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United Against Hate Forum draws large crowd

November 15, 2023

By Clarice McKenney

Speakers (l-r) Gary Aitken Jr., Brenda Hammond,
Elsie Hollenbeck and Andy Hinderlie.
Over 170 Idahoans from Boundary and Bonner Counties gathered in Sandpoint Tuesday and heard U.S. Department of Justice officials and community representatives explain how they work to combat and prevent hate crimes. “We need to recognize that our differences among us make us stronger,” U.S. Attorney Josh Hurwit told the crowd in the Heartwood Center. “We need to listen to one another,” he said via Zoom on a big screen on the stage behind the in-person speakers.

“I hope you’ll accept today’s program in the spirit with which it was intended.”

An incident at the very end of the two-hour meeting drew the concern of the last speaker of the day, Knight Sor. The Conciliation Specialist, who works in the Department of Justice Community Relations Service, had just finished explaining how he helps communities in conflict by not taking sides and being an impartial facilitator to help different factions communicate.

Sor asked at that point if anyone had a question. As if to illustrate what Sor had said he did, a woman identifying herself as being from Boundary County moved to the aisle and loudly but somewhat incoherently blasted the gathering. Sor and the moderator, Assistant United States Attorney Traci Whelan, tried several times to extract a question from her, but, failing that, Whelan ended the meeting as Sor made his way back to talk with the woman.

Before the meeting started, as the largely elderly crowd entered the building, one man was heard to say, “this great turnout may indicate how many feel the need for this forum.”

Among the day’s speakers was FBI Special Agent Bryant Gunnerson, who said he focuses on hate crimes and civil rights violations. He explained that when a crime is committed and the motivation for that crime is based on hate, whether a hate of the victim because of race, ethnicity, color, religion or a number of other identifications, that is a hate crime.

Speakers cleared up a question in many minds: when can the federal government pursue justice involving hate? Hateful rhetoric on line, etc. is considered free speech as long as the perpetrator has not threatened anyone. The threats make it a hate crime; “when a hateful incident occurs without threats, one speaker pointed out, “we note it and move on.”

If property damage or assault occurs, the DOJ can step in.

Elizabeth Tollefsbol, Tribal Victim Assistance Specialist working with the Coeur d’Alene and Kootenai Tribes, connects victims to services to help them.

“I help them file for restitution or victim’s compensation when appropriate,” she explained. “Courts and legal procedures can be daunting for victims, so I familiarize them with (those systems).”

“The big issue in hate crimes involving a special intent crime is that they are harder to prove than general intent crimes,” explained Bonner County Prosecuting Attorney Louis Marshall. “Special intent involves the intention to cause injury to someone.”

He said charging someone with special intent in a crime is so rare here that he doesn’t remember the last time his office utilized it in a crime charge.

“It seems, locally, that we’re doing better here, but when I began years ago, I saw lots of telltale signs (swastikas, lightning bolts, etc.) and the Aryan Knights at that point was in Sandpoint,” he said. “A man who wanted to join them killed someone specifically to prove himself worthyto join.”

More recently, he said, a man moved here and was distributing hateful pamphlets. “We got him for littering.” That comment produced snickering from the audience.

When it was Kootenai Tribe of Idaho’s Vice Chairman Gary Aitken Jr’s turn on the panel discussion between Boundary and Bonner County community activists, Aitken related his personal challenges as a tribal member living with “up-front bigotry. There were racial jokes, the N word, my people were disrespected. I see people who carry that weight on them from instances they went through.”

As a five-year old who was being picked on by a boy who later became a good friend, Aitken stood up for himself and fought the bully. But it was Aitken who was disciplined and banished from the school yard at recess, not the bully.

“I asked dad (who had been a tribal chairman in his day) how many fights he’d had, but he refused to say.” After much prodding, Aitken’s father admitted to hundreds of fights.

“If he didn’t fight he would have gotten run over. So I learned to fight first, but through the years, as I grew up, I learned that reaching people and building bridges was more effective,” he told the almost-totally white crowd. “Each generation since has had to fight less. You can’t bring darkness to light but you can bring light to darkness, so as a tribe we focus on open communications, transparency and working with others.”

Brenda Hammond of the Bonner County Human Rights Task Force shared her group’s responses to what she termed hate propaganda.

“Our teams clean up posters, stickers and such," she said. "But when a group with lots of money distributed hate through the mail, they reached everyone in our county. We offered the community the opportunity to give donations to the Human Rights Initiative and then we sent thank you letters to the organization that funded the hate mail.”

“Unfortunately, in Boundary County we have experienced an increase in hateful rhetoric and actions against our library and schools,” said retired teacher Elsie Hollenbeck of the Boundary County Human Rights Task Force. Hollenbeck summarized a very long and difficult history in the county dealing with hate, beginning with their successful rejection of white supremacist Robert Miles.

“In ’85 we received information that he was moving into our county and establishing a compound,;" shee said. "We worked with county commissioners and the Ministerial Association to form a task force that directed our sheriff to tell Miles we uphold our laws and to assure him that he was not welcome. He did not come.”

Hollenbeck received loud applause at this revelation.

Then she explained what came just prior to the current hate campaigns that continues to threaten Boundary County library and schools.

“An anti-government group wants to put Idaho in the center of what they call the Redoubt,"a she said. They came and established white Christian Nationalist churches.”

She said, “When they saw the city council had a statement welcoming everyone to our area on top of their official paperwork, they mobilized supporters to overwhelm city council meetings. So the City Council moved the next meeting to the high school auditorium,” Hollenbeck explained. “When our task force chair (Barb Russell) spoke in favor of keeping the welcoming statement, she was met with angry, loud disruptions.”

(Note: This reporter attended that meeting and also spoke up for the statement after Russell left the meeting. The back row of the more than 40 white supremacists in attendance stood along the front of the balcony, and many were armed, which was extremely intimidating.)

Hollenbeck explained, “The city council conceded to the group and removed the statement. Emboldened by the city council decision, that group, which includes anti-public education groups, have attacked the school district. They began disturbing and upsetting meetings of the school board and county library.”

She explained the responses her group of retired teachers and others had to these challenges.

“We listened to them and conducted tours for them, explaining where the money is spent," she said. "We believe in positive, factual messages and in the late Congressman John Lewis’s words, ‘Don’t Give in to Hate.'”

Andy Hinderlie, Lutheran minister from Bonners Ferry and member of the Human Rights Task Force, spoke about being on the gazebo in Georgia Mae Plaza with other speakers one time they tried to show Boundary County is a welcoming place.

“It was in January 2016, and letters had been sent to county commissioners demanding that they refuse refugees who might want to move to our community," he said. "We decided to provide a welcome in contrast to that, and we had a public meeting outdoors, downtown. Some speakers told of their families’ early arrival. I was an ‘immigrant’ from Minnesota the year before after spending 17 years in Africa for my wife’s and my work. As I began to share from First John 4:18, ‘There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear,’ I was heckled. I said to the hecklers, ‘In many countries, you can’t heckle, so you’re lucky.'”

Hinderlie told the crowd in Sandpoint Tuesday that “someone decided that the Methodist Church (whose pastor had spoken that day about his generations in the county), the Lutheran Church and Catholic Church needed to be taken down and damaged all three. When one of them burned down the Catholic Church, the Methodist Church shared their sanctuary with them. In the 1980s, our church also burned down and the Methodists housed us.”

Each panel member concluded with an expression of their hope for the future. Hinderlie’s concluded their statements: “As I look out at all of you sharing the hope expressed by these people, seeing all of you gives me hope.”

Whelan ended the panel discussion by acknowledging how difficult it is to “determine if you think someone is wrong.“ Then she asked the group to consider that the worst happens “when we define people as evil.”

Questions or Comments? Send us an email!

Mike Weland, Publisher

6931 Main St.
6619 Kaniksu St., Rm 19
Bonners Ferry, ID 83805
(208) 295-1016

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