An ugly message marches down an Idaho street

 

COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho - The teenage kid standing next to me at the start of the July 10 Aryan Nations parade here had worked hard on his anti-Nazi sign. Using a variety of colors, he had painstakingly drawn the leader of the north Idaho neo-Nazis - Richard Butler - having, let's say, non-missionary intercourse with a fellow Aryan. Both Butler, who is 82 years old, and his partner were fully clothed in starched Nazi gear. A caption bubbled out of Butler's mouth. "Here's a way to perpetuate the white race!"

Because I believe in reaching out to our often troubled youth, I said, "Hey, nice sign" to the budding artist, who beamed a smile in return. Only later did I realize that while the sign effectively conveyed the stupidity of racists in general (two men in copulation do not a baby make), the message could also have been seen as anti-gay.

Such were the mixed messages coming from the crowd of 400 lined up along the parade route. At times, it was hard to sort out who was an Aryan Nations member and who was your typical xenophobic, anti-government, anti-Hillary-and-Hanoi Jane, anti-environmentalist Idahoan.

In parts of the social cul-de-sac known as northern Idaho, the distance between Nazi and native is not a comfortable one.

Just when one felt hopeful about the strong anti-racism message delivered by numerous parade onlookers, someone would burst the bubble.

A sign would say, "Remember Matthew Shepard," and then six 20-year-olds would begin chanting at the march protesters, "Go back to San Francisco, you fags!'

A local Episcopalian minister wearing a yellow placard that read "Turn your back on hate" would lead a small flock of parishioners in singing "Amazing Grace" while next to him several bare-chested skinheads with impeccable pecs and abs were thrusting their hands out in a Hitler salute, screaming "White Power, USA!'

Butler himself - white-haired, frail, and looking harmless - sat listlessly before the parade began in the passenger side of a Ford club-cab pickup with Montana license plates, which was idling in front of a Senor Froggie's restaurant.

On this cloudless Saturday, Coeur d'Alene Lake shimmered in the distance, dotted with boaters and jet skiers. The Coeur d'Alene Resort was host to a convention of dentists, who were serviced by valets and doormen dressed in golf attire: striped knickers, knee socks, and Tam O'Shanters. The dentists didn't realize that just a few blocks away police were trying to avert a riot.

Later, a man at the resort tried to explain the parade to his friends. "You see, there's this group of people that hates everyone - the Rayians or something like that."

Butler left his pickup to lead his little band, all wearing high, black boots and holding an assortment of flags, including the Canadian maple leaf, the Stars and Stripes, the Confederate flag and the Aryans' own flag, featuring a symbol that vaguely resembles a swastika, drawn by an artist of minor talent.

The 18 marchers included a cute, six-year-old Nazi outfitted in a pink dress, who later mugged precociously for television cameras by doing her best Hitler salute. No signs proclaimed a master plan, and the Aryans didn't banter much with the crowd. Their presence was message enough.

In the past week, Butler's group, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, won a federal judge's approval to march down Sherman Avenue, essentially Coeur d'Alene's main street. Originally, the city gave the Aryans a parade route down Ramsey Road, the road that leads to the city dump. The symbolism of garbage was not lost on the Aryans, who quickly claimed that their First Amendment rights had been violated. With generous financial backing from resort owner Duane Hagadone, the city paid constitutional lawyer David Burman $40,000 to defend its original route. Anyone possessing a sliver of constitutional knowledge could have predicted Coeur d'Alene would lose.

Through his press secretary, Mark Snider, Gov. Dick Kempthorne explained somewhat confusingly why he would not attend the parade, but would instead attend a rally held at nearby North Idaho College.

"He's decided that it is important that he, as the chief executive of the state, join in the celebration of human rights to show that the malcontents and out-of-towners that are demonstrating on all sides do not represent Idaho."

Kempthorne's sound bite was consistent with more than a few in the parade crowd whose sentiments could be summed up as: "Though these are Nazis, they are our Nazis." In dress and somewhat in political thought, if you can call white supremacy intellect "thought," the Aryan bunch more closely resembled Idaho than the cluster of dread-locked, pierced and tattooed protesters from Seattle, Portland, and even from that "liberal" Idaho enclave of Moscow, where some were veterans of logging protests at the Cove-Mallard roadless area.

Little wonder then, that when 20 scruffy protesters chose to block the Aryan Nations from continuing their march after only three blocks, many in the crowd became apoplectic and screamed to the panicked police to "Get those fucking hippies out of the street! Arrest those tree-hugger fags!'

The protesters blocking the street then unfurled a banner with a phrase that needed editing, "No Pasaran. They Shall Not Pass. Fascism Wants to Come to Idaho - Idaho will be the Tomb of Fascism." Four members of the blockade were hauled away and the police soon restored order.

Given the potential for riot in the crowd, the blockade was a dangerous act that didn't accomplish much. Butler's group was quickly funneled east to Front Street, where the Nazi sympathizers paraded right past the front entrance to the resort down to Independence Point where they stomped on an African-American doll.

If the Aryans weren't so dangerous, one could dismiss them as silly. They are a ragtag, armed band of poor dressers and dim thinkers. Their idea of a "white only" America seems hopeless. Only in an isolated setting like Hayden Lake, Idaho, could Butler continue his fantasy.

Removal from the mainstream is key to hate groups. In the forthcoming book For Common Things, 24-year-old Jedediah Purdy writes, "... when we retreat from public life, we retreat into exaggerated visions of our own powers and dreams ..." Idaho is the perfect retreat from diversity and reality.

After the parade, which took only a half hour, I walked to the downtown mall, where one could purchase a sweatshirt for $75, try on "authentic" Native American jewelry or a "genuine" Western leather jacket.

Already, downtown Coeur d'Alene was returning to its normal pace of clogged traffic and strolling tourists. All the yellow police tape disappeared, and shopkeepers were opening their espresso stands, gift stores, realty offices, art galleries and cafés.

But nothing had been settled. The Aryans had marched. We yelled at them. Their sympathizers yelled back. We held onto our imagined conspiracies. They held onto theirs. Then we all went away and had lunch.

That's too easy an ending.

As my wife, Jan, was returning from the city park, where the marchers were holding a victory rally: "Come over here to celebrate getting the scum off the streets!", she observed a teenager sitting on his bike in front of a downtown business that was reopening.

The store owner asked the kid to get moving. The boy refused. "You don't know what I am, do you?" the boy said, in that irritating teenage way.

"I don't care what you are or who you're with. Just get the hell out of here," the store owner said. When the boy wouldn't budge, the owner said, "OK, who are you?"

The boy puffed up his chest and said, "I'm a ... I'm a ... I'm a White Supremacist!" Whatever.

Stephen Lyons is a writer in Washington state who recently announced he is available as a candidate for U.S. president.

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