The house where Aryan Nations founder Richard Butler lived has been demolished. So has the church where he preached his racist religion. Cows graze where hundreds of white supremacists used to burn crosses in the summer.
The Aryan Nations is long gone from northern Idaho, but its reputation lingers to the chagrin of locals.
When a man recently shot up the Holocaust Museum in Washington, much was made of the fact that accused shooter James von Brunn spent a few days in 2004 in this area, living with a fellow anti-Semite before he was evicted for being too radical.
“The stain is so deep,” said Tony Stewart, a long time resident who helped evict the Aryan Nations. “We feel stereotyped in a way that is unjust.”
At the center of the debate is Hayden Lake, a posh town of fewer than 500 people that mostly consists of a country club and lavish homes along its picture-postcard lake. Hayden Lake served as the post office address for the rural Aryan Nations compound, 8km away, and became shorthand as the haven for hate groups.
Instead of goose-stepping neo-Nazis, its streets are full of golf carts and joggers.
So it is in much of the Idaho Panhandle these days, where tourism has replaced logging and mining as the major economic activity.
Coeur d’Alene, 13km south of Hayden Lake, is the largest city and economic hub of the panhandle. Built along Lake Coeur d’Alene, it draws golfers, boaters, and outdoor enthusiasts, and the charming downtown is full of sidewalk cafes, art galleries and boutiques.
A decade ago, the Aryan Nations held annual marches by its handful of members down Sherman Avenue, at the height of the tourist season.
Not that it hurt business much. Kootenai County has grown from 69,000 residents in 1990 to nearly 140,000 now, and has been able to recruit jobs and retirees from larger urban areas.
The Aryans were never a local product. Butler was an aerospace engineer from California who used to vacation in the area because it had so few minorities. The county is more than 94 percent white and non-Hispanic, one of the most homogenous places in the nation.
In the 1970s, Butler bought 8 hectares near Hayden Lake and began gathering followers from around the country. He held annual skinhead symposiums called the Aryan World Congress, which lured hundreds of supporters to the compound for a weekend of speeches, cross burnings and marches. Some followers would leave and commit acts of violence.
Stewart and other community leaders organized a human rights task force that rallied the community against Butler. Their opposition put them at risk, as when the home of activist Bill Wassmuth was bombed in 1986. Three Aryan Nations members were convicted in the bombings.
BEGINNING OF THE END
The end for Butler began during a congress in the summer of 1998. A car driving past the compound apparently backfired, and Aryan security guards, thinking it was a gunshot, gave chase. They shot at the vehicle and forced the two terrified occupants off the road. Working with the Southern Poverty Law Center, the two victims sued the Aryan Nations for negligence in the supervision of the guards.
A Coeur d’Alene jury awarded them a US$6.3 million judgment, and Butler was forced to declare bankruptcy and then sell his land.
He lived his remaining days in a donated house in Hayden, dying in 2004. His followers scattered around the country.
There are still efforts to revive Butler’s legacy.
The Aryan Nations Web site lists Coeur d’Alene residents Jerald O’Brien and Michael Lombard as leaders. Both hold the title of pastor, which was also used by Butler. O’Brien declined to say how many people had joined the group, but welcomed a reporter’s attention.
“Any publicity is good publicity,” O’Brien said. “If the enemy is not screaming for our blood, we are not doing a good job.”
Northern Idaho is not a tolerant paradise, Stewart said.
Right-wing political attitudes are common. It’s not unusual to see people sporting Confederate flags, anti-government slogans or even a swastika tattoo. Many of the newcomers hail from California, including a large cadre of retired law enforcement officers.
“LA cops move up here to get away from diversity,” said Rachel Dolezal, director of education for the Human Rights Education Institute in Coeur d’Alene.
Dolezal, a multi-racial woman who graduated from Howard University, jokes that she traded one monoculture for another when she moved to Coeur d’Alene in 2004.
She finds plenty of challenges. The center’s efforts to bring black history programs to schools, and a black student association to North Idaho College have resulted in letters to the editor criticizing the efforts, she said.
There was also a recent incident in which three skinheads asked for a tour of the office, she said. They showed little interest in the center’s work, but saluted a Nazi flag that was part of an exhibit on propaganda, she said.
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