Coeur d’Alene is the largest city in Northern Idaho, nestled among the Rocky Mountains and a picturesque lake. It was also home to a major compound of the Aryan Nations.
From the early-1970s arrival of Aryan Nations leader Richard Butler, to the March 2020 Idaho House’s failed vote for a “Too Great for Hate” specialty license plate, the state of Idaho has in recent years struggled over both the presence and meaning of modern white supremacy within its borders. Shortly after moving to Idaho, Butler established an Aryan Nations headquarters in rural Kootenai County on a twenty-acre site just north of Coeur d’Alene. Butler used funding he had saved and donations from fellow worshippers to begin holding services for his own congregation of the Church of Jesus Christ-Christian, a group founded in the 1940s that promulgated white supremacy and antisemitism. Butler’s compound included an adjoined print shop for publishing books, fliers, posters, and pamphlets filled with racist propaganda and antisemitic caricatures. The group led parades that gathered large crowds of youths in downtown Coeur d’Alene alongside annual summits at the compound. In the mid-1990s, the Aryan Nations began running its own website, one of the first dedicated sites for recruiting white supremacists. The religious tenor of Butler’s compound was a major draw for many who saw him as a prophetic individual, and he claimed a religious freedom right to spread his message of hate. From this headquarters, Butler preached white supremacy and exclusion to his followers, making the area synonymous with white supremacy.
However, many residents of Coeur d’Alene felt distressed at Butler’s growing presence. In 1981, Butler’s followers and rivals engaged in violent conflict, and someone defaced a local Jewish restaurant with antisemitic grafitti. This brought the compound and the town to the attention of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations. The brainchild of local activists Tony Stewart, Norman Gissel, and Marshall Mend, the task force rallied locals to advocate against hate by using community outreach programs to speak against white supremacy and by intervening in disputes involving Butler and his supporters.
The advocacy group finally made headway when they won a $6.3 million lawsuit against Butler’s group for violating local codes. Stewart, Gissel, and others involved in that campaign were loath to offer their strategy as a solution for other cities, but they say their approach might be one way to address white supremacy in the US and around the world. Bankrupted by the suit, the Aryan Nations lost possession of their local property. Idaho firefighters used the compound buildings for arson investigation training, eventually burning down every structure.
The Carr Foundation later purchased the land and gifted it to the North Idaho College Foundation on the condition that they redevelop it into a “peace park.” However, in 2019 NICF obtained the Carr foundation’s permission to instead sell the land in a favorable market to fund an endowment for human rights education.
The task force’s victory over the Aryan Nations does not mean the struggle against white supremacy has concluded. Coeur d’Alene remains a town of mixed emotions between those who allow racism to flourish and those who believe Idaho can be “too great for hate.”