After a false rumor circulated that Antifa agitators had been coming to Sandpoint and close by Coeur d’Alene to riot and loot companies, armed vigilantes and Second Amendment supporters gathered in downtown Coeur d’Alene, alarming a few of the residents.

Kirk Siegler/NPR


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After a false rumor circulated that Antifa agitators had been coming to Sandpoint and close by Coeur d’Alene to riot and loot companies, armed vigilantes and Second Amendment supporters gathered in downtown Coeur d’Alene, alarming a few of the residents.

Kirk Siegler/NPR

At first look, the picturesque resort city of Sandpoint, Idaho, on the banks of Lake Pend Orielle can really feel like an escape from all of the troubles of 2020.

That is, till you speak to frontline staff who cope with the general public on this largely rural, pristine area of forests and sweetness close to the Canadian border.

At Bonner General Health, Dr. Morgan Morton recounts a affected person she had the opposite day who needed to attend till after November to schedule a wanted process.

” ‘I don’t want to do a COVID test,’ she said, and I said, ‘What do you mean? Why would you choose after November?’ I was totally oblivious,” Morton mentioned.

Morton, who’s head of the medical workers on the small hospital, mentioned the affected person informed her that after the election, all of this — the worldwide pandemic — is simply going to go away.

“And I was just like … mind blown,” Morton says.

It was the most recent instance of a widespread — and baseless — conspiracy idea to unfold shortly by way of the evergreen forested mountains and small cities of the largely conservative and libertarian Panhandle.

This previous spring, when Black Lives Matter protests started heating up within the Northwest, extra false rumors took maintain that Antifa agitators had been coming to Sandpoint and close by Coeur d’Alene to riot and loot companies.

In the movies on YouTube that haven’t been taken down, unidentified, closely armed males in fatigues boast of obvious safety operations geared toward defending the cities from being “trashed.”

Far-left agitators by no means confirmed up. What truly unfolded in Coeur d’Alene was a tense stretch of nights when armed vigilantes and Second Amendment supporters converged on town’s quaint downtown.

It’s authorized to brazenly carry weapons in Idaho. But even right here, in one of many nation’s most conservative states, some had been alarmed at what they noticed as intimidation.

“These were people in full camo fatigues, with AR-15s, multiple clips,” mentioned Shelby Rognstad, the mayor of Sandpoint. “These people looked like they were pulled off the streets of Afghanistan and ready for war.”

Rognstad says the paramilitary and different armed residents shortly overwhelmed what he says was a small protest organized by a gaggle of Sandpoint highschool youngsters who needed to exhibit in opposition to systemic racism.

For some longtime locals, there was this sense of “here we go again.”

Moved previous an unpleasant previous?

The latest arrests of militia members in Michigan are echoing loudly in Idaho, a state that has lengthy been synonymous with violent right-wing extremism. But after the fallout from the 1992 anti-government standoff at Ruby Ridge cooled and a lawsuit broke up the notorious Aryan Nations, some longtime locals thought they’d lastly moved previous the ugly previous.

“There are people with guns who come out from the hills whenever they’re whistled,” says Mary Lou Reed.

Reed, a Democrat, represented this area within the state legislature within the Nineteen Nineties. That was throughout the standoff at close by Ruby Ridge, throughout which two civilians and a U.S. marshal had been killed, and when the Aryan Nations founder Richard Butler and different white supremacist teams had been brazenly pledging to show the panhandle right into a white supremacist haven.

Reed sees parallels in 2020. For one, a few of those self same persons are nonetheless round. But far-right extremism at this time is extra sophisticated. Some of the extremist teams are usually not white nationalist and, in truth, have individuals of shade as distinguished members.

“I think maybe it is more sophisticated and maybe it’s scarier,” Reed says. “But it still involves separation and hatred and ugliness.”

North Idaho, because it’s known as domestically, is without doubt one of the fastest-growing areas of the nation. It’s additionally one of many whitest and residential to far-right political actions, some that encourage Christians to flee cities for rural areas like this which are pro-gun and libertarian on points comparable to residence education and vaccines.

Demographers say the area is experiencing its third wave of largely white, conservative transplants transferring from California: a pattern that notably gained notoriety within the Nineteen Nineties, when Southern California cops retired there after the 1991 Rodney King scandal, when Los Angeles officers had been videotaped beating a Black man. Today, it is not unusual to listen to industrial radio stations working adverts for abortion remedy teams. Trump 2020 flags flying in yards subsequent to yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” banners are additionally a mainstay.

“I’ve been calling this now the South of the North, because I’ve never seen so many Confederate flags ever here in my life,” resident Shawn Keenan says.

When the armed far-right teams began exhibiting up on Sherman Avenue in Coeur d’Alene in June, it stirred trauma for Keenan and his household. Whether they knew it or not, Keenan says, they had been on the identical avenue the place white energy marches was held each Fourth of July.

“All of those feelings of fear from the Aryan Nations parades back in the day came flooding right back,” Keenan says.

That’s as a result of in 1998, Keenan’s aunt, a Native American, and his cousin had been shot at, run off the street and held at gunpoint by Aryan Nations safety guards. The Southern Poverty Law Center represented the Keenans in a federal case that may bankrupt the compound.

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Dr. Morgan Morton at Bonner General in Sandpoint, Idaho, says having to continually push again on anti-science conspiracy theories is getting exhausting.

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Kirk Siegler/NPR

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Dr. Morgan Morton at Bonner General in Sandpoint, Idaho, says having to continually push again on anti-science conspiracy theories is getting exhausting.

Kirk Siegler/NPR

Coeur d’Alene went on to start out a civil rights schooling middle. A human rights process pressure was fashioned with police that is nonetheless round at this time. People felt as if they’d gotten previous it.

But Keenan says they acquired complacent.

“What we have now is this new iteration of hatred that’s kind of boiling up in our community,” he says. “It’s frightening to see it again.”

There had been no reported accidents throughout that tense week final spring or at different armed rallies and occasions within the area since. Things have remained peaceable, if tense.

The Coeur d’Alene City Council nodded to this when it put out an announcement saying it was remaining impartial. “We realize,” they wrote, “that to some citizens the sight of heavily armed individuals is unnerving, yet to others it is reassuring.”

In an e-mail to NPR, Mayor Steve Widmyer added: “I disagree with the position that those individuals in Coeur d’Alene are part of a militia. They were individuals exercising their 2nd Amendment rights. They followed all the laws that are afforded to them in the State of Idaho.”

Widmyer pointed to violence and property injury that occurred in different cities throughout the nation and famous that in his metropolis, all sides had been peaceable and native police had been intently monitoring the state of affairs for any criminality.

A personal push for civil rights

Sandpoint Mayor Shelby Rognstad says elected officers are in a tricky spot.

The far-right is well-organized, he says, and huge teams present up armed at public conferences in his city to protest issues like proposed masks mandates.

“I think that elected officials in general are timid to really take any kind of action or any kind of stance that would challenge these groups,” Rognstadt mentioned.

Some native companies listed here are much less timid although and anxious about their area’s already precarious fame. Signs from an area civil rights group “Love Lives Here” are posted prominently on some Main Street storefronts. And partly in response to the controversy in June, a dozen massive employers are forming a Human Rights Consortium.

“In the absence of this, each employer is kind of on their own,” mentioned Jon Ness, CEO of Kootenai Health. “So it brings us all together and there’s a safety in all of that.”

Kootenai Health is that this area’s largest hospital and employer, which says that currently, it has been having hassle recruiting docs and different workers, notably individuals of shade. Ness mentioned the decision for motion got here largely from his workers, after the loss of life of George Floyd, who requested him what the hospital was doing to assist human rights.

While nonetheless in its infancy, he mentioned, the consortium expects to usher in civil rights audio system and set uniform practices for extra inclusive hiring, amongst different initiatives.

“The important part is not what happened, the important conversation now is what is going to happen,” Ness mentioned.

Still, the consortium’s organizers notice that combating hate at this time is an uphill battle. In North Idaho anyway, it could be more durable than again within the Nineteen Nineties, when conspiracy theories did not unfold instantaneously on-line, nor did mainstream elected officers brazenly court docket far-right teams.