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Seattle anti-bigotry coalition battles on

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Eleven years after white supremacists bombed St. Pius X rectory in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, members of the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment will gather in the town to celebrate their decade-long battle against bigotry.

The Seattle-based coalition's weapons in its war on racism include monitoring and reporting bias crimes and the activities of white supremacist groups, helping crime victims and organizations prevent bias crimes, helping to develop community-based human rights task forces, and providing educational opportunities to combat all forms of bigotry.

The April 11 and 12 gathering will "launch the next phase in the ongoing campaign to counter the negative image" of the Northwest states "by building communities where bigotry finds no home," said Bill Wassmuth, the coalition's executive director. The coalition's 10th anniversary celebration in Coeur d'Alene will feature a news conference, board meeting and leadership gathering for public officials, business people and religious and community leaders.

Northern Idaho has been home to white supremacists since 1976, when Richard Butler established the Church of Jesus Christ Christian, Aryan Nations near Coeur d'Alene and drew followers to share his vision of making the Northwest a white "Aryan" homeland.

That vision faded somewhat in 1985, when a human relations task force for Kootenai County, which includes Coeur d'Alene, staged a celebration just before the Aryan Nations' annual conference. Wassmuth, then a priest and pastor of St. Pius X Church, chaired the task force. The following year, his home was partially shattered by a pipe bomb. Shrapnel missed him by inches. Wassmuth attributes this violence to the Aryan Nations.

Convinced of the need for stepped-up strategies to combat racism and bigotry, Wassmuth became director of the coalition in 1989 after he left the priesthood.

Today the coalition boasts some 250 organizations and groups from Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming. Its members include churches, civic and business groups, law enforcement agencies and religious groups such as the Washington State Catholic Conference, the Boise diocese and the Seattle diocese's Catholic Gay and Lesbian Ministries.

"The church is not interested in seeing hatemongering," says Ned Dolejsi, executive director of the Washington State Catholic Conference. The Washington Conference and the coalition testified at state legislature hearings for passage of the 1993 Malicious Harassment Law, which requires all city and county law enforcement to track hate crimes.

David Lachiondo, principal of Bishop Kelly High School in Boise -- also a coalition member -- calls the coalition "a beacon of understanding and light in the Northwest" and credits Wassmuth with improving Idaho's image.

However, racist literature is still being distributed in Eastern Idaho, says Jesse Berain, a founding member of the coalition and board president of the Boise diocese Office of Multicultural Ministry.

The U.S. bishops in their 1979 pastoral letter, "Brothers and Sisters To Us," call racism "a sin that divides the human family and violates the fundamental human dignity of those called to be children of the same father."

The Vatican Pontifical Justice and Peace Commission wrote in "The Church and Racism" that some religious groups erroneously interpret the Bible to claim superiority of white people over others.

For example, Christian Patriots, who interpret the Bible and U.S. Constitution literally, believe there is a centralized conspiracy to destroy white Christian America and to take away the constitutional rights of white Christian Americans through establishment of a New World Order, according to the Portland, Ore.-based Coalition for Human Dignity. Christian Identity groups, with many branches in the Northwest, believe white northern Europeans are the Lost Tribes of Israel and that Jews are involved in a conspiracy to destroy the white race, the coalition states.

One Christian Identity group, the Phineas Priesthood, uses the Bible to justify violence. Three members of the priesthood from Sand Point, Idaho, are on trial in Spokane, Wash., for bombing a bank, a newspaper building, and a Planned Parenthood office last year. The suspects accused the bank of usury -- the practice of charging exorbitant interest rates, which is condemned in the Bible. Their belief that abortion is sinful made Planned Parenthood another target. Bombing the Spokesman-Review newspaper was intended to warn the publication against identifying members of a northern Idaho militia.

Wassmuth claims that the Phineas Priesthood has connections with America's Promise Ministries, another Christian Identity group in Sand Point, Idaho. Pastor Dave Barley of America's Promise Ministries denies any ties to the Phineas Priesthood or to the Aryan Nations. He told NCR his church teaches that "the bulk of Anglo-Saxons are the true Israelites ... but we are not white supremacists. We have never attacked anyone of another race or nationality, nor would we ever do anything criminal," he said.

The coalition researches activities of racists who sometimes try to hide their identities. The January Survivalist Expo at the Spokane convention center was billed as an event to help participants prepare for war or weather-related calamities.

But the coalition learned that three of the Expo's keynote speakers were well-known as white supremacists and that the event would provide an opportunity for racists to network. The coalition worked with its Spokane board member, also a staffer on the city's human rights commission, to inform city officials of their findings. They worked with law enforcement to ensure the safety of minorities in the community and distributed a news release before the Expo began.

Referring to the speakers, Wassmuth told a local paper, "this could be the most significant gathering of white supremacists in the Northwest in some time."

Acting City Manager Bill Pupo told the newspaper the city was helpless from a legal standpoint; it cannot block such events because of free speech considerations. "Do we condone it? Do we want it to be there? The answer is hell no," he told the Spokesman-Review of Seattle.

In fact, Pupo urged people to boycott the Expo and to join him at a rally opposing the event.

As a result, citizens picketed the event, and national TV aired reports of the Expo's racist overtones and the concerns of human rights activists. Gonzaga University in Spokane hosted a rally for justice that drew more than 200 participants.

Campuses provide fertile ground for recruiting by racist skinheads. In Salem, Ore., after several African-American and gay students were attacked and one was stabbed, the coalition worked with local human rights groups to support the victims and encouraged the school to take effective action against bigotry. Coalition Associate Director Eric Ward worked with a skinhead leader who was ready to leave this movement. Later, the skinhead announced his departure from the group at a news conference and was flown to New York to appear on the Geraldo Rivera Show.

Wassmuth said he hopes the frequency of hate crimes declines as the coalition begins its second decade of building bigotry-free communities. He predicts the formation of more community groups with more effective networking strategies, which would require less coalition involvement. Ideally, "this could put us out of business," he said.

National Catholic Reporter, April 4, 1997