Downtown Boise on May 5, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Mountain Sun)
Back in the early 1980s, when Idahoans in the Coeur d’Alene area were confronted with a growing number of dangerous hatemongers at the Aryan Nations compound near Hayden, the community swung into action. Father Bill Wassmuth, Tony Stewart, Norm Gissel and many other good people formed the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations to counter the hate group and protect local residents. The task force was able to rid Idaho of the hate group after a contentious struggle lasting more than a decade.
The key to success was getting a wide range of government and business leaders to speak out strongly against the Aryans and their odious activities. State leaders joined the effort early on, including a Democratic governor and Republican attorney general. Many local Republicans initially resisted getting involved because of political uncertainty, but joined when the chorus against the haters grew loud. When it became clear that the white supremacists were doing serious damage to Idaho businesses, industry leaders across the state found their voices, helping to doom the racists.
Idaho is now facing a new type of extremist problem. The Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights reports that a “new generation of extremists is settling in Idaho, which ranks among the top states in the nation for far-right activity.” About two dozen hate and anti-government groups are now operating in the state. They include the Patriot Front, Ammon Bundy’s People’s Rights Network and the Panhandle Patriots.
Bundy’s group reportedly has more than 5,000 members in the state.
We have heard for a number of years how realtors were peddling real estate in North Idaho as a place for white people to make a last stand. There has been a large inflow of people from other states wanting to locate in a place where others “think like them.” The inflow intensified with the onset of the pandemic, bringing coastal political zealots to Idaho to escape pandemic controls. One such new resident, Kyle Chapman, encouraged white nationalists to move to Idaho, touting it as an “ethnic enclave.” He was convicted last year for assaulting a health care worker who was caring for him.
Unlike the Aryans, the new groups do not claim to be white supremacists, but when you judge them by their words and actions, there are marked similarities. While the Aryans were located in or near their compound outside of Hayden, the new crop of extremists is scattered around the state. With differing agendas and locations, it is difficult to apply a one-size-fits-all strategy for countering the present-day extremists.
So what can Idahoans do to quell this new extremist threat? Even though the threat differs in some respects from the Aryan experience, the answer is basically the same. That is, Idaho’s government, business and community leaders must join together, find their voices and disavow the ugly words and deeds of the extremists. The Kootenai County Task Force is still hard at work, but many other groups and individuals that have significant influence in the state are simply failing to do their part.
Idaho’s United States Attorney, Josh Hurwit, has demonstrated strong leadership by speaking out across the state and organizing a United Against Hate initiative. He needs lots of help from state leaders. Governor Little has spoken out about hate groups, but he needs to substantially up his game and take a much more prominent role in countering the hatemongers. The Attorney General should wake up and actively engage his friends in the Bundy group and the other extremist groups, letting them know that hate is not the Idaho way.
Members of the Legislature, including the more than 24 who have joined far-right Facebook groups, should disavow the extremists or answer to the voters. Business leaders throughout the state must add their voices and make it known that they will finance the campaigns of those who will stand up for decency and run against the extremists. Every reasonable Idahoan should demand action from these leaders.
A clear message must go out from all sectors of our society that Idaho is too great for hate. When the extremists learn that their actions and words are not acceptable in Idaho, it will make a difference. Leadership matters.
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