Are Paramilitary Extremists Being Normalized? Look To Idaho For Answers

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After a false rumor circulated that Antifa agitators were coming to Sandpoint and nearby Coeur d’Alene to riot and loot businesses, armed vigilantes and Second Amendment supporters gathered in downtown Coeur d’Alene. This alarmed some of the residents.

Kirk Siegler/NPR

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«And I was just like… mind blown,» Morton says.

It was the latest example of a widespread — and baseless — conspiracy theory to spread quickly through the evergreen forested mountains and small towns of the mostly conservative and libertarian Panhandle.

This past Spring, when Black Lives Matter protests began heating up in the Northwest, more false rumors took hold that Antifa agitators were coming to Sandpoint and nearby Coeur d’Alene to riot and loot businesses.

In videos on YouTube, that have not been taken down, unidentified, heavily armed men in fatigues boast of apparent security operations aimed at protecting the towns from being «trashed.»

Far-left agitators never showed up. What actually unfolded in Coeur d’Alene was a tense stretch of nights where armed vigilantes and Second Amendment supporters converged on the city’s quaint downtown.

It’s legal to openly carry in Idaho. But even here, in one of the nation’s most conservative states, some were alarmed at what they saw as intimidation.

«These were people in full camo fatigues, with AR-15s, multiple clips,» said Shelby Rognstad, the mayor of Sandpoint. «These people looked like they were pulled off the streets of Afghanistan and ready for war.»

Rognstad says the paramilitary and other armed citizens quickly overwhelmed what he says was a small protest organized by a group of Sandpoint high school kids who wanted to demonstrate against systemic racism.

For some longtime locals, there was this sense of, here we go again.

Moved past an ugly past?

The recent arrests of militia members in Michigan are echoing loudly in Idaho, a state that’s long been synonymous with violent, right wing extremism. But after the fallout from the anti-government standoff at Ruby Ridge cooled, and a lawsuit broke up the infamous Aryan Nations, some longtime locals thought they’d finally moved past the ugly past.

«There are people with guns who come out from the hills whenever they’re whistled,» says Mary Lou Reed.

Reed, a Democrat, represented this region in the state legislature in the 1990s. That was during the standoff at nearby Ruby Ridge and when the Aryan Nations founder Richard Butler and other white supremacist groups were openly pledging to turn the panhandle into a white supremacist haven.

Reed sees parallels in 2020. For one, some of those same people are still around. But far-right extremism today is more complicated. Some of the extremist groups are not white nationalist, and in fact, have people of color as prominent members.

«I think maybe it is more sophisticated and maybe it’s scarier,» Reed says. «But it still involves separation and hatred and ugliness.»

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North Idaho, as it’s called locally, is one of the fastest growing regions of the country. It’s also one of the whitest and home to far-right political movements, some that encourage Christians to flee cities for rural areas like this that are pro-gun and libertarian on issues such as homeschooling and vaccines.

Demographers say the region is experiencing its third wave of mostly white, conservative transplants moving from California: a trend that particularly gained notoriety in the 1990s, when Southern California police officers retired there after the Rodney King scandal. Today, it’s not uncommon to hear commercial radio stations running ads for abortion therapy groups. Trump 2020 flags flying in yards next to yellow «Don’t Tread on Me» banners are also a mainstay.

«I’ve been calling this now the South of the North, because I’ve never seen so many Confederate flags ever here in my life,» Shawn Keenan says.

When the armed far-right groups started showing up on Sherman Avenue in Coeur d’Alene in June, it stirred trauma for Keenan and his family. Whether they knew it or not, Keenan says, they were on the same street where white power marches used to be held every Fourth of July.

«All of those feelings of fear from the Aryan Nations parades back in the day came flooding right back,» Keenan says.

That’s because in 1998, Keenan’s aunt, a Native American, and his cousin, were shot at, run off the road and held at gun point by Aryan Nations security guards. The Southern Poverty Law Center represented the Keenans in a federal case that would bankrupt the compound.

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Dr. Morgan Morton at Bonner General in Sandpoint, Idaho, says having to constantly push back on anti-science conspiracy theories is getting exhausting.

Kirk Siegler/NPR

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Some local businesses here are less timid though, and worried about their region’s already precarious reputation. Signs from a local civil rights group «Love Lives Here» are posted prominently on some Main Street storefronts. And partly in response to the controversy in June, a dozen large employers are forming a Human Rights Consortium.

«In the absence of this, each employer is kind of on their own,» said Jon Ness, CEO of Kootenai Health. «So it brings us all together and there’s a safety in all of that.»

Kootenai Health is this region’s largest hospital and employer, which says it’s been having trouble recruiting doctors and other staff lately, particularly people of color. Ness said the call for action came mostly from his staff, after the death of George Floyd, who asked him what the hospital was doing to support human rights.

While still in its infancy, he said, the consortium expects to bring in civil rights speakers and set uniform practices for more inclusive hiring, among other initiatives.

«The important part is not what happened, the important conversation now is what is going to happen,» Ness said.

Still, the consortium’s organizers realize that fighting hate today is an uphill battle. In North Idaho anyway, it may be harder than back in the 1990s, when conspiracy theories didn’t spread instantaneously online, nor did mainstream elected officials openly court far right groups.

  • Antifa
  • extremism
  • black lives matter
  • civil rights
  • Idaho


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