No Free Speech for Nazis

  Hate came to North Idaho, but it didn’t wear a swastika

by Edgar J. Steele 

July 10, 1999

Couer d’Alene, Idaho.  Main street of this sleepy backwater in Northern Idaho echoed with the sounds of hatred on this gorgeous Saturday morning.  Richard Butler and his motley band of Aryan Nation adherents were here for their annual parade, along with hundreds of spectators, mostly from the nether reaches of the West Coast.  But it wasn’t Butler (Pastor Butler to his followers) and his crew slinging the epithets, crossing police barricades and breaking the law.  They weren’t even making much noise, not that they could have been heard over the crowd’s taunts or the bullhorns wielded by out-of-state incendiaries.

            Eerily silent just minutes before 10am, the parade’s scheduled start time, sidewalks were mostly clear as a horde of police officers in partial riot gear cordoned off Sherman Avenue.  Then, from the east end of the street, a white pickup truck bearing twin Confederate flags slowly began rolling west.  Richard Butler, octogenarian head of the Aryan Nations and a local resident, walked behind the truck, flanked by two uniformed followers, each bearing an early American revolutionary flag.

              Seemingly from nowhere, a large group coalesced on the sidelines near the start point, orchestrated by a young man with a bullhorn, later vaguely identified as being from Seattle.  “No, No, Nazis,” catcalls and taunts of every stripe were hurled at the marchers.  As if on cue, and at strategic points along the parade route, banners were unfurled and signs thrust into the air, with their owners shouting insults and profane invectives at Butler and crew.

            As the procession reached the halfway mark, another young man with a bullhorn led a band of youngsters through the police barricade and onto the street just a block further on.  Sitting down in a line, they unfurled a banner proclaiming, “They shall not pass,” and vowing, “Idaho will be the tomb of facism.”

Police did nothing to remove protestors from the parade’s path, preferring to divert Butler and company down a side street, for an early and quiet finish.  Deprived of their target, the line of protestors at first cheered their apparent victory, then rushed up the street to join their comrades.  Seemingly disappointed with being denied a confrontation, the throng of mostly younger people staged an impromptu sit-in at the town’s main intersection, with several circulating in the party atmosphere, waving their placards aloft.  An arrest or two finally occurred when some of the activists actually pushed police officers.

Perhaps the most curious sign of the lot boldly proclaimed, “No Free Speech for Nazis,” with its owner seemingly oblivious to the apparent inconsistency inherent to brandishing such a sentiment.

None of the sign holders interviewed was from the surrounding area, let alone Idaho itself, showing that the annual Aryan Nations march in downtown Couer d’Alene has become a flash point for activists from afar and an excuse to converge on this small town for an exercise in venting hatred. 





From left to right: Brenda, from Canada; Gabe, from Oregon.; Steve, from Seattle.

Until the very eve of the parade, it was questionable whether the Aryan Nations would even march this year.  Couer d’Alene had hired a Seattle lawyer to rewrite its parade permit ordinance with the express purpose of thwarting Butler in his annual exercise in free speech.  The city council refused to allow Butler his parade on the previous weekend, when the Aryan Nations held its annual World Congress, with members and sympathizers flying in from around the globe. 

In an inexplicable interpretation of the ordinance they had commissioned, the town fathers routed Butler away from the downtown area and through what was previously the city dump.  The ACLU intervened in the form of two local volunteer lawyers who quickly filed suit.  A federal judge ruled, just two days prior to the parade, that the city council could not deny the Aryan Nations access to a downtown parade route which, only seven days prior, had hosted both a Fourth-of-July and a children’s parade.

  Regardless of how one feels about Richard Butler and his rag-tag band of followers, it is difficult not to feel some empathy for their plight, albeit one of their own making.  On the one hand, the local town fathers wish Butler would go away, or at least go to the dump.  On the other, a host of placard-carrying out-of-towners descends upon Butler’s annual exercise with blood in their eyes, venom in their hearts and the most profane sort of hatred on their lips.  Finally, the local police seem satisfied with giving the day over to the protestors and curtailing the Aryan Nations’ exhibition.  All these groups have one thing in common, however – curtailing the Aryan Nations’ exercise of its right to free speech.   

“There oughta be a law,” one might say.  There is one, of course, embodied in the First Amendment to the US Constitution.  But, it seems increasingly reserved only for the most politically-correct of those among us.


"I didn't say it would be easy.  I just said it would be the truth."
            - Morpheus

Copyright © Edgar J. Steele, 2002

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