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Are Paramilitary Extremists Being Normalized? Look To Idaho...

Kirk Siegler

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At first glance, the picturesque resort town of Sandpoint, Idaho, on the banks of Lake Pend Orielle can feel like an escape from all the troubles of 2020.

That is, until you talk to frontline workers who deal with the public in this mostly rural, pristine region of forests and beauty near the Canadian border.

At Bonner General Health, Dr. Morgan Morton recounts a patient she had the other day who wanted to wait until after November to schedule a needed procedure.

" 'I don't want to do a COVID test,' she said, and I said, 'what do you mean, why would you choose after November?' I was totally oblivious," Morton said.

Morton, who is head of the medical staff at the small hospital, said the patient told her that after the election all of this — the worldwide pandemic — is just going to go away.

"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."

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.

Coeur d'Alene went on to start a civil rights education center. A human rights task force was formed with police that's still around today. People felt like they'd gotten past it.

Keenan says they got complacent.

"What we have now is this new iteration of hatred that's kind of boiling up in our community," he says. "It's frightening to see it again."

There were no reported injuries during that tense week last spring, or at other armed rallies and events in the region since. Things have remained peaceful, if tense.

The Coeur d'Alene City Council nodded to this when it put out a statement saying it was remaining neutral. "We realize," they wrote, "that to some citizens the sight of heavily armed individuals is unnerving, yet to others it is reassuring."

In an email to NPR, Mayor Steve Widmyer added: "I disagree with the position that those individuals in Coeur d'Alene are part of a militia. They were individuals exercising their 2nd Amendment rights. They followed all the laws that are afforded to them in the State of Idaho."

Widmyer pointed to violence and property damage that occurred in other cities around the nation and noted that in his city, all sides were peaceful and local police were closely monitoring the situation for any illegal activity.

A private push for civil rights

Sandpoint Mayor Shelby Rognstad says elected officials are in a tough spot.

The far right is well organized, he says, and large groups show up armed at public meetings in his town to protest things like proposed mask mandates.

"I think that elected officials in general are timid to really take any kind of action or any kind of stance that would challenge these groups," Rognstadt said.

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.

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