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‘Our community needs us’

Staff Writer | June 28, 2022 1:08 AM

COEUR d’ALENE — After the arrest of 31 white nationalists allegedly en route to riot at a Pride celebration in Coeur d'Alene City Park, the community has called upon the group that fought back against white supremacists who once sought to turn North Idaho into a homeland for hate.

The Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations held a meeting last week of local leaders and concerned citizens, where task force members fielded ideas on how to counter extremism in the region.

“Our community needs us to do our work here again,” said Christie Wood, who serves on the task force's board of directors.

The task force formed in 1981, after members of the Aryan Nations vandalized a restaurant owned by Sid Rosen, a Jewish chef.

It was reportedly the first documented hate crime in Hayden.

The task force played a major role in the passage of laws to combat hate crimes and promote human rights in Idaho throughout the '80s and '90s.

“For years, we concentrated on threats from the Aryan Nations,” said Tony Stewart, a founding member of the task force. “We had a lot of cases in those early years.”

In the Aryan Nations’ heyday, neo-Nazis gathered annually at the organization’s Hayden Lake compound.

The site was burned and bulldozed after a $6.3 million civil lawsuit bankrupted the hate group, more than 20 years ago.

Norm Gissel, the task force’s attorney and a board member, joined forces with Idaho attorney Ken Howard and the Southern Poverty Law Center to bring the suit.

For many locals, the Patriot Front arrest on June 11 was a reminder of that infamous chapter in North Idaho’s history.

“This felt like a watershed moment, like back in 1981,” Wood said.

Though the Patriot Front arrest came as “a shock to everyone’s system,” Wood said, it appeared to be the culmination of years of escalating rhetoric, much of it spread online.

“There has been a long-stewing environment over the last couple of years,” she said.

In the weeks leading up to the Pride event, threats of an armed protest organized by the Panhandle Patriots Riding Club attracted attention, both locally and online.

After a video of a club member promising to go “head-to-head” with those celebrating Pride went viral, scores of social media users expressed intentions of going to Coeur d’Alene to support the Pride event — or to join the armed protest.

The event drew the eye of Libs of TikTok, an ironically named conservative Twitter account with 1.3 million followers that curates content created by liberals and reposts it in a derogatory manner.

Wood said the task force has heard from many North Idaho residents who have faced online harassment.

“They feel like the whole tone and tenor that we know and love is changing so fast,” she said.

Stewart said the turnout and “powerful” testimonies delivered by residents last week are evidence that many community members oppose hate groups like Patriot Front.

A woman whose family has lived in North Idaho for five generations said she refuses to leave the area, despite attacks from outside extremists. Other longtime residents echoed her sentiments.

“There are thousands of people here who are good and hardworking, but they’re on the sidelines,” Stewart said. “We must get them off the sidelines.”

To that end, the task force is developing plans to push back against extremism and promote human rights in North Idaho.

“It’s time to stand up for our community and the cultural values we’ve had for generations,” he said.

Those values include tolerance and respect, Stewart said.

One community member is raising funds to purchase 1,000 shirts with the slogan “Coeur d’Alene Rejects the Hate.” The project hearkens back to earlier efforts made by the task force.

“We did that back when the Aryan Nations was marching,” Stewart said. “This is only the first step.”

Those who wish to donate to the campaign can send checks to P.O. Box 2725, Coeur d’Alene, ID 83816.

Stewart said the task force recently began working with a “prominent” private law firm that has not yet been named publicly and remains in communication with two other firms that specialize in civil law.

Other projects are reportedly in the works to encourage North Idahoans who are “tired of the anger” to step forward and help protect their community from outside hate groups, Wood said.

“We’re going to share our message as loudly as we can that Coeur d’Alene is a loving community,” she said.