew he was there and that he was recruiting members. They occasionally saw Aryan Nations members in the area.
The wakeup call for Coeur d’Alene came one night in late 1980. Vandals tagged a restaurant owned by Jewish businessman Sid Rosen with Nazi slogans and anti-Semitic slurs.
The same day Rosen discovered the vandalism at his restaurant, about 20 community members met there in the evening to show support for him.
Marshall Mend, a local real estate agent, was there, though he downplays any noble motives for his immediate involvement.
“Here I am, a Jew in Northern Idaho,” Mend said. “My first response was looking out for No. 1, looking out for me.”
He knew the incident could mark the start of a dangerous time.
Soon after the Rosen’s Restaurant incident, a second ugly threat emerged. A man named Keith Gilbert began harassing a multi-racial Coeur d’Alene family. He took to following one of the boys home from school.
“If you can imagine, threatening a child’s life, but he did it,” said Norm Gissel, a Coeur d’Alene attorney who also became involved in the human rights movement.
That harassment so outraged Mend that he became committed to fighting the white supremacists.
He and other residents formed the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations. Present at the first meeting were the incoming Kootenai County prosecutor and the incoming undersheriff.
That early involvement of law enforcement was important, Gissel said.
Battling perceptions as well as Nazis
The national media had learned what it knew about civil rights violations covering the desegregation battles of the 1950s and 1960s. In the South, racist activity went on with the tacit approval of the “white ruling elite,” said Gissel, who had spent part of his military career in Mississippi in 1963.
“So the national media knew that when there was Klan activity, there was support from the ruling elite from their community,” Gissel said. “The default presumption of the national media was that it was (in Coeur d’Alene) just like it was in the south. It was our job to make a lie out of that, to make sure the ruling elite did not support (white supremacists).”
Mend said they succeeded.
“(Supremacists) never got that support,” Mend said. Instead law enforcement prosecuted vigorously.
Father Roger LaChance is pastor at St. Pius X and a member of the human rights task force. His predecessor at St. Pius had also been a leader in the human rights task force, and had been the target of a pipe bomb attack at the church rectory.
“People would say, ‘we’re not coming to northern Idaho because of hatred and prejudice,'” LaChance said. “That’s insanity. It’s a great community. That’s why to be painted with the racism brush is really tough.”
In 1983, the task force was instrumental in getting Idaho’s Malicious Harassment Act passed, which made it a felony to harass anyone. In 1987, Idaho passed the Civil Remedies Act, which made it possible for victims to sue the harasser for actual damages, punitive damages and attorney fees. The same year, Idaho’s Domestic Terrorist Act made paramilitary training by two or more individuals punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $50,000 fine. Other laws restricted explosives, mandated reporting by law enforcement of hate crimes and prohibited filing false liens.
“Then one day we looked up, looked around and we had the best anit-hate statutes in the U.S.,” Gissel said.
Very out-front and vocal
Tony Stewart has been a political science professor at North Idaho College in Coeur d’Alene since 1973. Stewart is a cheerful man, with pale blue eyes and thinning white hair, and a slightly mischievous demeanor, as if he has something surprising to say and is just waiting for the right moment.
By 1980 he was known in Coeur d’Alene for his annual issues forum and a radio show. So the human rights task force organizers asked Stewart to come to the first meeting. He’s been involved ever since.
From the very first meeting, the task force adopted two main strategies, Stewart said.
First, they decided that they would be “very out-front and vocal,” Stewart said. They did not believe, as some in the community did, that just ignoring the racists would make them go away.
Second, no matter what Richard Butler did, “We would never attend anything he did, but whenever he did something, we would do something of even greater magnitude,” Stewart said.
For example, in 1985, when Butler held his world congress meeting in Coeur d’Alene, the media came from all over the country and Butler drew about 300 followers to his rallies. Meanwhile, at a city park some distance away, the community held a peace rally that drew 1,000 people.
“We did something but we didn’t go out and stand by the gate with a protest sign,” Stewart said.
But probably the most satisfying response the community came up with occurred in 1998.
“Lemons to Lemonade”
Butler had announced he was going to lead a parade through downtown Coeur d’Alene.
The Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations came up with a plan they called “lemons to lemonade,” and held a news conference of its own.
Individuals and businesses, task force members explained, had pledged to donate money to the task force for every minute the Aryan Nation march lasted.
Butler had three choices, the task force announced:
Cancel the march, which would be good for the community, but wouldn’t raise any money for human rights.
Lead the marchers really, really quickly through town, which would raise some money for human rights.
March very slowly, which would raise a lot of money for human rights.
People immediately recognized and enjoyed the power of this humorous — and productive — plan. The news media loved the neat triumvirate of possibilities and trumpeted it in numerous stories and broadcasts.
Butler’s march lasted 27 minutes.
“When it was all over, we’d raised $35,000,” Stewart said.
And the best was yet to come. The task force divided the money up and arranged to make grants to civil rights groups around Kootenai County. They stretched the awards out over months, calling a news conference each time they issued a grant.
“And every time, we’d say, ‘We have to say Richard Butler raised this money for human rights,'” Stewart said. “To me that is much better than standing on the sidelines and yelling for 27 minutes.”
Richard Butler died in September, 2004. By that time he’d seen his Aryan Nations lose its compound in a multi-million judgment in a lawsuit brought by a woman and her son who had been assualted by neo-Nazi guards.
The 20 acres was given to North Idaho College. Every building was razed, every sign of its former purpose buried or carted off. After allowing time for the land to “heal,” a college official said, the property will become a peace park.
We appreciate your support
Our website includes affiliate links, which means we get a small commission — at no additional cost to you — for each qualifying purpose. For instance, as an Amazon Associate Religion News Blog earns from qualifying purchases. That is one reason why we can provide this service free of charge.