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Red flags

by KAYE THORNBRUGH
Staff Writer | October 9, 2020 1:09 AM

COEUR d’ALENE — When someone stole the Biden/Harris sign from his yard late Saturday night or early Sunday morning, David Cohen didn’t call the police. It seemed like a typical election-season antic.

“I didn’t think anything of it,” he said. “I got another one.”

The new sign was still there when Cohen stepped outside Thursday morning. It was accompanied by a Confederate flag and a letter.

“It was a Republican manifesto that was absolutely opposed to the Biden/Harris ticket,” Cohen said.

With the addition of a Confederate flag, the behavior had escalated beyond a simple theft, Cohen said — and he couldn’t help but wonder if it might escalate further.

That was when he called the police.

“I want them to be aware of it, if anything were to happen to us,” he said.

Cohen is one of at least three residents in the Garden District who discovered Confederate flags and conservative messages in their yards Thursday morning.

All three residents reportedly had yard signs supporting presidential candidate Joe Biden.

The two-page letter that accompanied the flags presented what it called “the Democrat Party’s past and present views on ‘systemic racism.’”

The letter noted, for example, that Joe Biden eulogized Democrat Senator Robert Byrd, who was a former organizer and member of the Ku Klux Klan.

Byrd later renounced his membership to the organization. Upon his death in 2010, the NAACP released a statement saying Byrd “became a champion for civil rights and liberties” and “came to consistently support the NAACP civil rights agenda.” Biden did deliver a eulogy for Byrd on July 2, 2010.

Detective Mario Rio said Coeur d’Alene police initially investigated the incident as a possible case of malicious harassment.

Malicious harassment is Idaho’s hate crime statute. The law applies to harassment, intimidation or other threats based on a person’s “race, color, religion, ancestry or national origin.” This includes placing “any word or symbol commonly associated with racial, religious or ethnic terrorism” on the property of another person without permission.

However, Rio said, because the act of placing the flags and letters appeared politically motivated — as opposed to racially motivated — the statute does not apply in this case.

Footage captured by a neighbor’s security camera showed a person placing a flag and letter around 3:45 a.m. Thursday. Because the person did not step off the sidewalk and into the yard, no trespassing occurred, Rio said.

Another neighbor, who did not wish to be identified, said he was working in his yard Thursday morning when a police officer approached him and asked if the Confederate flag planted in the grass belonged to him. The man hadn’t spotted the flag previously, as it was partially hidden behind a bush.

“I picked the thing up, walked it into the back yard and threw it into the trash,” he said.

He said he believes the person who left the flag and letter did so in an attempt to intimidate him.

Though the letter was framed as educational, he said, the method in which it was delivered — late at night, under the cover of darkness — sent a different message.

“That tells me it’s not really educational,” he said. “It’s subtle intimidation.”

Originally from Canada, the man has lived in the United States for 30 years and became a citizen about five years ago. The 2016 election was his first as a U.S. citizen.

Back then, he said, the climate was different. He didn’t feel uneasy or unsafe expressing support for a political candidate. But his feelings have changed.

“I’m shocked that I can’t express myself for something as simple as putting up a sign for the Democratic candidate for president,” he said.

He said the incident has left him feeling reluctant to keep his sign in the yard, out of concern for his family’s safety.

“This is ridiculous,” he said. “This is supposed to happen in Belarus or Russia, not the United States.”

Thursday’s activities were not the only occurrence of someone tampering with political signs in the area.

Alice Arambarri, who lives near the residents who found Confederate flags in their yards, said someone stole a large Biden/Harris flag from her porch around 3:45 a.m. Sunday.

Security footage shows a person in a hooded coat walk onto the porch, rip down the flag and leave with it. Arambarri reported the incident to police.

“I was really mad that someone would come right up onto our porch and cut it down,” she said, adding that she hasn’t experienced anything like this during previous election cycles. “It made me more determined than ever.”

She ordered a replacement flag right away — though now she brings it in at night.

Shari Williams, who is running for Idaho State Senate, District 4, said the flag planting was a form of intimidation.

“These symbols of hate are not a reflection of the majority of people who live in our city,” Williams said. “Hate has no place here.”

After living in Coeur d’Alene for more than 50 years, Cohen said he’s never experienced anything quite like this week’s events.

He said he also has yard signs expressing support for Shari Williams and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Paulette Jordan.

“They didn’t touch those,” he said. “It was the Biden sign that apparently threatened them the most.”

Cohen said he plans to leave the flag where it was planted until after Election Day.

“It’s not going to change my way of doing things,” he said. “I’m just not going to fall victim to that kind of intimidation.”

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