Idaho Human Rights Conference Will Focus on Prejudice in America

Attempts by rightwing racist vigilantes within the past several years to make the Pacific Northwest an all-white bastion through violence and the proliferation of racial hatred appear to have boomeranged.

On Friday, hundreds of representatives of religious and racial civil rights organizations, including the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, will convene for a three-day convention on human rights in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, site last year of several bombings of federal buildings and the home of a Roman Catholic priest.

The overall theme of the conference will be prejudice in America today, and its impact on the Northwest.

It is no accident that Coeur d’Alene was chosen for the conference, the first assembled by the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment, which was formalized in April in response to the bombings.

This small tourist town in the heart of the Coeur d’Alene Mountains was the focus of the Aryan Nations-Church of Jesus Christ-Christian, a violently racist, anti-Semitic group that adheres to the tenets of the Christian Identity movement, claiming that the Jews are the children of Satan. The group is equally hateful of Blacks, Orientals, American Indians and Roman Catholics.

MEMBERS FACING CHANGES

Two members of the group, David Dorr and Edward Hawley, are currently facing charges for their part in the Coeur d’Alene bombings, and have already been convicted of counterfeiting. Other members of this and related hate groups have this year been convicted of crimes ranging from counterfeiting to murder.

The goals of the hate-filled Aryan Nations, however, appear to have turned upon themselves. Coeur d’Alene has instead become known for its involvement in the cause of human rights, manifested through the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, and its outgrowth, the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment.

The Coalition pushed for, and won in July, the most powerful anti-terrorist legislation in the United States, as well as additional pieces of legislation: on anti-domestic terrorism, observance of Martin Luther King Day in Idaho and an amendment to previously enacted malicious harassment legislation that enables civil lawsuits to be filed by victims of racist or terrorist attacks.

Father Bill Wassmuth, whose rectory was firebombed by members of the Aryan Nations and who barely escaped with his life, chairs the Task Force.

SENDING A ‘CLEAR MESSAGE’

Wassmuth credited Idaho Attorney General Jim Jones for the turnaround in events in that region. Wassmuth said that by enabling the passage of the Terrorist Training Act, Jones “sent a clear message to the Aryan Nations that terrorists will not be tolerated in Idaho.”

Next weekend’s three-day human rights conference is expected to reinforce that message. Among those scheduled to speak at the conference is Bethine Church, widow of Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) who has long been involved in human rights causes, including that of Raoul Wallenberg, the Righteous Gentile who some believe is languishing in a Soviet prison.

Also present will be a host of representatives of groups of Blacks, native Americans (American Indians), Hispanics, and Japanese Americans and other Orientals.

Harold Applebaum, assistant to the executive vice president of the American Jewish Committee in New York, also will address the conference. Applebaum oversees program development in the area of anti-Semitism and extremism for the AJCommittee.

THREE DISCUSSION TOPICS

There will be three overall areas discussed at the conference, all under the umbrella topic of the state of prejudice in America. They are the rise in violence against minority groups, the need for corrective legislation and the need for “active responses from society’s institutions and communities.”

The convention will include two workshops. Leonard Zeskind, research director of the Center for Democratic Renewal in Atlanta, will speak on “The Current Status of Hate Groups: A National Perspective.” Marjorie Biller-Green, Western states education director of the ADL in Los Angeles, will discuss “Prejudice-Reduction Education: An Action Response to Bigotry.”

Conference coordinator is Tony Stewart, who is head of the political science department at North Idaho College. Stewart said that “As far as I know, this has not been done before, to gather such people together, both public and private groups concerned about civil rights.”

Wassmuth said, “We’re hoping that the mingling and elbow-rubbing of people from all these organizations will build some real energy and some real strength in terms of the human rights effort in the Northwest. Many groups and organizations have done their own thing and have done it well, but we hope that bringing them together into the coalition will strengthen the movement even more.”

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