We launch our series looking at Idaho’s fraught relationship with white supremacy by taking a snapshot of the north where the legacy of hate was most vocal.
The swastika flags are gone, and the Aryan Nations compound in Hayden Lake was razed to the ground in 2001. The stain brought to the region by neo-Nazis continues to blight its reputation, but people in the panhandle say the area welcomes diversity and has moved forward. However, the past continues to haunt the present.
In the summer of 1999, the nation’s attention turned to north Idaho to watch a bizarre neo-Nazi spectacle not unlike the recent torch-lit rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
In old news footage from the time, Aryan Nations leader Richard Butler declares, “I have no guilt whatsoever about being a white man and white and proud. That’s why they hate me so much.”
Former KTVB reporter Austin Jenkins then announces Butler is presiding over the Aryan Nations World Congress. “The media is here,” says Jenkins, “because he and fellow white supremacists plan to march on downtown Coeur d’Alene.”
That was the Aryan Nations at the height of their visibility. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, the group targeted minorities and inspired splinter groups that killed people, robbed banks and bombed Coeur d’Alene. However, a year after that 1999 parade along Sherman Avenue in the city’s downtown, the group was brought to its knees by a lawsuit that bankrupted it, took away the vast compound and saw the group break off into other factions on the east coast.
Just off Highway 95, in the north part of Coeur d’Alene across from the mall, there’s a shopping center. Christina Hammond is walking out of one the stores with her friends. Hammond is 25, a nurse and from the area. She was a child when the Aryan Nations was at its peak and subsequently fell.
“I feel like it’s changed,” she says, describing the past tensions that bubbled over when the white supremacy group was an active presence.
“I’ve watched it change throughout the years where less and less people were racist and just became … comfortable. You look around and there are African Americans around here, and you don’t see people looking at them suspiciously,” says Hammond. “It’s just people walking down the street.”
While the overt, Butler-era demonstrations may be in the past, California transplant Cynthia Delmonte, who’s called Coeur d’Alene home for five years, thinks racist tensions still exist.
“I would say it’s not as prevalent, but it’s – it’s still here,” she says haltingly.
Although Delmonte hadn’t heard of north Idaho’s reputation for white supremacy before she arrived, she thinks it’s known for other things like conservative values and strong Christian influences.
But racism and religion in the region have often gone hand-in-hand. Butler adopted Christian Identity theology and led a congregation in Hayden Lake. And just north of there, in Sandpoint, the Southern Poverty Law Center identifies a church with ties to the Aryan Nations as a designated hate group.
Pastor Dave Barley leads America’s Promise Ministries. He ignored multiple requests for an interview, but his sermons are posted online.
“We’re not going to hide it,” Barley proudly declares in a Youtube video. He then adopts a conciliatory tone: “Oh we love you and just come on in and blend with us – we don’t want to offend you so we’re not going to teach anything about what God’s law says about race mixing. No,” he says, suddenly serious. “We are going to teach that. And you’re going to understand black family, white family and Chinese family – whoever you are out there, that will not be tolerated in this church.”
On a drive past his church on a recent Sunday, just seven cars were scattered throughout the parking lot during a service.
A few minutes away from America’s Promise Ministries, in the heart of Sandpoint, is Connie’s Café. Coffee cups are never left empty, the blueberry pancakes are delicious and manager Bethany Vernon is kept informed of what’s going on around town from her regulars. On this morning, she’s talking about fliers being left on cars in the small lakeside town.
“They’re really hateful, and they’re not put together very well. And they’re very facetious and deceitful,” she says as she leans on the counter.
A range of fliers have been left on cars and buildings around Sandpoint under cover of darkness targeting the city’s mayor, Jews and blacks. In bold red letters one declares: “Negroes out of Sandpoint!”
“We’re outraged by it,” Vernon says. “It’s ridiculous. I think they need to find out who it is. You know it’s freedom of speech of course, but it should be stopped. You know, I don’t know whether criminally or how they would actually stop it, but it needs to be stopped.”
Vernon thinks the overt racism of a generation ago has faded, but she says with the division caused by the 2016 election, those beliefs could be creeping back.
News of the racist fliers not only spread by word of mouth, but also digitally according to Tim Wilson, the manager of a small Sandpoint welding shop.
“I got a text message from a friend with the flier the other day, and I assumed it was a photo of a flier that had been handed out fifty, a hundred years ago,” says Wilson. “I was just disgusted by it. I couldn’t really believe that it happened in today’s day and age.”
Whether Sandpoint or Coeur d’Alene, the people of both areas say north Idaho isn’t the bastion of racism it once was. They blame a small fringe for continuing to stir the pot and push an agenda of hate.
Standing back in the parking lot of the shopping center in Coeur d’Alene, Cynthia Delmonte, the California transplant, hits on a question nobody can or wants to answer.
She falters as she says, “Everyone’s really nice up here, but I wonder how much of that is because I am a middle-aged, white woman?”
Swastika-draped cars and compounds staffed by armed guards are close to 20 years in north Idaho’s past, but, for Delmonte, the question of what’s behind closed doors lingers.
This story is part of KBSX's news series "Legacy Of Hate."
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