Community stands together against Aryan Nation

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More than 300 people concerned about a possible move into Grant County by the Aryan Nations white supremacist group packed a Canyon City meeting hall Friday morning, the latest sign of a fast, strong response that led a speaker from Idaho, the group’s current home, to praise the community and declare it already has achieved victory.

“You have won,” said Tony Stewart of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations. “You’re doing the right thing. People in Grant County are great human beings who believe in democracy.”

Stewart was one of two speakers invited to the John Day area by the Blue Mountain Eagle, which provided live-streaming video on its Website, viewed by hundreds more who could not travel and attend in person. (Another, similar meeting, from 6-8 p.m., also will be streamed live.)

The other visiting speaker was Coeur d’Alene attorney Norman Gissel, who was key in a lawsuit that bankrupted the Aryan Nations under Richard Butler in 2000.

“I’ve never seen more warmth and love than we’ve seen here,” Stewart told the crowd. “I’ve never come into a community that has reacted as quickly as you have.” He said it was clear “there is no place for hate in Grant County” – a comment that drew one of several thunderous rounds of applause during the meeting.

Stewart applauded how people of all political persuasions and occupations had come together to oppose any move of Aryan Nations into the area.

“What you have all done is spoken as one voice,” he said, “and there is no way hate can penetrate that kind of community. And you will win.”

Gissel read from “classic” letters to the editor in the current Eagle issue and said a reverend had made a key point, how it’s “important we hold to our values as we deal with the Aryan Nations.”

“I’m thunderstruck by how sensitive and down the road you are in understanding these issues,” Gissel said, referring to the group’s members not as neo-Nazis, but as Nazis as he gave a brief history of the “Christian identity movement.”

Stewart noted that while “even hate speech is protected,” speech that is harassment or incites violence is a crime.

He noted various ways Idaho residents fought Butler’s group, such as holding large counter-events in other places when they rallied, and even raising $35,000 for diversity programs, based on pledges generated by Butler’s own march through a community.

“This is your town,” Stewart said. “You are good, decent people. Every walk of life in this county is united together. This is so powerful. Regardless of what happens in the future, stay together. … There are some things that should never divide you, like respect and the dignity of all people who live here. Those who advocate hate, they won’t be comfortable here.”

Stewart said Butler and his group “did tremendous damage to our state and our reputation, but our people never followed him.” Still, he said, there is a belief among some “around the country that we are all racists and we are all sympathetic.”

The first question from the audience was a local resident, Bill Wilcox, who said rumors were flying that the group’s self-described national director, Paul Mullet, already had bought ranch property in the nearby Dayville area.

A local title company representative said, “His name has not come across any legal documents for purchase of land in Grant County – and we will let you know if it does.” That drew another cheer.

Wilcox said Mullet walked through one of the protests held in John Day in recent days, and was disguised as a rancher.

“He walked right up to me and asked what was going on,” Wilcox said. “I said, ‘The Nazis are coming to down, and we’re here to keep them out.’”

“He (Mullet) said, “Well, you ought to be protesting the Forest Service and BLM, because they are killing us ranchers,’” he recalled. “I said, ‘Nazis are by far worse’ – since I worked for the Forest Service for 35 years.”

That again drew laughter and applause, before comments turned serious – a “really frightened” mother worried her blonde, blue-eyed 14-year-old stepson could be recruited by the group, and others wondering whether they legally could refuse to sell land to the group, or refuse to serve them.

Grant County Sheriff Grant Palmer asked “what do we look for to identify” the people with the Aryan Nations, such as dress or behavior. Stewart said they cannot stop them from marching, holding rallies or distributing literature, only if there are criminal acts, such as trespassing on private property, like grocery parking lots.

“Be very vigilant,” Stewart said. “Stay peaceful, and you are.”

Another audience member’s question focused on a familiar issue, for the media as well as the public – concern about giving such hate groups too much (or too little) attention.

“The greater danger is ignoring them,” Stewart told the crowd. “Who’s getting the publicity today? You are. (They are) a side issue.”

When a woman in the audience asked whether the best way to handle any one-on-one encounter is to “say thank you and walk away,” rather than engage Aryan Nation members, Stewart said, “You answered your own question.”

Stewart also said that while “reacting is important, pro-active (steps are) equally important,” and offered some examples of what the Idaho task force had done, such as on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.

Stewart quoted King and told the crowd, “It’s possible to oppose this kind of hatred, and not become hateful yourselves. … I promise you, you will win. Hate never wins.”

Perhaps the most emotional moment of the two-hour gathering came toward the end, when a resident tearfully recalled discrimination she faced in the South while serving in the military in 1970, which she felt was based on her skin color. She praised her neighbors for their loving and caring ways.