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Norm Gissel: Fighting for dignity and honor

| October 13, 2013 9:00 PM

Civil rights attorney Norm Gissel is a pivotal part of North Idaho history.

He is one of the founding members of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations and he was instrumental in convincing Victoria and Jason Keenan to bring suit against the Aryan Nations, an action resulting in the $6.3 million verdict that forced the sale of Richard Butler's compound.

Gissel has been honored many times. In 2013 Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa dedicated the 22nd edition of the Blue Book to local human rights leaders Gissel, Bill Wassmuth, and Tony Stewart.

How did you get involved in the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations?

The reason that I was drawn to this was my experiences as the child, as a young college student, then as a graduate.

I was in the Air Force, and I was in on my way to a duty station in Mississippi, I needed to get gas. I saw the old '50s style restrooms and, out of the corner of my eye, I caught this image. I have to remind you that this was in 1963, so it was the height of the tensions in the racial world.

What caught my eye was oil drums welded one on top of another two high, so it would be about six feet high. White-washed on there was the word "niggers," and that's where African Americans had to go to the restroom if they were there to buy gas.

The rage that I felt, that is the same rage I feel today, that the person who owned this would go that far to humiliate some of his own client base. It immediately it occurred to me - that sign would not be there, that arrangement would not be there, if the cultural and political leaders had not tacitly agreed to this.

This never left my mind, that social and cultural dishonesty that was there, on parade for every one to witness.

What do you mean by dishonesty?

Good aspirational societies have everybody within those societies with a full measure of dignity and honor. When you rig your society to keep an entire class of people at a lower level, that culture is dishonest to its own humanity.

What did you do to make the Nazis no longer a part of the political process?

One of the first things we decided to do was appropriate all of the big powerful words in American society: Freedom, equality, fairness, the rule of law and human dignity. We believed that we had a right to do it, because we were on the side of these big words. What we were going to do is represent the society of Kootenai County, and by extension North Idaho, and by extension, the Inland Northwest. They were co-equals with us in our racial consciousness.

We used these words to identify ourselves, and to identify Kootenai County, North Idaho, and the Inland Northwest as people who understand these big, powerful words and what they meant. And the Nazis never, ever understood that.

There's political isolation there. We would identify them as this group that did not understand the true, lyrical quality of American democracy. They did not understand it, but everybody else did. It was an assumption, but it eventually turned out to be a true of assumption.

How did you know it was going to work out?

We didn't. We understood that we were cultural politicians. It was different from regular politicians, because regular politicians have elections and they tell you whether you are doing a good job.

In cultural politics, there is no clear venue for your culture to tell you how you're doing. You can go for a decade without a clear indication of how you're doing.

Cultural politics are extremely complex, and there are lots and lots of issues. We spent an enormous amount of time discussing these issues.

When the trial came up, we had conversations about the virtues of the lawsuit, how much advantage we could receive from the lawsuit, how much disadvantage we could have by proceeding with the lawsuit and losing. That was a big set of conversations.

How did the Keenan case come to you?

Mrs. Keenan and her son were driving home from a wedding, and she was driving a little Honeybee Honda. The old tiny little things, top speed of about 40 mph. And she was taking the back roads home. She lived in Bonner County.

She was going down Rimrock. Rimrock Road was the frontage road for the Nazi compound, 20 acres, 12-14 structures altogether. The Nazis had built a tower. They were armed and in that guard house, and the facts of the trial show they had been drinking a case of beer.

In the guard tower there were four guards. One of them walked down to the road and witnessed this Honeybee go past the compound, and then head back, and go past again because they had lost something. Then the car backfired, and this drunken Nazi with a gun believed that this was the long-awaited Jewish attack on the compound. So he rushed back. Two of the guards came with him, and they jumped in a pickup, went down the driveway and started chasing the Honeybee. In the back of the pickup, one of the so-called guards had an assault rifle. They (the Keenans) wouldn't stop - and who would? They had Nazis chasing them.

He shot that Honeybee five times. The last shot hit the right rear tire, and they skidded into a ditch about two miles from the compound. Then these three Nazis got out of the pickup and proceeded to assault them inside the car. The neighbors had heard the shouting and the screaming, and they saw these guys with their weapons gesticulating around the car that the Keenans were in.

The guy got his gun because he was afraid something awful would happen. He told his wife to call 911 and report what they were seeing. They heard the gunfire and then they saw the car in the ditch. They saw the Nazis around the car. The Nazis left when this guy came. The Keenans got out of their car and went into the house. They were thoroughly traumatized.

The sheriff came in one or two vehicles and helped the Keenans push the car back out of the ditch and escorted them to the county line. They asked the Keenans if they wanted to press charges or not. The Nazis had said (to the Keenans) "if you say anything about what happened here tonight, we'll get you." The Keenans said "we just want to get out of here."

She (Victoria) was part Indian and she knew instinctively to plead to them that she was a white person. She denied her Indian heritage, which really, really bothered her. So she called the task force. She said "I trust you guys, this is what happened, can you help?" I said "if this is true, this is a serious, serious, profoundly serious piece of litigation."

Two of the three guards were brought back, and then they both pled guilty to felony assault. Then we filed the civil litigation.

At that point we brought in Morris Dees and the Southern Poverty Law Center. The basis of the lawsuit was negligent supervision and training of guards. The cultural basis of the lawsuit was totally different.

In the past, the Nazis and the Klan had relied upon jury nullification when they were caught red handed doing something. We were trying negligent supervision and training of guards. They were defending on the basis that a jury would not find this person liable for these acts, because of who he was.

A lawsuit is theater, a jury trial is theater. The one that tells the most interesting tale, and the most sympathetic tale, and reveals the most about their humanity is the one who wins the lawsuit.

The audience was all full. There were the Nazis sitting on the side with Butler, and we had all this weird, crazy interesting testimony.

One Nazi, he was a character witness for Butler, he got up and testified, "I am one of the worst persons in America, and I am much, much worse than Richard Butler."

We had a tape of that guy. He was giving a talk in the church at Butler's compound. This is essentially what he said: "I can't tell you today to go out and kill a nigger, because I could get Richard Butler in trouble for that. If you want me to tell you to go out and kill a nigger, you've gotta come out to Iowa where I live."

The jury was just physically repelled. They moved back from the TV monitors. Then, in the magic of litigation, I still don't know how this happened, Morris got the right to play that a second time. They got to watch it twice, and it was just devastating.

It was a riveting trial, because it was culture and trial wrapped up together in this masterful way.

Another thing I wanted to ask you about was your own safety.

The Nazis would have delighted in killing us. We were the enemy.

Morris had an armored car that he had bought from the governor of Alabama or Mississippi. It was kind of bomb proof. It had solid rubber tires and thick glass. I rode that around for several months to let them know I had this car. It took 10 seconds to open the door because it was so heavy. And then we had guards 24-7 on our house.

There was a time in '86 when Order Two was out and about. Order One was the first criminal conspiracy, Order Two was the second.

Order Two had bombed Bill Wassmuth's house. It put shrapnel holes in the houses across the street. And then they bombed downtown Coeur d'Alene. There was a bomb set up at the Federal Building, there was a bomb at the restaurant at Seventh and Sherman, and then a bomb set up on top of the federal recruiting station which was at Third and Sherman...

It was just really, really dangerous, so we decided the kids couldn't stay. Their bedrooms were on the street side. We'd had rocks through the window and they were setting off bombs.

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