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Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations marks
30 years of efforts to overcome hate in Inland Northwest

By Kaye Hult

Thirty years ago this past February, eight people gathered at First Christian Church in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, to determine how to counter the hate crimes that had cropped up in and around Kootenai County.  That night, they formed the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations (KCTFHR). 

Recently, Tony Stewart, one of the founding members, reflected upon the task force’s history.

Richard Butler purchased land above Hayden Lake in 1973.  At that time, fewer than one percent of the residents of Coeur d’Alene and the area surrounding it were non-white.  Butler created the Aryan Nations and the Church of Jesus Christ – Christian.  He quietly recruited people to join him in these organizations, set up to tout white supremacy.

Toward the end of 1980, he and his compatriots began a campaign to harass people they wanted to leave the Inland Northwest.  In particular, they victimized a Jewish restaurant owner in Hayden and a bi-racial family in Coeur d’Alene.

Tony said Dina Tanners, a community activist called together the early February meeting in response to these hate crimes. 

Accordingly, she has been dubbed the mother of the task force. Others involved from the beginning include Kootenai County Under-Sheriff Larry Broadbent and realtor Marshall Mend.  Fr. Bill Wassmuth, then priest of St. Pius X Catholic Church, and attorney Norm Gissel came on a few years later in 1984.  Of these early participants, Tony and Norm continue to be active on the board.

The task force is both reactive and proactive,” Tony said.  “It reacts to hate crimes.  We have learned that we can’t be silent when these things take place.”

He said the group is proactive in supporting legislation and activities that promote acceptance of diversity.

For example, during the 1980s, the task force joined forces with the North Idaho College Board of Trustees to dedicate 3,200 feet of the beach at North Idaho College to the Coeur d’Alene Tribe.  Historically, it had been a tribal gathering place. 

Jeanne Givens, a tribe member, played an instrumental role in bringing this about.  Then governor of Idaho, Cecil Andrus, assisted in the dedication on July 18, 1987.  The Coeur d’Alene Tribal Council named the beach “Yap-Keehn-Um” (The Gathering Place).

Tony described the task force as intentional in how it approaches its work. 

Twenty-one people serve on its board.  Only nine of the seats are open.  The task force has designated the remaining 12 seats to represent the Coeur d’Alene Tribe; Hispanic/Latino, Asian American, Jewish and African American communities; local governments in Kootenai County; the  Coeur d’Alene Chamber of Commerce; religious, law enforcement, gay-lesbian-bisexual-transvestite groups; the North Idaho College Human Equality Club and the education communities.  All on the task force volunteer their time.

“We decided a long time ago that we support three great democratic principles: freedom, equality and justice.  We will work in two arenas: to support victims of hate crimes or harassment, and to oppose discrimination,” he said.

“To carry out this work, we have determined never to remain silent.  We can find no examples in history where silence has solved problems.  Also, we will never engage in confrontation.  We will follow the manner of Martin Luther King Jr. of doing something of our own elsewhere,” he said.

It’s all about control,” Tony said.  “Who determines it?  We can let them control our behavior, or we can control it.”

Tony told of how, in 1998, Butler organized a march down Coeur d’Alene’s Sherman Avenue.  He wanted the task force to come and heckle him and his supporters.  He labeled them as cowards when they refused to do so.

Instead, Tony arranged to give a speech at the Magnuson Club.  He outlined the task force’s Lemons to Lemonade project.  He invited people to pledge money per minute of the walk. 

Tony humorously pointed out that Butler had three responses to this project.  If he decided not to march, the task force would not receive any funds to promote diversity programs in the public schools.  If his march was short, the task force would raise a little money.  What Tony really wanted was for Butler to march slowly, because the longer he walked, the more the project would receive.  The march lasted 27 minutes. 

Of funds they raised, donors designated $10,000 to several human rights organizations.  The task force divided the remaining $24,000 for three grants for public school teachers to use programs and materials on diversity.

By announcing each award at a separate time over several months, they garnered more publicity for the task force.

When asked what made him so dedicated to the work of the task force, Tony looked back to when he was a young boy growing up in the South.  “I’ve always been so offended when people were treated in an unjust way,” he said.  His whole family was saddened by hate activity.

He identified one incident that has stayed with him. 

While visiting relatives elsewhere, his family heard an African-American woman with a magnificent voice sing in church.  His parents invited her to their church, but when they told the church elders of their invitation, the elders rejected it.  They did not want an African American to share worship with them. 

Tony considers this one of the foundational incidents that formed his perceptions about discrimination.

The task force has helped other human rights groups form, both nearby and throughout the country.    It has taken an instrumental role in anti-discrimination legislation over the past 30 years. 

It has joined hands with other human rights organizations to accomplish greater deeds than it could do on its own. 

It has fought for the rights of many people in the courts. 

On its website at idahohumanrights.org, the task force lists 42 items of involvement in their stand for human rights.

Recently, an editorial in a local newspaper suggested that the work of the task force was done. 

Tony replied with a lengthy rebuttal, saying that its work will never be done. 

“It’s like saying there will be no more victims,” he said.  “We’ve made much progress.  There are also setbacks.  More than one victim has said to me, ‘You are our only avenue!’

“The work is humbling,” he reflected.  “We’ve been empowered by the citizenry.  We’ve been imaginative, and bold at times.  We have much responsibility.  We feel humble and grateful for the support we receive,” he said.

“There’s incredible satisfaction to be involved with this,” Tony continued.  “At the top of the list is the destruction of the Aryan Nations compound and turning the land into a peace park.  The task force has been much more appreciated for that than anything.”

For information, call 208-765-3932 or email tony.steward@roadrunner.com.