Idaho town will fight bad publicity with good publicity
COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho – Embarrassed by the sight of neo-Nazis parading through town at the height of tourist season, city leaders have decided they, too, can use the First Amendment to their advantage.
They are hiring a human rights coordinator with public relations experience whose job will include publicizing all the good and decent things people are doing in Coeur d’Alene.
It’s the latest tactic in a battle that has seen locals first try to ignore the white supremacist group Aryan Nations, and then stage counter-demonstrations. The end result was national media coverage showing pictures of swastika-wearing extremists marching down the main street.
”Good deeds and positive activities never garner as much attention as the remarks of a crazy who doesn’t represent anybody,” said Jonathan Coe of the Coeur d’Alene Area Chamber of Commerce.
Mayor Steve Judy will choose the coordinator, who will work with the news media, advertising agencies and religious groups to develop programs that promote respect for others. The goal is to focus media attention on positive activities, rather than hate marches.
Among other things, the coordinator will set up a Web site, organize public meetings and answer queries from the media about hate groups.
Money for the full-time post of coordinator was donated by the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University. Founder Greg Carr is an Idaho native.
Richard Butler, leader of the Aryan Nations, ridiculed the notion of an Aryan-buster. ”For white people to have to hire somebody like that because other people want to remain white is interesting,” he said.
The Idaho Panhandle is a region of beautiful lakes and forested mountains that draws thousands of tourists and retirees. The elegant Coeur d’Alene Resort on the city’s lakefront has 18 floors of rooms to fill, at rates of up to $2,500 a night.
In Kootenai County, tourism in 1999 accounted for 5,800 jobs paying $66 million in wages. With the region’s timber and mining industries suffering, tourism is a major reason the population of the county jumped from 69,000 in 1990 to 98,000 in 1997. Many of the newcomers are moving into $500,000 homes springing up all over the area.
At the same time, Idaho has gained a reputation as a hate-group stronghold. A recent report by the Northwest Coalition for Human Dignity identified 11 white supremacist groups in Idaho, 10 of them in the Panhandle.
Among them is the Hitler-loving Aryan Nations, which moved to a ranch in the area in the 1970s and declared it was creating a white homeland.
Civic leaders fear that marches by the Aryan Nations in 1998 and 1999 are scaring away tourists and business opportunities.
A 1998 parade attracted about 90 Aryan Nations supporters and 1,000 counter-demonstrators. Last summer, about 80 white supremacists and 200 opponents scuffled in a park. A week later, after winning a permit on First Amendment grounds with backing from the ACLU, a few Aryan Nations supporters marched down Sherman Avenue to the screams of thousands of protesters.
Last year, resort owner Duane Hagadone donated thousands of dollars for legal advice in a fruitless attempt to draft a law that would ban the Aryans from marching while preserving First Amendment rights.
At the state level, Gov. Dirk Kempthorne has proposed spending up to $100,000 to change Idaho’s image as a haven for racists. ”The idea that this soil is now used as a verbal battleground for hatred and to display swastikas is not Idaho,” he said at a rally in Coeur d’Alene last year.
In Coeur d’Alene, some merchants were enthusiastic about the idea of countering bad publicity with good.
”We have a really bad reputation,” said Cathy Shortridge, owner of several stores in the Coeur d’Alene Resort Shopping Plaza. ”Everywhere we go, people mention, ‘You live up there with the Aryan Nations.”’
But others wondered whether fighting back against the white supremacists might be counterproductive.
”Ignore them and eventually they will go away,” said Sandy Jirovski, manager of a recreational vehicle park.