Kirk Siegler / NPR
At first glance, the picturesque city of Sandpoint, Idaho, on the shores of Lake Bend O’Reilly, could feel like an escape from all the troubles of 2020.
That, until you talk to frontline workers who deal with the crowd in this predominantly rural area of woodland and camels near the Canadian border.
At Bonner Public Health Hospital, Dr. Morgan Morton tells of a patient who had been waiting for her the other day who wanted to wait until after November to set an appointment for the required procedure.
She said, “I don’t want to get tested for COVID, and I said, ‘What do you mean? Why choose after November? “I was totally oblivious,” Morton said.
Morton, chief medical staff at the small hospital, said the patient told her that after the elections, all of this – the global pandemic – would be gone.
“I just felt like … stunned,” Morton says.
It was the latest example of a widespread – and unfounded – conspiracy theory that quickly spread across the evergreen forested mountains and small towns of the conservative and often liberal Panhandle.
Last spring, when Black protests are important Heating began in the northwest, and more false rumors spread that Antifa’s agitators were coming to Sandpoint and nearby Coeur d’Alene to riot and loot businesses.
In the videos posted on YouTube that were not deleted, unidentified, heavily armed men in military uniform boast of what appeared to be security operations aimed at protecting the towns from being “destroyed.”
The instigators of the extreme left did not appear. What really happened at Coeur d’Alene was a tense extension from the nights when Armed guards and Second Amendment supporters Converged in the quaint city center.
It’s legal to take up arms in public in Idaho. But even here, in one of the most conservative states in the country, some were upset by what they saw as intimidating.
“These were people in full camouflage clothing, with AR-15s, and multiple clips,” said Shelby Rogenstad, Sandpoint mayor. These people looked as if they had been driven off the streets of Afghanistan and ready for war. “
Rugenstad says paramilitaries and other armed citizens were quickly overwhelmed by what he says was a small protest organized by a group of children from Sandpoint High School who wanted to demonstrate against systemic racism.
For some of the old locals, there was a “here we go again” feeling.
Go to the ugly past?
The recent arrests of militia members in Michigan are echoed loudly in Idaho, a state long associated with violent right-wing extremism. But after fallout from the 1992 anti-government confrontation at Ruby Ridge, cooled down and sued the infamous Aryan Nations, some locals had long believed they had moved past its ugly past.
“There are people with rifles who come out of the hills whenever I whistle at them,” says Mary Lou Reed.
Like Reid, who is a Democrat, this area was in the state legislature in the 1990s. It was during the standoff at nearby Ruby Ridge, in which two civilians and an American Marshal were killed, and when Richard Butler, founder of Aryan Nations, and other white supremacist groups, publicly pledged to turn this weapon into a haven for white supremacists.
Reed sees similarities in 2020. For example, some of these people are still around. But far-right extremism today is more complex. Some extremist groups are not white nationalists and, in fact, have people of color as prominent members.
“I think it might be more complex and maybe more terrifying,” says Reid. But it still involves separation, hatred and ugliness. “
Northern Idaho, as it is called locally, is one of the fastest growing areas in the country. it’s also One of the whiter It is home to far-right political movements, some of which encourage Christians to flee cities to rural areas such as the pro-gun and liberal issues such as homeschooling and vaccinations.
Demographers say the region is spreading The third wave From Mostly white implants Moving from California: a trend that gained particular fame in the 1990s, when Southern California police officers retired there after the 1991 Rodney King scandal, when Los Angeles officers were filmed beating a black man. Today, it is not uncommon to hear commercial radio stations broadcast advertisements for abortion treatment groups. Trump 2020 flags fluttering yards away alongside the yellow ‘Do not step on me’ signs are also a mainstay.
Resident Sean Kinan says, “I used to call this South North now, because I’ve never seen so many Confederate flags here in my life.”
When armed far-right groups began to appear on Sherman Street in Coeur d’Alene in June, it shocked Kenan and his family. Whether they knew it or not, Kennan says, they were on the same street as the White Power Parades used to take place on the Fourth of July.
“All those feelings of fear from the marches of the Aryan nations on that day came in the flood,” Kennan says.
This is because in 1998, Kenan’s aunt, a Native American, and his cousin were shot, and fled out of the way and At gunpoint by the Aryan Nations security guards. Southern Poverty Law Center represented the Kennans family in a federal lawsuit that would bankrupt the complex.
Kirk Siegler / NPR
But Kennan says they felt fine.
“What we have now is this new iteration of the hatred that is somewhat exacerbated in our society,” he says. “It’s scary to see her again.”
There were no reports of casualties during that tense week last spring or in other armed gatherings and events in the area since then. Things remained peaceful, albeit tense.
The Coeur d’Alene city council nodded there Establish a statement Saying that it has remained neutral. And they wrote: “We are aware that the sight of heavily armed individuals for some citizens raises concern, but reassures others.”
In an email to NPR, Mayor Steve Widmeyer added: “I do not agree with the position that these individuals in Coeur d’Alene are part of a militia. They are individuals exercising Second Amendment rights. They have followed all the laws granted to them in Idaho.”
Widmayr referred to the violence and property damage that occurred in other cities across the country, noting that all parties in his city were peaceful and that local police were closely monitoring the situation for any illegal activity.
A special payment for civil rights
Shelby Rogenstad, Sandpoint’s mayor, says elected officials are in a difficult position.
He says the far-right is well-organized, and large armed groups show up at public meetings in his town to protest things like proposed mask mandates.
“I think that the elected officials in general are shy to take any kind of action or any kind of attitude that would challenge these groups,” Rogenstadt said.
Some of the local businesses here are less shy and concerned about the reputation of their already unstable area. Signs from the local civil rights group “Love Lives Here” are prominently placed on some storefronts on Main Street. In part, in response to the controversy in June, dozens of major employers have done so The formation of the Human Rights Federation.
“In the absence of this, every employer is kind of alone,” said John Ness, CEO of Kootenai Health. “So it brings us all together and there is security in it all.”
Kootenai Health is the largest hospital and employer in this area, which says it has had trouble recently hiring doctors and other staff, especially people of color. Ness said the call to 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 it is still in its infancy, he said, the consortium expects to bring in spokespersons for civil rights and establish standardized practices for more inclusive employment, among other initiatives.
“The important part is not what happened, and the important conversation now is what will happen,” Nice said.
Even so, the consortium organizers know that fighting hate today is an uphill battle. In northern Idaho, however, it might be more difficult than it was in the 1990s, when conspiracy theories did not immediately circulate on the Internet, and did not. Publicly elected officials court Far right groups.