12/13/2005

Human Rights Center Opens in Idaho Five Years After SPLC Lawsuit

Five years after a Center lawsuit brought an end to the Aryan Nations' presence in northern Idaho, dozens of community members gathered to open a new facility dedicated to supporting human rights.

The Human Rights Education Institute is located in downtown Coeur D'Alene, in the same region of the state that former Aryan Nations leader Richard Butler picked for his group's headquarters. Butler died last year at the age of 86.

The Institute is both a response to the Aryan Nations, which was forced to abandon its headquarters as the result of the Center's suit, and a place for the community to continue the human rights work it began when Butler first came to Idaho in the late 1970s.

"This was their world compound up here," said interim institute director K.K. Torgerson. "But they lost their base and they lost their money, and now we can basically prevent that kind of thing from happening again."

In July 1998, Aryan Nations security guards shot at Victoria Keenan and her son after their car backfired as it passed the compound entrance. Bullets struck their car several times before the vehicle careened into a ditch.

Following the incident, the Center filed Keenan v. Aryan Nations, seeking monetary damages for the pair. In September 2000, a jury ruled that Butler and his organization were grossly negligent in selecting and supervising the guards and awarded a $6 million judgment against him and the Aryan Nations.

Butler was forced to turn over the 20-acre compound to the Keenans, who sold the property to philanthropist Greg Carr.

Carr later donated the land to a local college where it now serves as a "peace park." He also provided funding to start the Human Rights Education Institute.

“To this day I get goose bumps when I think about what we did,” said Coeur D’Alene attorney Norm Gissel, who worked with the Center on the Aryan Nations case. “And the response in the years since the lawsuit has been overwhelming. We expected people to think, ‘Well, we’re done.’ But that hasn’t happened. As a community, we want to make sure these gains are here to stay.”

Tony Stewart, a political science professor at nearby North Idaho College and member of theKootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, said the jury verdict was a landmark event for the town.

"It was so major," Stewart said. "It was a huge victory over hate that had been in the state for a quarter of a century. It lifted a huge dark cloud off of our area."

Even though the lawsuit prompted the end of the Aryan Nations' presence in the region, Stewart said the community has continued to press for human rights.

"Some people thought that with the lawsuit that ended the compound that the message of continuing to work for human rights would end," said Stewart. "But it's really just getting going and getting into high gear. There's just as much energy as ever."

The new facility was dedicated on Saturday, International Human Rights Day. Outside the Center is a 13,000-pound, 16-foot granite monument with the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights engraved on it.

The Institute, which has plans for two separate expansions in the future, will host guest speakers, art exhibits with human rights-related themes and offer space and resources to other groups with similar missions. According to Torgerson, the Institute's mission is to provide resolution to conflict.