A town stands up to organized racism. In 1978 a white-supremacist group calling itself the Aryan Nations set up camp on land near the sleepy little northern Idaho town of Coeur d'Alene. Last Sept. 29 a group linked to the Aryan Nations made an abortive attempt to rob two local banks for money to finance racist violence. Suddenly alert to the threat, the community rallied behind a task force seeking to counter the activities of its unsavory neighbors.
Coeur d'Alene, Idaho — The first bomb went off at 9:10 a.m., followed by two other explosions within the next half-hour, remembers Larry Broadbent, undersheriff of Kootenai County. It was Sept. 29, 1986, the day this idyllic resort town in northern Idaho awoke to confront racist violence. ``We can never again go back to sleep and let time and the world just pass us by,'' says Mr. Broadbent, who has become, of necessity, an expert on the white-supremacist movement in the United States. ``Now there will always be some kind of vigilance.''
Federal and state prosecutors say the three men arrested for the bombings have ties to the Aryan Nations, an extremist, white-supremacist group that set up camp on the outskirts of town in 1978. Although no one was injured by the explosions, subsequent revelations about the suspects' intentions were even more alarming.
According to pretrial evidence presented by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the bombs were planted to distract police while the perpetrators robbed two local banks and the nearby National Guard Armory. Although the suspects abandoned their plan after the bombs exploded, the scheme apparently was similar to one carried out two years earlier in Spokane, Wash., by The Order, a notorious neo-Nazi gang.
The Order, which had ties to the Aryan Nations, saw most of its members imprisoned last year for violations of federal racketeering laws. Despite this setback, new faces have appeared to carry on its goals of overthrowing the US government and establishing an all-white republic. The Order's white-supremacist agenda persists - as September's bombings made clear.
The blasts, however, had the unintended effect of galvanizing Coeur d'Alene as never before. Community leaders had formed a task force in 1982 to respond to the Aryan Nations' activity, but now public participation in it is much higher, Broadbent says.
``There isn't a day that goes by that somebody doesn't stop me on the street or call to thank us [task force members] for our efforts,'' he says. ``There's a lot of support now, compared with four or five years ago.''
The undersheriff and other experts across the US say community activism is the key to countering organized racism. It is important that all segments of a community - not just the minority groups who are under attack - publicly repudiate racial intolerance, they say.
The Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations has been lauded as a model for communities elsewhere in the country that are feeling the influence of racial hatred. The task force's work, in fact, will be recognized by a human rights group, the Raoul Wallenberg Committee of the United States, at an awards ceremony Wednesday in New York.
The broad base of the task force - it includes representatives from city government, local law-enforcement agencies, schools, business, churches, and minority groups - is what makes it innovative, says Bob Hughes of the US Justice Department's Community Relations Service in Seattle. ``There are no other parts of the country where task forces have developed this same combination of people,'' he says.
The scope of task-force activity has been equally broad - supporting victims of racial harassment, denouncing racial intolerance, promoting multiculturalism, instructing law-enforcement officers about civil rights laws, and lobbying to increase the penalties for racially motivated crimes. More important, the task force has become active, rather than defensive, in its response to the Aryan Nations' message of white supremacy, observers say. It is producing programming for public-access TV, is helping to plan a communitywide celebration of Martin Luther King Day, and is considering filing a civil suit against Aryan Nations members.
The undersheriff believes all the hard work has been effective. ``Instead of dealing with the 35 people who are now out there [at the Aryan Nations compound], we could have been dealing with 3,500,'' Broadbent says. ``If there's a nonresponse to their activities, they see it as implied consent.''
To outside appearances, a conservative state like Idaho is an unlikely place for people to become roused over an issue that is generally considered a liberal cause. ``The Idaho tradition is to leave people alone, even if a guy is zany,'' says task force member Norm Gissel. ``It's an ethic we have here.''
So, when retired engineer Richard Butler bought land north of town and moved there in 1974, no one paid much heed. In 1978, when the Aryan Nations sign was first posted on his property, most everyone ignored it. In 1980, when swastikas began to appear on the sides of buildings in the community, they were dismissed as the work of vandals or kooks.
But the incidents began to escalate, Mr. Gissel says. An Aryan Nations newsletter called for the establishment of a white ``homeland'' in the Pacific Northwest. The rabbi in nearby Spokane received threatening letters.
When minorities in town were harassed, the task force was formed to assist the victims.
But it wasn't until The Order trial in Seattle in late 1985, when the group's link to the Aryan Nations became clear, that the community really began to take notice, says the Rev. Bill Wassmuth of St. Pius X Roman Catholic Church, who heads up the task force.
Last summer was the turning point, he says. More than 1,000 people turned out for a human rights rally in Coeur d'Alene, timed to coincide with the annual ``World Aryan Congress'' for white supremacists at Mr. Butler's compound.
``That was the first time the community really stood up to the Aryan Nations,'' says Fr. Wassmuth, whose own home was bombed Sept. 15, two weeks before the explosions downtown.
Fr. Wassmuth says he sees signs that the Aryan Nations' influence is on the wane. The mood of the community is becoming so inhospitable that extremists here will move away, land in jail, or leave the movement, he says.
But ``the task force will be here after they go away,'' he predicts. ``We have a long way to go to learn to live as a multicultural society. ... The only value to seeing this blatant bigotry is to cause people to reexamine any type of prejudice they may have in their own hearts.''
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