Letters from the West

Rocky Barker: Is Idaho ‘too great to hate’?

When the American Freedom Party comes trolling in Idaho for people who buy their white victimhood philosophy, it shows there are still many who see the state as fertile ground for racism and hate.

The 48-second robocalls in August from the California-based group set up by former skinheads had all the scare-tactic elements: inaccurate reports of thousands of Muslim refugees; a reference to Idaho’s growing Hispanic population; and the statement “diversity equals white genocide.”

OK. That seems to clearly be over the line. But sometimes the line isn’t so clear. Last week, III% Idaho, also known as the Three Percent Patriots, held a march that attracted 200 people in Twin Falls against the refugee center there.

The group wanted to make it clear it does not hate refugees. But it does join anti-Muslim activist Shahram Hadian, pastor of a Christian church in North Idaho, in wanting to close a refugee center at the College of Southern Idaho that is preparing to take some of the 300 Syrian refugees expected to come to Idaho.

Spokesman Chris McIntire of Boise seeks to make the issue the lack of security, not an effort to keep Muslim refugees out of the state, although he does talk about the impact of a flood of refugees on Idaho’s culture.

Syrian refugees are welcome, he said, “as long as they are properly vetted and identified.”

Following the protests, refugee center director Zeze Rwasama told the Idaho State Journal that many people from the community have volunteered their support. Fighting for human rights is a strong Idaho tradition that crosses party lines. But it’s a tradition that takes vigilance.

Our cross to bear came when Richard Butler, a former aeronautics engineer, established the Church of Jesus Christ Christian/Aryan Nations and moved his headquarters to Hayden Lake in North Idaho in the 1970s. He declared his goal the creation of an “Aryan homeland” in the Pacific Northwest. Every summer he held a festival and marches through Coeur d’Alene with Confederate and Nazi flags that attracted racists and religious zealots, from the Ku Klux Klan to skinheads.

His followers killed Denver radio personality Alan Berg, robbed banks and spread fear throughout the West. They may not have been politically powerful, but they made lots of news. Television shows and Hollywood movies that feature neo-Nazi characters still often have them come from Idaho.

Enter Bill Wassmuth. In 1986, Wassmuth, then a Catholic priest, went on television to denounce Butler’s ideas. Wassmuth was sitting in the living room of the rectory at Pius X Catholic Church in Coeur d’Alene on Sept. 15, 1986, when a pipe bomb exploded at the kitchen door.

His attackers had planned to toss the bomb through his living room window and kill him, one later confessed. Fortunately, they changed their minds; Wassmuth was shaken but not injured. He was also not intimidated into silence.

Two weeks later, after three more bombs exploded at Coeur d’Alene businesses, Wassmuth responded by organizing a rally to reconfirm the community’s commitment to human rights. He stood up to Butler. Eventually, the bombers were arrested and the terror tactics ended. Though Butler was never legally linked to the attacks, his position weakened until he died. He compound was leveled in 2002.

Wassmuth went on to form the six-state Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment, which still works today against racism and intolerance. Wassmuth forced us to look into our own souls and appealed to our better nature. “Idaho: Too great to hate,” was born from those efforts, and T-shirts and bumper stickers were seen all over the state.

Tony Stewart, of Coeur d’Alene, who stood at Wassmuth’s side, remains on the board of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations. Today, he says, the threats are more subtle. But he’s convinced the Idahoans’ core values haven’t changed.

“Idahoans are good people who are independent and conservative,” Stewart said. “Butler brought people in from the outside, but he was never able to recruit here.”

Yet Idaho still sees flare-ups. Look no further than this year’s Timber Days parade in Priest River.

Republican Rep. Heather Scott rode in the July parade with a Confederate flag. Scott told me by email that she thinks the battle flag does not represent slavery: “The Confederate flag symbolizes the perpetual conflict between states’ sovereignty and national sovereignty.”

I pointed out how Idahoans have worked to put the Aryan Nations chapter behind us. I said I want to believe she agrees with that.

Essentially, I asked: Is Idaho still a place too great to hate?

“My views have nothing to do with the Aryan Nation or racism,” she replied.