North Idaho's Example

by Cynthia Taggart & r & A tumultuous 25-year growth experience that presented North Idaho with some of its proudest and most shameful moments may become a recipe for success for the rest of the world starting this month.

The grassroots task force that sprang to life in reaction to white supremacist hate activities in North Idaho is sharing the lessons it learned on the rugged road that culminated in the Aryan Nation's exit from the Inland Northwest.

"It seemed to me, it just had to be done," says Tony Stewart, one of the founders of the Coeur d'Alene-based Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations. "We want to show a record of our history and let other communities learn from it."

A nine-part public television series on Kootenai County's human rights task force begins this week.

Stewart, a political science instructor at North Idaho College, also donated to the NIC Library his collection of task force memorabilia that spans 25 years. The 16 boxes are packed with task force activity-related news videos, newspaper clippings, documents, lists of event speakers and media attendees from around the world and more.

"Recording history is so important," Stewart says. "So many things happen that are of significance that get totally lost. I didn't want that to happen."

NIC will use the collection for classroom instruction and share it with other learning institutions. Denise Clark, one of NIC's library specialists, says the library eventually will create a Web site with parts of the collection for public access.

"It's a great tool for historians and for any small community that wants to see how a successful task force operates," Clark says. "It's an invaluable resource."

The task force story offered on public television through NIC's Public Affairs programming is a factual and unemotional account of a highly dramatic period in North Idaho's history. Stewart's goal is characteristically academic -- to teach and not to entertain. He says he hopes the task force story will inspire communities everywhere to form grassroots task forces that protect human rights.

But stomach-churning drama is evident in every recollection Stewart's guests relate on the show, from their reactions to North Idaho's first cross-burnings and paintings of swastikas to their relief over the judicial decision that ultimately chased white supremacists from the area.

Marshall Mend, a longtime task force member, conveys that relief clearly in the eighth program as video shows the 2001 demolition of the Aryan Nation compound in Hayden Lake.

"It was a good feeling seeing that stuff come down," Mend says. As he speaks, viewers see a backhoe pulling down an intimidating watch tower. "That was a great day for human rights, for Idaho, for the world."

Stewart combined old video footage with new for the nine-part series. To set the scene, he opens with a look at the civil rights history that led to white supremacists settling in the Inland Northwest. Civil rights movements in the 1960s and 1970s were successful enough to force die-hard hate groups to search for an area as close to all-white as possible. In 1973, Richard Butler, leader of the Aryan Nation, discovered North Idaho.

In 1980, North Idaho discovered Richard Butler after a restaurant owned by a Jewish man was the target of neo-Nazi vandalism. Stewart's program recounts the initial shock and confusion among local citizens and the determination of one woman, Dina Tanners, that eventually led to the birth of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations in 1981.

The three shows that follow were recorded during the task force's first decade and include interviews by Coeur d'Alene human rights leaders Bill Wassmuth and Larry Broadbent. (Both are dead now.) The men discuss white supremacist bombings of Coeur d'Alene's federal building and Wassmuth's home and the rise of deadly splinter groups Order 1 and Order 2. No one was injured in the bombings, but Wassmuth's home was damaged. Members of both Order groups were connected to murders in other areas.

The programs show the community's mixed response to the while supremacist presence and the task force's commitment to respect civil rights without attracting too much attention to the Aryan Nation.

Stewart recorded the five remaining shows this fall. They show the task force's growing movement to spread the message of the importance of human rights. The programs begin with white supremacist death plots against Wassmuth and Mend in 1992.

"The FBI said I was on a hit list and to check my car before I went out," Mend says on the show. He wasn't cowed. He headed to a skinhead rally in Colville and told the crowd that had gathered in protest to speak up.

"I told them silence gives consent. Stand up for human rights," he says, repeating the task force's guiding philosophy.

The task force had begun to reach beyond North Idaho by then. Stewart tells of his travels to Asheville, N.C., where the Ku Klux Klan was moving into a higher gear. Stewart offered support and explained how the North Idaho community had rallied against hate activities.

"It was very rewarding," he says.

The programs cover the spread of grassroots human rights protection to Bonner County, an international conference on human rights at NIC and the birth of a peace camp to reinforce the importance of human rights with teenagers.

"The best way to reach out is to do something for kids," says Lucy Lipinski, a task force member who helped organize the camp.

The chronological series covers every major event pertaining to white supremacist activity in North Idaho. The underlying message stays the same: Communities need to unite in their rejection of hate groups. The 1998 Lemons to Lemonade campaign is possibly the most dramatic example of how effective this strategy is.

Doug Cresswell was president of the task force that year and relates on Stewart's program the challenge to the group when Richard Butler announced plans for a 100-man march down Coeur d'Alene's main street. The task force found its response to the march in Pennsylvania, where a town had countered a hate march by taking pledges on how long it would last. The money it collected went to human rights causes.

"We asked people to pledge cents per minute the Aryan Nation marched," Cresswell says. "The longer and slower they marched, the more money we raised for human rights."

The campaign raised $35,000 the task force distributed to 13 human rights causes.

"We reached checkmate with the Aryan Nation," Stewart says, sharing a smile with Cresswell. "We got national and international attention. It was a great way to do something without confrontation."

The attention paid off more than anyone expected. When Aryan Nation security guards shot at a car passing on the public road, then chased passengers Victoria and Jason Keenan that year, the Keenans remembered reading about the task force. They called a woman connected to the group and began the demise of the Aryan Nation in North Idaho.

Norm Gissel, the Coeur d'Alene attorney who took the civil case that grew from the attack, recounts on Stewart's program writing to the Southern Poverty Law Center and asking for help. Morris Dees, a noted attorney who had bested the Ku Klux Klan in court numerous times, agreed to work with Gissel.

A court eventually awarded the Keenans $6.3 million in damages, forcing the Aryan Nation to turn over to them its 20-acre compound.

Gissel, a devoted task force member, shares with the public that bringing down the Aryan Nation was probably the most important act of his life.

"Norm, you're truly a hero for all the work," Stewart says during one of the program's rare emotional moments. "You've given an incredible gift to all the country."

Stewart invited Spokesman-Review reporters Bill Morlin and David Oliveria for the final program. The two reporters followed the Aryan Nation and the task force from their beginnings in North Idaho. Morlin became known nationally as a media expert on white supremacist activity. Oliveria accompanied Coeur d'Alene human rights leaders to New York City in 1987 to accept the Raoul Wallenberg Award for defense of human rights. He attended with media from around the world.

The reporters laud the task force for their strategy with the media. Stewart admits his group had no money for publicity so depended on the media to spread its message. The media helped the task force become the recognized voice of human rights, first in North Idaho, then beyond.

Morlin wraps up the series neatly with possibly the most important message for viewers.

"Key members of the task force are still here. They stood together, all focused on community issues," he says. "The task force really is a model the rest of the country should look at."

The first installment of the nine-part series, North Idaho College Public Forum: Celebrating the 25-Year History of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, airs on Sunday, Jan. 8, at 10 am on KSPS Channel 7 and runs weekly through March 12. The series also will show on KUID-TV Channel 12 on Saturdays at 7 am and again at 6:30 pm.