Washington State University’s 15th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration brought hundreds out to Beasley Performing Arts Coliseum in mid-January, despite a blizzard. Those who braved the storm were rewarded with an inspirational program of music, film, special recognitions, and a speech by Alabama civil rights lawyer Morris Dees, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Dees has won dozens of important legal victories against hate groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, White Aryan Resistance, and most recently, the Aryan Nations in Idaho.
In September 2000, a jury of 12 Idahoans found The Aryan Nations leader Richard Butler, along with several other members, liable for $6.3 million in damages to two local residents who were assaulted at the edge of the Aryan Nations compound in 1998. The residents, Victoria and Jason Keenan, were represented by Dees and the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Though Butler still resides in the Coeur d’Alene region, the suit bankrupted his organization, which now calls Ohio its headquarters. State and local citizens are turning the former Aryan Nations compound into a peace park.
Dees held a press session prior to delivering his formal speech at Beasley. In response to questions from freelance journalist Andrea Vogt and Northwest Public Radio reporter Glenn Mosley, he talked about the suit and his experiences in the Northwest. Following is a transcript of that interview, edited for length.
The community movement that led up to the civil suit that bankrupted the Aryan Nations was a grassroots, from-the-ground-up effort in Idaho. I guess I’d be interested in hearing you speak to the changing nature of how we battle hate in our communities.
Well, the approach that we take, dealing with specific groups like the Aryan Nations, is to take them to court and hold the leaders responsible for what their members do and the violence they cause. But we realize that you can’t necessarily change America or solve all the problems fighting hate in court … So we try to teach tolerance in the classroom. We think that is much more significant. Therefore, we have our project, Teaching Tolerance, that we founded a little over 10 years ago, and today some 80,000 schools in the country use Teaching Tolerance education for kids… . It’s hard to measure attitudinal changes in the country, but it certainly fills a tremendous void in schools that didn’t have the materials, and because we give it away free, it has almost universal acceptance.
And more specifically, the grassroots campaign in the Coeur d’Alene region?
I think the Northwest has done an exceptional job, especially with the Northwest Coalition, the groups founded after [community activist and Catholic priest] Bill Wassmuth’s house was bombed… . Because what I found out when I came out here to try this case … is that most people do not agree with the racist attitudes of Richard Butler … , they’ll tell you that in no short order. But on the other hand they’ll say, “That’s his free speech rights, and our attitude out here is that even though he’s doing this, he gets to do what he gets to do just as long as he doesn’t come on my side of the mountain and mess with me.”
Sort of a live-and-let-live attitude.
Yes, a live-and-let-live attitude that we thought was a little bit of a putting-your-head-in-the-sand attitude. We were worried about that when we picked a jury out here… . So one of the goals we had … was to get across the whole idea that he was doing more than just preaching his own personal views. He was bringing into this area of this country convicts, people with violent backgrounds … doing things like bombing Bill Wassmuth’s home. Had that happened in Alabama, had a Catholic priest’s home been bombed by people like that, they would have shut the place down in a day… .
When Mrs. Keenan’s car was shot at that night, really two things happened. First of all people figured she must have been doing something wrong to get her car shot at… . They chased them two miles down the road, the car was had bullet holes in the back, the tire was shot out, the car was in the ditch, and a man saw the whole thing and he heard them shouting the Nazi stuff and heard them saying “I’m going to kill you.” … No question about who did it. The investigative officers for the sheriff’s department didn’t confiscate the car, put it on a trailer to take it in and get forensic evidence, they didn’t cordon off the crime scene, they did nothing.
In fact Mrs. Keenan had to call her husband to come and change the shot-out tire, and she drove her own car home, or her son did, and her husband drove the other car. There was no victim’s assistance, no nothing. The chief investigator for the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Department, he goes out to the Aryan Nations compound, because they are right before their big annual march and he says, “You know, y’all got to stop that shooting at cars on the road, and after the march is over, I want you all to come down so we can talk about that.”
I mean … that’s assault with intent to murder. And the guy who did the shooting was right there; his chief investigator was talking to him. So it was almost like these people had become part of the scenery, part of the woodwork, and that was a horrible thing that took place.
If you listen to the taped interview, when they finally extradited the guy back from Missouri, who did the shooting … it was like, we don’t really believe what Mrs. Keenan is saying, you just tell us what happened, your side of it. It was almost apologizing that they had to talk to this guy, and I found that really shocking. I didn’t put this deputy on the stand … honest to God I didn’t trust what he would say. I don’t really think it was meanness on his part, on the sheriff’s part, but it just became business as usual and they just wanted to deal with them as little as they as could. Let them alone.
So were you surprised when the 12 Idaho jurors came back unanimous then? …
No. I wasn’t surprised… .We did extensive research on every juror. We had a trial theme. The trial theme was, “This is a man who is out of control, he is out of step with this community, he brings these violent people into the community, he’s not a nice old grandfatherly figure.”
The violence aspect aside, Butler under the first amendment can stand there and express his views, but if I heard you right, is what you are saying that part of the problem is that folks on the other side of the mountain weren’t using their first amendment rights to argue back?
I think there was a certain fear in the community that it would hurt the community’s public image if they focused the attention on that. I felt like the sheriff in the movie Jaws when I was out here working on the case—I was running up and down the beach saying “Hey, there’s sharks out there in the water, get out,” and the PR people were saying, ”Shh shh, we depend on the tourists here.” So I think you had a little bit of that. Thank goodness for people like The Spokesman-Review and NPR who did some really good coverage. You had to understand that you can’t just keep sweeping this stuff under the rug. The schoolyard bully just gets bolder if you don’t confront him.
So you confront them in Coeur d’Alene and other places, but does the movement itself just move and then you have to fight it in another place, or how do you continue the fight?
… I think the Aryan Nations is pretty much finished. Even though they have a little Website, … I think we could take it off the air if we wanted to… .
What I’ve seen, though, … If you go out to these groups, their rank and file members bec
ome very concerned about what they do and say. Because all you have to do is subpoena enough of them for depositions, they have to skip their jobs and come down there, especially in the Southeast, their wives are going to say, “Hey, you know, why don’t you stay away from that bunch.” The word spreads, we know it because our undercover people in these groups tell us, they say ‘Hey, you know, you’re going to get sued if you don’t watch out.’ It makes them cautious. The other thing is you simply just take away their assets… .
You know, we learned something from Sherman coming through Georgia. We have a scorched earth policy, and I don’t mean that in a vindictive sense, but we literally take everything they got.
Interviewer Andrea Vogt is working on a book about Northwest civil rights leader Bill Wassmuth for the University of Idaho Press.
Glenn Mosley is a reporter for Northwest Public Radio.