Bonner County, Idaho, situated in the northern panhandle of the state of Idaho, is a place of incredible natural beauty. With an overwhelmingly rural white population of 38,000–7,400 of whom live in the county seat of Sandpoint—it has a long history of opposition to neo-Nazis and white nationalists of various stripes. The local human rights task force has stayed over for more than two decades. – editor
Bonner County Idaho Human Rights Task Force Celebrates a Surprise Donation
By Gretchen Albrecht-Hellar
In 1991, Aryan Nations boss Richard Butler attempted to expand into Bonner County, which is located only 30 miles from the now defunct neo-Nazi compound. Our community members contacted the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, however, for advice on how to prevent this occurrence. As a result, well over 400 community residents turned out for a meeting in the high school gym to discuss the matter. Richard Butler and several of his Nazi-uniformed followers also attended, and upon seeing the crowd, he was reputed to have been forced to rethink his plans. Community members, empowered by this initial success and recognizing that this was just the first “shot across the bow,” established the Bonner County Human Rights Task Force in 1992.
It was fortunate that we did. Not only did Richard Butler and the Aryan Nations consistently show up at our forums, but Klansmen Louis Beam also purchased property here, and planned to settle on the shores of Lake Pend Oreille. (Beam ultimately changed his mind).
We then encountered a well-financed so-called Christian Identity group (the 11th Hour remnant Messenger) led by Vincent Bertolini and Carl Story who had relocated from southern California. They littered our area with hate mailings and glossy six-foot long posters proclaiming white supremacy based on a twisted interpretation of scripture. When Bertolini and Story singled out three community members and published a flier saying that they were “tares to be burned”, the community was outraged. In one and a half days over 1300 citizens donated to and signed their names to an ad in the local paper decrying this attack on their neighbors. The community showed its commitment to stand up against hatred.
It was apparent to all of us that we would not have successfully countered these threats without a community active and knowledgeable about these dangerous groups. We were and are committed to making our community a safe and secure home for all people. The task force decided it was our job to ensure that these values remain at the forefront of our community culture, even when there was no local visible “foe”.
The task force offered annual human rights scholarships and helped fund peer mediation and conflict resolution in our schools. Our group collaborated with a local arts organization to offer a series of Art for Human Rights exhibits for local students based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We sponsored forums with Holocaust survivors in the schools and the community, and hosted a stunning portrayal of the lives of prison camp inmates entitled “Poetry in Buchenwald”. We have held forums dealing with the anti-environmental “wise use” issue, and educated everyone about the problems of bullying in the schools.
The task force worked to make our area well-versed in the destructive messages of hate groups and conscious of our own ability to counteract them. It must be working because the City of Sandpoint, Idaho passed the first anti-discrimination ordinance in Idaho protecting our LGBT neighbors.
A community-based human rights task force plays a different role than a national or regional human rights organization. It is our job to “inoculate” our community so that community leaders and citizens are not willing to ignore bigoted or hateful speech and action when it occurs, whether the perpetrators are “home grown” or from movements originating elsewhere. We attempt to lead an appropriate and effective response to hatred and bigotry.
In November 2012 the Bonner County Task Force on Human Rights received a $391,000 plus bequest from the estate of a long time member, Dorothy Adler. The principal was placed with the Idaho Community Foundation to preserve the funds in perpetuity with the interest used to provide grants to 501c3 organizations, schools, and other eligible Bonner County groups to support human rights and diversity related programs. The BCRHTF will choose and advise the community foundation on which programs should be supported. It is our belief that human rights should not just be the work of human rights organizations, but that all community groups must be committed to ensuring that these rights be protected and celebrated. It promises to be an exciting endeavor.