Human rights advocates recognize need to persist
Tony Stewart, Norm Gissel, and Marshall Mend
By Kaye Hult
Three human rights and civil rights activists involved for many years with the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations (KCTFHR) recently commented on a new "dis-ease" in the country and the need for ongoing efforts to challenge it.
That "dis-ease" is that people have trouble conversing, because their views of reality are so at odds with each other. The divergence is now so wide it causes rifts within families, they said.
Norm Gissel, retired attorney and former member of the task force board, likened it to a rapid move from stage 1 to stage 4 cancer.
Commenting in separate interviews since the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capital and the Feb. 8 spraying of graffiti on Temple Beth Shalom, the three discussed the breakdown in relationships and offered ideas on how to repair the brokenness.
The others interviewed were Marshall Mend, a local realtor, and Tony Stewart, a former educator.
Through the task force, the three were instrumental in overcoming divisiveness caused by the Aryan Nations and its leader, Richard Butler, between 1980 and 2000 in North Idaho.
The task force, which is founded on principles of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the Idaho State Constitution, promotes the dignity and worth of each human being.
Marshall said the people who participated in the insurrection in Washington, D.C., "need to be held accountable. They need to be responsible for their actions, just like everyone else. We're all accountable for what we do."
Tony had a similar thought: "The insurrection needs to have an aggressive investigation and prosecution needs to happen."
Norm likened politicians on both sides of the aisle to sharks.
"They eat what's in front of them," he said. "They're living with existential dread and anxiety," he said.
"Power, moral judgment and policy drive political parties," he said. "At this point, they are not interested in moral judgment or policy. They're interested only in power."
The first government ruling in 1869 that "for-profit companies are people" led to companies choosing only to consider the bottom line—making money—not moral judgment, Norm said.
He used the example of dumping dioxins into the Spokane River.
To a corporation behaving amorally, "it's 'good' if it makes a profit," Norm said. "That's immoral. Our country is losing the battle to immorality."
Tony took a different tack.
"I don't think we've ever been in this situation before," he said. Democrats and Republicans could communicate once. Both sides used rational thinking. Not now.
"My father told me: When you're dealing with someone whose perception of reality is so opposite from yours, there is no starting point," he said.
Tony reflected on the time that Butler and the Aryan Nations had a small following in North Idaho.
"A sociology professor from Eastern Idaho thought the task force should sit down with Butler and dialogue," he said. "We couldn't. One has to work with people who disagree, but we are realistic. If someone has lost touch with reality, there's nowhere to go with dialogue."
Tony saw the insurrection at the Capital as an attempted coup. Some who participated have said they now realize it was wrong.
"I'm encouraged by those who said, 'I can't believe I did that.'" he said.
In seeking to heal the brokenness, Marshall said that the truth needs to be told to counter the lies. He also spoke of the challenge of speaking out because silence gives consent.
"If we don't tell people the truth, they will believe the lies," he said. "We all need to speak up and speak out. Sometimes it's difficult, but we need to do it anyway. In Nazi Germany, they didn't speak out. The United States is not Nazi Germany, but it could become that. That's why we need to speak up and speak out."
Tony believes it's important to work with people who are open to conversation.
"I want to spend my time where I can help," he said. "Why should I spend my time where I can't make a difference? I've seen too much. I can see where one can be productive and where one can't. Many need encouragement and help building confidence, so they can make a difference."
He referred to practices of Martin Luther King, Jr. He said that Dr. King was in charge and set the agenda. He would not let those who opposed him change the conversation.
Tony then reflected on the years they were countering the work of the Aryan Nations.
"We would never attend Butler events. We had our own events," he said. "People yelling at each other is never productive.
"We were never going to be confrontive with Butler. The horrible treatment by the racists of Dr. King actually grew his moral movement. He never yelled back," Tony added.
"When working in human rights, it's a mistake to remain silent, but we certainly must decide our own agenda," he said.
Tony gave as an example the Aryan Nations' first march down Sherman Ave. in Coeur d'Alene in 1998.
"At the same time as their march, we held a huge rally themed "Lemons to Lemonade." We raised $34,000 for teaching diversity. After giving $10,000 to other human rights groups, we gave a third of the remaining $24,000 away three different times to area teachers for diversity programs, receiving positive publicity each time," he said.
Norm believes in the importance of forcing political and corporate entities to think about moral judgments by asking moral-based questions.
"Every time a discussion swerves away, we need to reiterate, 'What are the moral underpinnings of your argument? Where do they come from?'" he said.
At this point, Norm said, "We can't find agreed-upon objective facts. We can return to this by asking about the moral basis on which our political and corporate leaders make their votes and decisions. Everyone has to ask these philosophical questions.
"If our former president is indicted or goes away, much of the populace will go through a grief process, like when a dearly loved person dies," Norm continued.
"What comes out will be a new America," he said. "Into that space, we must bring the conversation to moral judgments. We have to refuse to ask questions except about those."
Tony summed up by quoting the late Fr. Bill Wassmuth, a former leader of the task force: "It takes time. Life is a process. It takes day-by-day persistence."
When Tony once joked about being tired from work with the task force at one point, Fr. Bill replied, "Stewart, you've signed up for life. Get with it!" Now Tony says, "That holds for all who would heal the brokenness between us these days: It's important to not walk away."
The task force's board has continued to meet each month since 1981, gathering representatives of Hispanic/Latinx, Asian American, Jewish, African American, religious, law enforcement, LGBTQ, student, veteran and education communities, as well as the Coeur d'Alene Tribe, local governments and the Coeur d'Alene Chamber of Commerce. Their goal is to promote human rights in the region.
It played a major role in passing laws in Idaho to combat hate crimes and promote human rights and in many efforts to challenge white supremacy and hate, including a legal case that shut down the Aryan Nations compound and turned it into a peace park.
They continue efforts to educate the community and school children on hate and on the legacy of Dr. King and to challenge discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations.
For information, visit idahohumanrights.org.
Copyright@ The Fig Tree,April, 2021