SANDPOINT — Hate slithers around in the shadows. Hate slinks up from behind and hides. And when a community has the guts to turn around and stare it down, hate blinks first.
That has been the experience of the Bonner County Human Rights Task Force, which this week announced that its 20th anniversary celebration just became more festive, thanks to a whopping $370,000 donation from the Dorothy Adler estate.
“Our first decade was very much focused on the Aryan Nations and sending the message: ‘Not here — you won’t converge here,’” said BCHRTF President Brenda Hammond. “Our second 10 years were spent kind of treading water. With this donation, which has no strings attached, our third decade is going to be amazing.”
Founded in 1992, the task force threw its weight behind the successful effort to defeat Richard Butler in his attempt to create what white supremacists at the time called a “homeland” for their movement. Even as Butler’s ship was sinking fast, one of his followers, Vincent Bertollini, was sending hate mail to local addresses, once again stirring up bad press for North Idaho.
But Bertollini’s efforts also stirred up a hornet’s nest in the process. Within a week of the first mailings, more than 1,000 Bonner County residents stood up to be counted, asking for their names to be placed in full-page ads for the task force. The ads — headlined “We will not be silent” — were in response to the mailings that listed the names of local officials and others as “enemies of the white race.”
As checks began to pour in from citizens ready to face down hate, the task force saw an opportunity to maintain its sense of humor amidst the struggle for human rights.
“Every time we got a check, we sent a thank-you card to Bertollini saying, ‘As a result of your mailings, we just got another donation,’” said Hammond.
Gretchen Hellar, BCHRTF treasurer, had just been elected president of the task force and was high on the “enemies” list when those mailers started going out.
“This time, I had just been elected treasurer when we got a donation of $370,000,” she said. “So that kind of makes up for it.”
Oddly, the group might have another white supremacist to thank for the six-figure gift.
No one knows for certain, but the donation’s timing was closely aligned with the news that Aryan Nations follower Shaun Patrick Winkler had thrown his hat into the ring as a candidate for Bonner County Sheriff. The outcome, at any rate, was that Winkler barely garnered 3 percent of votes cast, while the task force gained $370,000 in a monetary vote of confidence for its work.
The task force now plans to use the money to create a permanent endowment, which will protect the principle amount in perpetuity while spinning off about $15,000-a-year — progressively more as time goes on — to spread the message of human rights. Going forward, local schools, arts organizations and community groups will be able to submit grant applications to BCHRTF to receive a chunk of that money.
“That’s the biggest part of this,” said task force board member Jason Bennel. “It’s going to provide local funding to local organizations. That was very important to Dorothy.”
If history is an indicator, Winkler’s more recent announcement that he plans to create a white supremacist gathering place on property in west Bonner County might prompt an additional wave of funding for the task force. According to Hellar, the failed candidate’s continued attempts to stay in the news could prove to be his undoing.
“The more he talks, the less believable he is,” she said.
“His public comments bring him out into the light,” Hammond added. “And the light is the greatest way to overcome fear and take away its power.”
Winkler claims to have found a benefactor in the form of a former Los Angeles police officer who he claims helped to fund his unsuccessful bid for the sheriff’s job. Apparently prepared to throw good money after bad, the unnamed supporter reportedly has offered to purchase property to be used as a “compound” for gatherings. If such a benefactor exists, they could find that such a relationship will sweep them up in the foreclosure proceedings that caused Winkler to abandon his original plans to build compound on his own property.
“Winkler is between a rock and a hard place because he owes thousands of dollars and his own property is being foreclosed upon,” said Laura Bry, BCHRTF vice-president. “Any land gift he gets would have an immediate lien placed upon it.”
For the task force, the periodic reappearance of white supremacists must feel like playing a game of human rights “whack-a-mole” — send one packing and another pops up in his place. Benell compared it to the original BCHRTF goal, which was to inoculate the community against hate” through information.
“We can inoculate,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean the virus goes away.”
“This kind of thing isn’t surprising, because we knew that Richard Butler had attracted a group around him,” Hammond said. “When he went away, they didn’t all leave. They just went back into the woods.”
Now out of the woods and back in the national headlines, Aryan Nations followers such as Winkler face an extremely well organized and very well funded human rights infrastructure at the local level. Not content with success in North Idaho alone, BCHRTF has joined forces with the recently founded Northwest Regional Human Rights Coalition, which pits Washington’s Spokane and Whitman counties with five counties in Idaho in the fight against hate.
“This creates a great clearing house for regional information,” said Bry. “Now we all know what everybody else is doing.”
As frustrating as it might be to have gained it in such a difficult manner, North Idaho’s first-hand knowledge about how to oppose white supremacists, coupled with the ability to add substantial grant funding to the effort, could provide a blueprint for other parts of the country that have to make a similar stand.
“The fact that we had to deal with Butler and Bertolini has made this community more aware of human rights,” Hellar said.
“Maybe we were foolish, but we really were not afraid of them,” Hammond said. “We looked at who they were and the power they had, and then we looked at the power we had when we stood together.”
Were there any lessons the task force learned that will be carried forward into its third decade? Hammond smiled and nodded before offering two things that came to mind.
“Love is greater than fear,” she said. “And we can really mobilize when we have to.”
To learn more about the history of Bonner County Human Rights Task Force, its mission and the causes it supports, visit the group’s web site at www.bchrtf.org or check them out on Facebook at: www.facebook.com/bonnercountyhumanrights