Like communities throughout the Inland Northwest, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, seems to be fighting to uphold an earlier small-town America.
People leave their vehicles unlocked on Sherman Avenue. They tell racial jokes but insist they are not prejudiced. The police don't like outsiders. The Reverend Richard Butler's Aryan Nations compound in Hayden Lake is only 15 minutes from downtown Coeur d'Alene, 30 minutes from Spokane and less than two hours from Missoula. Ruby Ridge, where Randy Weaver held off federal agents, and Sandpoint, the new home of ex-Los Angeles detective Mark Fuhrman, are almost as close.
At the same time, in response to the Aryan march in mid-July, the locals gave thousands of dollars to the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations. Downtown businesses closed. Free bowling and movie passes were distributed to lure folks away from the march. A few signs urged the media to go home.
Coeur d'Alene didn't want the world watching when the Aryans marched.
In past years, Butler's white-power followers figured in many of the West's most sensational terrorists episodes: the order's swath of murder and robbery in the early '80s, the attempted 1990 bombing of a Seattle Neighborhood disco, a cluster of pipe bombings in Coeur d'Alene, the recent anthrax scare in Las Vegas.
The night before the parade, I got to talking with a waitress at a Sherman Avenue restaurant.
She was about my age, in her midthirties, and had kids. She grew up in Coeur d'Alene but also had lived in Portland. "I have known Richard Butler and his followers my whole life," she said. "Some of his followers are assholes, but he is a polite old man. I don't think he is the devil they make him out to be.
"I don't consider myself a racist. But I'm glad they're here, because they keep the blacks out of Coeur d'Alene.... For every person marching in the parade many more people are silent supporters."
Saturday morning, July 18, dawns clear and bright. I head toward the parade route, but after one block four police officers stop me, search me, spread my equipment all over the sidewalk, and run my ID for warrants.
Walking the remaining six blocks to the staging area, I'm questioned by the police three more times. They stop almost everyone in sight, and arrest 23 for refusing to be searched and other reasons. "Does your mother know you dress like this?" a cop asks one young detainee.
At about 9 a.m. the Aryan caravan, led by the 80-year-old Butler, pulls up across from the staging area. The police have everything roped off.
The majority of protesters have not yet arrived, so I follow the marchers into the staging area. I have about six minutes to take photos and ask questions before the police throw me out. The press isn't allowed to talk to the Nazis. But I learn that some of the marchers are skinheads from Seattle, where I am from, who seem to be more interested in taunting the system than in political messages. With their tattoos and chain wallets, they look like many other punk kids.
The marchers come in many other varieties, all white: men in their forties wearing Klan robes, loner types in military garb and unkempt beards, ordinary-looking grandparents. The most frightening are well groomed fashion model types who could pass in any young, sophisticated crowd. They're the ones who don't want to be photographed. They move away from me.
Outside the staging area, an African-American man arrives, holding a sign that reads: "Wanted! A pot of golden people at the end of a rainbow."
He is immediately surrounded by reporters who want to know how he feels. He says he's an engineer, and has lived in Northern Idaho for about five months. Two women with him laugh and say he is very popular with the ladies around here.
Thirty state police march up to the staging area in lockstep. At first I think they're more Nazis. With their navy blue uniforms, helmets, boots and nightsticks, they look straight out of an old war movie. It is almost time for the march to begin and very hot by the time the busloads of protesters show up. The police keep them on the other side of the street. (The Seattle Times later reports that about 300 came.)
Some are from Seattle's United Front Against Fascism and Freedom Socialist Party. The most controversial is the Jewish Defense League's Irv Rubin, who tells the weekly Inlander in Spokane, "The only thing you can do to Nazis is smash them."
The parade starts at 10 a.m. and takes about 30 minutes, 10 blocks down the route and back to the staging area. Several onlookers say hello to marchers they know. Three give them the Hitler salute, and many more give them the finger. The Aryans don't carry signs but lots of flags, many of them Swedish or Norwegian. I'm puzzled about these. It's impossible to understand what Butler is saying and after a while he seems to realize this and quits speaking altogether.
After the marchers make it back to the staging area, a sense of relief sweeps the crowd. Two little girls are yelling "White power!" to their mom, who is one of the Aryans.
The woman standing next to the girls and their babysitter flips the bird and yells to one marcher, "You are an asshole, I'll never sleep with you!"
Some of the Aryans have trouble starting their car. The woman yells, "Get a job, you losers!" and mutters, "They can't even afford a decent car. Disgusting losers."
As the Aryan caravan pulls out, five young skinheads break away and run for their car, parked across the street and up the hill. A few protesters take off after them, and everyone else starts up the hill to see what's happening.
When I reach the scene the Aryans have gone and 200 or so protesters are standing around the storm-trooper police, who assume a riot stance and announce over a bullhorn that if we don't disperse within two minutes, we'll be arrested. At the last minute the officers go back to their staging area, leaving no excuse to riot.
The crowd mills around for a few minutes. A kid on a bicycle carrying a pro marijuana sign suggests, "If we give them pot, maybe they'd stop being Nazis." Everyone laughs. The tension is broken, and it's time to go home.
This story originally ran in the Seattle Weekly.
Above: At 10 a.m. on Saturday, July 18, assorted neo-Nazis, skinheads and Klansmen took to the streets of Coeur d'Alene behind the lead of Richard Butler's Aryan Nations. Although, local human rights workers asked people to stay away, outraged citizens arrived by the busload to make their voices heard. To the right: Many of the racist protestors arrived in paramilitary gear, including Butler's bodyguards shown here.
Above: Both sympathizers and anatgonists lined the parade route down Sherman Avenue, where they offered their own salutes. To the right: Idaho State police were concerned about protestors, regardless of whether they were Aryans or not. "Does your mother know you dress like this?" one cop asked a detainee.
Above: Eighty-year-old Aryan Nations leader Richard Butler arrives in a jeep, with bodyguards, at the staging area. Although he spoke to the crowd, it was hard to understand the old man. To the right: Some of the marchers came from other than Idaho. These Klansmen arrived from Texas to show their support for "white power."