Over the edge 

New report highlights harassment in Flathead Valley

The ongoing war of words between the Montana Human Rights Network and controversial radio broadcaster John Stokes of Kalispell has taken a downward spin with the Network’s release of a new report on harassment of conservationists in the Flathead Valley.

The “School Yard Bullies” report, compiled by Network co-directors Ken Toole and Christine Kaufmann and other staff members, details more than 40 recent incidents of near-violence, threats, vandalism and degradation aimed at individuals and organizations involved in environmental causes in northwestern Montana.

“The purpose of the report is to inform the community and give people information they need to speak out against intimidation and reclaim civility in the public debate,” Kaufmann says.

Stokes, owner of KGEZ-AM radio and host of the station’s often-acidic talk show, “The Edge,” is blamed in the report for stirring up anti-environmental dissent and contributing to the continued civil unrest.

“John Stokes dehumanizes conservationists and sets the stage for their intimidation and harassment,” the Network contends in a chapter titled “A History of Going Over ‘The Edge,’” which documents dozens of anti-Green statements Stokes has made on the air.

“By using the public airwaves, he has turned conservationists into catch-all scapegoats,” blamed for everything from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to scuttling the nation’s economy and causing the deaths of four firefighters last year in Washington state, the report reads. “He sends a message that environmentalists are not entitled to be citizens of society. This makes conservationists an easy target.”

Stokes, who says he has not yet seen the 35-page report, is nonetheless convinced it is full of falsehoods.

“The truth and Mr. Toole have never been associated together,” Stokes says. “Mr. Toole is just a blithering idiot. He just makes this shit up and tries to make victims of everybody. He’s just a liberal skinhead.”

“We have no evidence that John Stokes is directly involved in any of the incidents,” says Kaufmann, who also serves as a state Democratic representative from Helena. “We know he has a big microphone and a big mouth and that he uses them to rail against conservationists at every turn, labeling them Green Nazis and evil terrorists.”

Numerous incidents documented in the report, such as harassment of Montana Wilderness Association and Cabinet Resources Council organizer Cesar Hernandez, and death threats e-mailed to Swan View Coalition head Keith Hammer, have received media attention. But much of the other intimidation has previously gone unreported other than to supervisors, law enforcement agencies and prosecutors, whom Toole says should be filing charges in some of the cases to root out the perpetrators.

“Whenever you have a political minority, I think there’s a question of equitable law enforcement protection,” Toole explains. “When you look at [the incidents] in totality, it becomes much more serious. It goes from challenging individuals to challenging a whole group of people.”

Among the incidents detailed in the report:

• A long string of lewd and harassing telephone calls reported by a woman conservationist whom Stokes has named on the air.

• Denial of repair services to a conservation group staffer who also reported being verbally assaulted by another man and receiving a telephone call asking whether his house was on fire yet.

• Harassment of a Flathead Basin Commission employee, whom Stokes called an “alleged criminal” who should not be employed by the state.

• A verbal assault reported by a conservation group employee who was yelled at by a man in a truck in Columbia Falls for being an alleged “environmental terrorist.”

• A woman conservation leader who says her vehicle was bumped from behind while traveling on U.S. Highway 93. The woman also reported that a conservation group’s composting project at the Flathead County landfill was fouled with diesel fuel last year.

• Repeated vandalism to vehicles displaying environmental bumper stickers and decals.

• A woman who set up a collection box for tropical rain forest protection at an area school says Stokes criticized the project on the air, prompting calls to school administrators, who had the box removed. Stokes later said he wanted to use KGEZ to “get that green crap out of our schools.”

Toole, a Democratic state senator, and Kaufmann say tough economic times in a region founded on natural resource extraction has opened the door for blaming, and conservationists are simply a convenient target. While robust debate is critical to a functioning democracy, they contend that Stokes in particular blurs the line between free speech and incitement.

The report shows the broadcaster routinely compares conservationists to the Ku Klux Klan, decries them for being unpatriotic and un-American, says they’re like the Taliban, and advocates rounding them up and holding them in concentration camps. Other radio talk, according to the report, ranges from discussion about shooting activists to the power of vigilantes.

“I have nothing against anybody individually,” Stokes says, “but I’ll go head-to-head with anyone politically. I think that’s all right. We advocate non-violence, peaceful protest, voting, what-have-you.”

According to Toole, a number of conservationists are looking into civil lawsuits to stop harassment and the flow of false information from Stokes. Toole also took aim at Republican Gov. Judy Martz for recently calling citizens concerned about Bitterroot National Forest salvage logging sales “obstructionists” and refusing to meet privately with environmental leaders over the issue.

“She is our governor, and I think she should be willing to meet with people even if she doesn’t agree with them,” Toole says. “To me, it’s just one more example of how the wise-use crowd is trying to marginalize conservationists.”

The network’s report concludes with an excerpt from Sheila O’Donnell’s Common Sense Security: A Handbook for Community Activists.

“You have a First Amendment right to speak your truth,” she writes. “It is illegal to bully you into silence because you have taken an unpopular stand... Don’t ignore the problem. It will only encourage the bullies who will view your silence as consent.”

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