A White Supremacist’s Last Grab for Glory

HAYDEN, Idaho — A difficult history of racial friction lurks here in northern Idaho. It is a history that the ailing leader of a dwindling band of white supremacists is proudly promoting as he makes one last grab for notoriety.

“We want to keep it white,” Richard G. Butler, founder of the Aryan Nations, said of the place he has made home for more than three decades.

Mr. Butler, who created the group in 1973 and a religious arm of the organization a few years later, the Church of Jesus Christ Christian, is 85 now and fragile. But he is running for mayor here nonetheless, seeking perhaps his last chance to preach the Aryan Nations doctrine that has defined his life and his work.

It is known as Christian Identity, and among its central tenets are that Jews are satanic and African-Americans are subhuman. Running for mayor, said Mr. Butler, a longtime area resident known as Pastor Butler to his followers, is a way to spread his message and have “a lot of fun” besides.

Few except Mr. Butler and his few, fiercely loyal followers take his candidacy seriously.

“He’s slowly disappearing into the sunset,” said Ron McIntire, the current mayor, who besides Mr. Butler has no other opponents in the November election. “This gives him an opportunity to speak up again, but I don’t think it’s a serious thing at all.”

Still, Mr. Butler remains steadfast in his devotion to peddling his white supremacist platform — long after he moved to this corner of the country known for its remote mountain terrain, ethnic homogeneity and live-and-let-live credo.

His campaign is a reminder to Idaho residents that it is hard to shake the area’s image as a major center of the white supremacist movement.

“He’s been a factor in the life of this larger community for a long time,” said Mary Lou Reed, a former state senator and the founding president of The Human Rights Education Institute in Coeur d’Alene, a resort city a few miles from Hayden. “And we always have to ask ourselves: Why did this happen here? What is it about our community?”

Even as Mr. Butler has continued to push his platform in recent years, much has changed here, beginning with a $6.3 million civil judgment against the Aryan Nations in 2000 that bankrupted him and forced him to turn over his sprawling compound in the hills east of here to a local woman and her son. They had sued Mr. Butler’s group for shooting at them one night in 1998.

Human rights activists eventually gained control of the 20-acre compound and turned it into a “peace park,” after allowing the fire department to burn its 10 buildings to practice firefighting.

“There has been a 50-year movement to try and reinstate the Nazi doctrine, and Richard Butler was the grandfather of that movement,” said Tony Stewart, a professor of political science at North Idaho College who has been Mr. Butler’s nemesis for decades.

Mr. Stewart moved to Coeur d’Alene in 1970, three years before Mr. Butler moved to nearby Hayden Lake from California, and helped start the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, which became the local organization for battling the Aryan Nations.

The task force, which began with 10 people in the basement of a Coeur d’Alene church, successfully fought for state antidiscrimination laws in Idaho and took up the cause of some local minority members who had been harassed by Aryan Nations members.

Mr. Butler’s group held its annual World Congress in the area for more than two decades, drawing several hundred people a year at the height of its power. The last gathering, in June, drew 75 to 100 people. Some experts on the Aryan Nations said the group was able to draw that many people only because many figured it would be Mr. Butler’s last World Congress.

The dwindling crowds at Aryan Nations events, and plans to build the center, indicate just how much progress has been made to rid the area of the group’s racist views, Mr. Stewart and others say. “A big, big chapter is finished,” he said.

What the next chapter entails and what will happen to the white supremacist movement in northern Idaho when Mr. Butler dies is not clear. But for now, he carries on, living in a home given to him by a follower on a narrow residential street in Hayden, not far from the former Aryan Nations compound.

His breathing is labored — he has been hospitalized several times for congestive heart failure — and he is not always lucid. But he managed to speak for almost two hours in a recent interview in his living room, which is adorned with crosses and religious relics and filled with books about Christianity, the United States Constitution, Hitler, Jews and the Holocaust (one is titled “Anne Frank’s Diary: A Hoax”).

He insisted that his health was fine. He also insisted that the Aryan Nations was as strong as ever, with as many as 40,000 “card-carrying” members. He said that locally his group was rebounding after the civil judgment.

“The trial broke us financially,” he said. “But we’re now coming back financially, so I want to get this word out as best as I can.”

He added, “We’re experiencing a resurgence now.”

But experts at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., which monitors white supremacist groups and brought the lawsuit against Mr. Butler, said the Aryan Nations had become deeply fractured over the last few years.

“I don’t think we’ll ever see the Aryan Nations reach the kind of power and influence it had in the 1980’s, not even close,” said Mark Potok, editor of the center’s Intelligence Report, a quarterly investigative magazine about radical right-wing groups.

Mr. Butler remains single-minded in promoting his beliefs, however, and has named a successor, Harold Ray Redfeairn, an Aryan Nations leader in Ohio. It is possible that once Mr. Butler dies, the movement’s center could shift to Ohio or another state, or fade away, Mr. Potok said.

“It’s a waiting game until Butler dies and we see what happens next,” he said.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The New York Times, USA
Sep. 12, 2003
Sarah Kershaw

Religion News Blog posted this on Friday September 12, 2003.
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