Amid a stand of pines in the Idaho panhandle, Richard Butler sits slightly hunched in a camp chair, a large swastika affixed to the wall of the campground bathrooms behind him. He is surrounded by a loyal coterie of men, some in full Nazi uniform, others in skinhead garb. At 85, the founder of the Idaho-based Aryan Nations is frail, but still influential in racist circles, and extremely tenacious. “What you’re seeing today is the prelude to the awakening of the white race,” he says. But others say it’s more like the death rattle for the umbrella organization of white-supremacy groups.
Butler and his followers admit this is not the heyday of his annual Aryan Nations World Congress, which was long held in the organization’s own compound near here and drew hundreds of white supremacists from around the country.
On this day, there are perhaps 75 people gathered, including children, women flipping hamburgers on a grill and half-seen security guards in the trees at the perimeter of a campground in Farragut State Park. Others have come and gone before the program got under way because of an icy rain in the morning.
“Help us fund our war,” urges one speaker, calling on the participants to buy Confederate flag T-shirts and Nazi pins. On one unmanned table there is an Adolf Hitler doll in a box on a table, apparently a raffle prize.
“It’s kind of like the flat-Earth society, a dying group,” says Dick Cottam, media relations officer for the Spokane Police Department, where the authorities were planning their surveillance of the annual event, as were the local police and the FBI. “They’ll be out there with the animals and bugs,” says Cottam.
The comment reflects views of many people in the area who saw civil rights activists and lawyers deal what seemed to be the final blow to the Aryan Nations here. In 2000, a jury voted 12-0 that the Aryan Nations were responsible for the assault of Victoria Keenan and her son by guards at the organization’s compound. In the civil suit pressed by local activists and lawyers — and bolstered by the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center’s civil rights attorney Morris Dees — the organization was hit with a $6.3 million penalty, which bankrupted the organization and took away its compound.
The key message, according to civil rights activists, was that the community did not welcome the racist groups, and did not want to be seen as a haven for white supremacists. “It was a unanimous guilty verdict of Butler’s peers, regular people of the community,” says Norman Gissel, a local attorney who worked to prosecute the case. “That’s as close to a political statement as you can make. That judgment is a far more important cultural document than judicial document because of what it says about our community.”
But it was also risky, says Gissel, because a loss would have sent a message to racists that Idaho was a state where they could beat the top guns in civil rights law.
It was a breakthrough for local activists who had been trying to fight the Aryan Nations’ influence and presence in the area for decades, with limited success. Though they firmly believed that Butler’s preaching against non-whites, Jews and the U.S. government had inspired many crimes, including murders, the forums were protected by the First Amendment. The Keenan case, says prominent civil rights activist Tony Stewart, was the “smoking gun.”
Down but not out
And yet, the fight is not over for Idaho.
“After the lawsuit, the Aryan Nations took a hit — a big one,” says Ray Redfeairn, whom Butler formally designated as his successor on Saturday. “Even in the movement, a lot of our comrades thought we were down and out, we were gone. But we weren’t. We knew we weren’t going anywhere. ... This may come as a shock to Morris Dees,” he adds.
Indeed, this year’s congress, which pulled together a full menu of racist leaders from around the country, suggests the Aryan Nations has crept back from the brink. In the lineup:
Redfeairn, the newly anointed successor to lead Butler’s Aryan Nations. In taking over the white supremacist organization, his greatest enemies are Jews, and he proclaims that the Bible demands their genocide. Group members also preach hatred of all non-whites and see the federal government as a betrayer of the “white race,” which in their view is endangered with extinction as a consequence.
Bradley Jenkins, the Imperial Wizard of the Aryan Nations Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, an Alabama-based group focusing most of its wrath against blacks and all non-Western European immigrants. His presence was the result of an alliance spearheaded by Redfeairn early this year, drawing together one of the more powerful of the dozens of Southern KKK clans with the Aryan Nations. Jenkins said the deal had breathed new life into his group.
Billy Roper, leader of a new group called White Revolution, which he started after losing a power struggle for the leadership of the neo-Nazi National Alliance last year. Roper’s group, which mixes a rare brand of genetics with a white supremacist interpretation of Christianity, is attempting to be an umbrella group for the white movement. Roper is in his 30s, a former high school teacher with a history background. Watchdog groups say he doesn’t have the stature yet of some of the other leaders, but his style may appeal to more mainstream young people.
Hal Turner: A surprise guest from New Jersey, Turner is a talk show host who does a daily broadcast of fiercely anti-immigrant, anti-Jewish and anti-federal rhetoric via shortwave radio and the Internet. Turner has the cachet of show business and draws easily on the politics of the day to support his case.
Jeff Schoep and Tim Bishop: Leaders of the Minneapolis-based National Socialist Movement, a neo-Nazi organization that appeals to young skinhead-variety racists. Watchdog groups say he is gaining influence, in part benefiting from factionalism in other groups.
Notably absent from the gathering, say watchdog groups, was Tom Metzger, the current leader of the White Aryan Resistance and a guru for the skinhead movement. Metzger was listed as a “special guest” speaker but was not present.
Movement in disarray
The Aryan Nations is emblematic of the disarray seen throughout the white supremacist movement, civil rights watchdogs say. They note that within Aryan Nations, factionalism has been rife, and Redfeairn himself has been named successor before, and then split with Butler before having a prodigal son-type reunion. A splinter group started in Pennsylvania under a former member, and competes for prominence.
The death of neo-Nazi William Pierce last July took a toll on the movement, they say, as did the arrest of Mathew Hale, the self-proclaimed “Pontifex Maximus” of the racist and anti-Semitic group that called itself the World Church of the Creator. Hale was arrested in January and charged with soliciting the murder of a federal judge who presided over an Oregon church’s trademark infringement suit against Hale and had ordered him to stop using the name World Church of the Creator.
More broadly, in the post-Sept. 11 security environment, both the white supremacists and their detractors say they have been tracked more closely by federal agents who are better funded and more vigilant about potential domestic terrorists.
“The white supremacist world is in flux,” says Marilyn Mayo of the Anti-Defamation League, which monitors the movements of anti-Semitic groups. “It’s very hard to say who will emerge.”
But she warns: “What happens in situations like this is that you get people leaving these groups and maybe starting more radical groups or going underground.”
Meanwhile, Redfeairn disputes the notion that local activists have ended the reign of the Aryan Nations in Idaho. He says the state will remain the headquarters even after Butler dies, and that he will eventually move to the area from his current home in Ohio. He says the group hopes to have the funds to buy new property in the area by next year’s congress.
The Aryan Nations will continue to recruit through the Internet and increasingly through increasing cable access; Redfeairn envisions one day setting up a white power show along the lines of televangelist programs. The group will also continue its prison outreach, which has brought many convicts into its fold.
Redfeairn, who served 12 years for shooting a police officer portrays the prison ministry as a way to get convicts to clean up their act: “We give them direction. A lot of people don’t like the direction we give them, but we’d rather have them working for the race … doing something positive.”
Idaho's hearts and minds
The Aryans are counting on tacit sympathy or at least apathy from the area’s nearly all-white population. They appeal to the working poor in the area and argue that even many new arrivals in the area have moved to Idaho to flee mixed-race cities on the coasts. As they see themselves, they are the warriors willing to fight off the incursion of racial minorities and Jews. Meanwhile, they have succeeded to the extent that they have helped create the reputation of the state as a bastion of white racism, deserved or not.
There is clearly a contingent of people in northern Idaho fighting the image and the influence. In the wake of the lawsuit against the Aryan Nations, the former compound was razed and made into a Peace Park, while in the capital of Boise, funds poured in for an Anne Frank center to teach human rights. A gaggle of human rights groups are active in the state, and the university branches have special courses on hate groups.
Stewart, a professor at North Idaho College in Coeur d’Alene, also lectures around the country about Idaho’s success in beating back the Aryan Nations. He counsels other communities to “never, never ignore the movement of a group like this into the community, and never remain silent.”
Apart from law enforcers and activists, few local residents were aware or seemingly concerned about the congress of white supremacists.
Business people here are quick to declare the group dead. Gatherings of radicals, especially ex-convict radicals, are not good for the tourism business, which is key to the local economy.
And attitudes among the general public are mixed:
“I despise them,” said a barista at an espresso stand when he learned that the congress was under way a few miles down the road.
“To each his own,” shrugged an older man waiting for his take-away order at Silly Chile’s, a Tex-Mex stand down the road. “Whatever trips their trigger, I guess,” he said of the event, which turned out to be within earshot of his house.
“My impression is that people of Coeur d’Alene don’t like Aryan Nations because it is a fringe group and because it was bad for business,” said Tim Gresback, an attorney in Moscow, Idaho. “It bothered me that they didn’t seem as disgusted by what (the racist groups) were saying.”
A call to City Hall in Coeur d’Alene produced no comment from the mayor, but a spokeswoman pointed out that the Aryan congress could not get a parade permit this year. “They are outside city limits,” she said, bringing the conversation to an end.