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Juneteenth honored in Coeur d’Alene

by KAYE THORNBRUGH
Staff Writer | June 20, 2024 1:08 AM

COEUR d’ALENE — When Kitara Johnson-Jones arrived at the Human Rights Education Institute in downtown Coeur d’Alene and saw the “Love Lives Here” sign out front, she felt excited. 

She said the Juneteenth celebration at HREI stood in contrast to two recent incidents that put Coeur d’Alene on the map: one when an 18-year-old Post Falls resident hurled racist slurs at members of the University of Utah’s women’s basketball team and another when Coeur d’Alene Tribal School students reported experiencing racist harassment during a field trip. 

“This matters,” she told the crowd. “You, too, have a culture, and you’re confident enough in your culture to say Juneteenth matters. I don’t even think you know the impact.” 

Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865 — a day more than two months after the end of the Civil War and two years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation — when enslaved Black Americans in Galveston, Texas, learned they were free. It was the final enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation in Texas at the end of the war. 

“Juneteenth is for everyone,” Johnson-Jones said. 

Blair Williams, owner of the Art Spirit Gallery downtown and member of the HREI Regional Accessibility Committee, said Coeur d’Alene has developed a reputation as a place where hate is commonplace. 

“That’s affecting our economy,” Williams said. “Whether you agree or disagree with hate speech, it is the way that we react that really matters.” 

Coeur d’Alene City Councilor Christie Wood recalled the days when the Aryan Nations was active in North Idaho. At that time, she said, downtown business owners stood united against white supremacy — and it made a difference. 

“We had the business community working with us,” said Wood, who worked in local law enforcement at that time. “We had a lot more support back when we were battling the Aryans.” 

Father David Gortner of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church said people have a personal responsibility to act when they witness a wrong.

“Scriptures says that perfect love casts out all fear,” he said. “Speaking the truth in love is actually a crucial combination. ... To be able to stand up in the moment and say, ‘This is not OK,’ and find allies in the room — that's a muscle that everyone needs to develop because that’s our responsibility as citizens.” 

Johnson-Jones said it’s important not to alienate people in discussions about racism and to accept people as they grow and change. She nodded to fellow panelist Sean Gillespie, a former member of the Aryan Nations who served almost 20 years in prison for throwing a Molotov cocktail at an Oklahoma City synagogue in 2004. Now Gillespie advocates against racism. 

“When people try to change, we have to let them,” Johnson-Jones said. “Some people only see what he was. I was in a gang, a Black Disciples street gang. I got stabbed, hand broken with a bat. I could’ve stayed there. But people allowed me to change. And it wasn’t one time. It was what I experienced over time.”