The small community of Sandpoint — nestled in the northern tip of Idaho with a picture postcard story about its “astounding beauty and world-class recreational opportunities” — is having a recurring problem with hate literature.
Not only are hate flyers being randomly left in people’s yards, they also are being sent as unsolicited e-mails to assorted businesses and community leaders. The perplexing, latest batch of hate flyers specifically target and include photos of the city’s mayor and the chairwoman of the local Bonner County Human Rights Task Force.
In one e-mail, Mayor Shelby Rognstad is pictured in a Photoshop image of a Nazi gas chamber with the hate meme Pepe the Frog ready to push the button. In another, human rights leader Lynn Bridges is pictured in a “wanted poster” accusing her of promoting “discredited and unscientific racial equality” ideals, along with another human rights activist whose address is listed.
After a five-month intermittent barrage of flyers, the mayor and Bridges, along with other members of the Bonner County Human Rights Task Force, did what they’ve never done in the group’s 25-year existence: They called a press conference Wednesday to jointly denounce those messages of hate.
They were joined by other task force board members, three ministers, the president of the Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce, the school superintendent and three members from the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations — a 36-year-old organization that’s become a prototype for other community-based human rights groups throughout the nation.
The most-recent batch of hate flyers, Bridges said, “urge us to rise up against members of our own community — [those] of African American descent, of Latino descent, against those who are followers of Judaism and followers of Islam.”
“They urge us to accept Nazi ideals and turn on each other because of the color of our skins, our ethnic origin or the way we choose to worship,” the human rights leader said. “We are here to say, very loud and clear, that this is not who we are.”
She later added: “We want the community to know that the messages on these flyers are dangerous.”
“We believe in working for a community where everyone feels safe and where every person is treated with dignity and respect and where they enjoy the rights and freedoms granted to them by the founding documents of our country,” Bridges said in firm voice.
Both the mayor and Bridges told Hatewatch that they feel threatened by the e-mails, but Police Chief Corey Coon, who watched from the rear of the assembly room and did not participate in the press conference, said the literature may well be protected by free speech provisions of the Constitution.
Asked if targeting specific individuals through the Internet — interstate commerce — to communicate a threat might constitute a federal crime, the chief said he really hadn’t thought about that and hasn’t asked the FBI for assistance.
“I’ll have to look at that,” the chief said, declining to offer his personal opinion when asked if unsolicited dissemination of hate literature via e-mails might constitute a federal crime.
“Part of my job is to uphold the Constitution and the 1st Amendment and free speech is a big thing,” the police chief told Hatewatch.
It’s not the first time Sandpoint has had to deal with hate head-on.
A quarter of a century ago, the Bonner County human rights task force was formed to deal with recruiting in the region by the Aryan Nations, which had its headquarters just down U.S. Highway 95. Then in the 1990s, the community faced mass-mailings of racist literature by the well-financed 11th Hour Remnant Messenger, whose co-founder ran for mayor of Sandpoint and only collected 30 votes.
Recalling those days, Bonner County task force member Brenda Sue Hammond said the need to stand up to hate is an ongoing task.
“Do not believe for a moment that the ideology of hatred does not go hand-in-hand with violence,” Hammond said, referring to assorted crimes carried out by some members of the Aryan Nations.
“Now, we once again stand up to say ‘no to hate’ and ‘yes’ to that hollowed concept that all men and women are all created equal,” Hammond said. “If one of us is threatened, we all are threatened.”
The first batch of flyers circulated last April in Sandpoint incorrectly stated that the community was about to welcome refugees.
“Neither I nor the city have had any discussions, taken any actions or had any intentions what-so-ever to support a refugee resettlement program in Sandpoint or the region,” Rognstad said. “Although I believe that the U.S. resettlement program is an ethical, humane and responsible solution to a humanitarian crisis, I do not believe that it is realistic for this community.”
“Let’s face it though,” the mayor said. “The fear of refugees or immigrants or anyone from other countries is not the crux of the problem that brings us here today.
“The real problem that we are here to address is the underlying fear of difference. It is a fear that divides our community along racial, gender, religious and ethnic lines.”
The mayor said there “is a very small group of people in this community that has initiated a campaign of hate intended to divide us.”
“The signs and symbols used by extremist hate groups, such as the swastika, invoke a history of violence and are meant to elicit fear in the hearts of potential victims and anyone who might otherwise stand up for themselves,” he said. “Hate is an attack on our community’s health.”
Tony Stewart, a founding member of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, praised his counterparts in Bonner County for publicly opposing those behind the hate literature. Stewart then read a statement from Idaho Governor Butch Otter who recalled the state’s fight against racists.
“We told them then, as we continue to tell them now and in no uncertain or ambiguous terms, they are not wanted here and will never be welcome here,” Otter said in his statement.
Idaho, its governor said, “joins the rest of the nation and the world in condemning white-supremacist violence and bigotry of any kind.”