When Mark Fuhrman moved to Sandpoint the events of the OJ Simpson trial 1,500 miles away swept North Idaho into the national spotlight. Amid a national media frenzy, the real face of Sandpoint has been obscured -- or worse, misrepresented.
Reprinted from Winter '96 Sandpoint Magazine. 2250 words
Art by Malia Machada from her mural "Milagro"
By Sandy Compton
Sandpoint has gotten a lot of press lately, much of it uncomplimentary and inaccurate, and most of it having to do with one Los Angeles policeman who decided to move here. Retiring LAPD detective Mark Fuhrman bought a house in Sandpoint in early 1995. When he did, he brought a lot of attention with him.
Euclid, the street in Sandpoint where his new home sits, is one of the roughest in town. That is to say, it needed paving badly, even before the onslaught of television trucks, reporters and gawkers. Its condition has not improved, but it hasn't deteriorated, either. In fact, things haven't changed much at all on Euclid, or in the city of Sandpoint, despite the pointing fingers and cameras of a sensationalist media.
Tongues and pencils have been wagging about Fuhrman and his behavior in connection with perhaps the largest media circus ever televised, the double murder trial of O.J. Simpson. Somehow, Sandpoint and its residents have found themselves in the spotlight with him. Even Judge Lance Ito alluded to Sandpoint, when he said of his own lack of tolerance for antics in his courtroom, "This is not Sandpoint, Idaho."
No, it's not. And Sandpoint is not Mark Fuhrman, white separatist Randy Weaver or avowed racist Richard Butler -- the trio who have brought scrutiny upon Sandpoint. As they would be in most any community, these people are flukes in an otherwise calm and beautiful corner of the world. To say that they represent Sandpoint or Idaho is akin to likening a man to Adolph Hitler because he has a mustache.
This can be said unequivocally: Sandpoint and North Idaho are not a "haven for racists," much to the disappointment of some who would have it be so. That includes a national media anxious to report sensationalistic stories.
In fact, Richard Butler's so-called Aryan Nations 35 miles south of Sandpoint is in decline, it seems, though to deem them harmless would be a big mistake. Attendance at their rallies has been dropping since 1992, when internal problems and defections began to disrupt leadership. At any one time there is fewer than a dozen skinheads or adherents living at the compound.
The federal government's siege of the Randy Weaver family three years ago at Ruby Ridge, 25 miles north of Sandpoint, led to a lot of publicity. Their neighbors were more upset about the presence and tactics of the assault force than they were about the Weaver's religious and political views. The neighbors' reluctance to condemn Weaver led to a lot of media hoopla. Randy Weaver is an avowed "white separatist," but when troops show up to blast someone out of their home, and it is someone one has shared recipes and gone hunting with, it upsets the neighbors. When children and mothers are killed, as Weaver's son and wife were, it upsets them more.
But the Fuhrman phenomenon is most amazing because he only had to think about moving here to focus the attention of the media on Sandpoint.
I grew up near Sandpoint, starting about 40 years ago, and admittedly this did not give much opportunity for cultural encounters. We have been and still are a largely white community. The Census Bureau reports only about 2 percent of the Bonner County population is not Caucasian, and our largest and fastest-growing minorities are Hispanic and Native American. In this respect, Sandpoint is similar to many small towns in the Northwest, which is predominantly white.
Because so few people of color live in northern Idaho, long-time residents simply don't have a chance to know people of other ethnic backgrounds. Helen Newton, 53, Sandpoint's City Clerk for the last 15 years, can attest to that. "I don't know a single black person," she says. "I've lived here all my life. That's terrible, but I just don't know any minorities. The first time I saw a black person, I was 13 and went to Spokane."
Nevertheless, what I learned growing up here about relationships with others was to operate from a position of respect, no matter what color the other person's skin was. I don't know quite who taught me this, but it probably was an accumulation of lessons learned from a lot of different sources in my schools, churches and home.
But Sandpoint is not free of the racism all Americans encounter in one form or another. Last summer, driving down Pine Street in the evening, I was handed a flyer through my open window. I took it because I was curious, and ended up sickened by its message. In all the years I have lived here, it was my first encounter with the members of the Aryan Nations. The tone of the flyer was blatantly racist and sadly ignorant. The flyer attacked Sandpoint Mayor Ron Chaney for welcoming "those whites who are sincerely ashamed of being white," and "displaying the welcome mat to all non-whites, especially those on welfare." It was somewhat ironic, since Chaney has become a media magnet for his defense of Mark Fuhrman.
Chaney has taken heat locally and nationally for his statements about Fuhrman, who he describes as his "good friend." Chaney is mayor, but he does not speak as a representative of Sandpoint on this issue. He speaks instead from his personal relationship that sprung up after his wife Rose, a Realtor, sold the Fuhrmans their house.
Chaney maintains that the racial slurs and graphic violence described in the by-now-famous Fuhrman tapes are merely part of a dictated screenplay, which the screenwriter subsequently tried to sell to tabloid magazines and Simpson defense lawyer Johnny Cochrane.
Fuhrman himself has refused all comment. Citing his friendship with the man, Chaney has steadfastly refused to condemn Fuhrman. He has never heard Fuhrman use profanity, Chaney says. "I was totally shocked by those tapes."
But Chaney makes a distinction in his support for Fuhrman, basing it on a friendship in which he says Fuhrman has emphasized he is not racist. "The Mark Fuhrman that worked and lived in Los Angeles is not welcome in Sandpoint," says Chaney. "The Mark Fuhrman that lives in Sandpoint, the Mark Fuhrman that is my friend, is very welcome in Sandpoint."
Fuhrman's presence in Sandpoint has attracted media from around the world. All major television networks ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, CNN have sent crews here. Print media from the New York Times to the Los Angeles Times to European newspapers and magazines have besieged the town. Fuhrman has dodged them all, and they inevitably leave without ever having spoken to him.
The Fuhrman home on Euclid, with its darkened and covered windows, might be what the media have concentrated on, but as some have discovered, the real story of Sandpoint is up the street and around the corner, in the office of Buzz Arndt, a member of the board of directors of the Bonner County Human Rights Task Force.
Arndt moved here in 1980 from Boulder, Colo., where he was also active in human rights issues, and his involvement here began soon after his arrival, in response to Richard Butler's group in Hayden Lake. He does not dismiss them as mere kooks.
"Those guys are believers," he says. "You can't say they are just screwed up. They believe intensely in this. They also say they are not racist they are `racialists,' who believe everyone should be proud of their race. But they advocate aggressively against minorities and want to create a white homeland."
Arndt and Realtor Dan McLaughlin spearheaded the Human Rights Task Force in 1992, but its foundation was laid a year earlier at a rally in Sandpoint at which Bill Wassmuth of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations spoke.
Current Task Force President Brenda Hammond was at that rally. "The response to Bill Wassmuth made me proud to be a part of this community," she says. "There was a standing ovation from over 300 people."
Not everyone there was thrilled, though. "In the middle of the gym was a small group who did not stand, and displayed swastikas," Hammond recalled. "It was Richard Butler, Floyd Cochran and others."
Floyd Cochran, who later defected from the Aryans Nations and renounced his racist views, told the Task Force that the show of support at that meeting for Wassmuth and his message of tolerance caused Richard Butler to reconsider his plan to become more active in Sandpoint.
Donna Parrish is the Task Force secretary. She has never seen or been involved in any kind of racist confrontation, but she believes in making a statement. "One of the dangers of living in a community as homogenous as ours," she says, "is that your viewpoint can become narrow and brittle."
The Task Force has about 170 members, with a goal of 400 by the end of next year. Parrish pointed out that even at 170 members, if the Los Angeles area had a Task Force in the same proportion to its population, it would have 40,000 members. Annual dues are only a dollar. Parrish says membership gives people a chance to "be a visible part of the community and provides an opportunity to demonstrate their support for human rights."
Hammond, Arndt and Parrish all pointed out that the Task Force is striving hard to increase its activities, which includes 70 marchers in Sandpoint's Fourth of July parade, a booth at the county fair, and a dance billed as a "Harvest of Harmonies." They sponsored a civil rights speaker from Guatemala in October.
In June, Bill Wassmuth reprised his 1991 visit to Sandpoint. Wassmuth is one of the founders of and now executive director of the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment, a Seattle-based group working for human rights.
Brenda Hammond was there and describes the gathering as "500 smiling people and 10 scowling skinheads."
The skinheads were confrontational and copped most of the press for the evening. KXLY reporter Jennifer Jolly balanced her coverage by going inside to talk to some of the 500. The next day, the windshield of her car was smashed.
With that kind of response, and given the public's current taste for the sensational, the antics of Fuhrman, Butler and Weaver are easily outdrawing the quiet work of organizations like the Task Force. That, of course, is what Butler et al want.
Fuhrman's disappearing act, though, has had an up side, according to Hammond. "The national media being in town, and coming up empty all the time has led them to seek us out. We're tired of being given a black eye. I'm not saying we're perfect, but we are a community no more deserving of the label `racist' than any other."
To combat the image of Sandpoint portrayed in the press recently, a committee of local business people, task force members and representatives of the Chamber of Commerce has been formed.
Jonathan Coe, executive director of the Greater Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce, says the news is not all bad.
"This is forcing us to look at human relations in this community, and we are finding that we can generally feel good. If good comes about because of all this, it will be because we are more aware of protecting human rights."
Another member of the ad hoc committee is School Superintendent Max Harrell. In his domain the Task Force is promoting a "Teaching Tolerance" program. Several teachers have taken the concept to heart. Linda Navarre, who teaches art and language arts to seventh and eighth graders, tries to teach about tolerance and diversity. She uses a magazine called Teaching Tolerance, a publication of the Southern Poverty Law Center. The magazine covers subjects as diverse as AIDS, respect for individuals, and issues of color. "I often read articles from there and ask my students to write in their journals about it," said Navarre.
In an area that has so few minorities, perhaps there are other ways to measure the community's tolerance. In the 1994 state election, Initiative 1 was a ballot item that opponents strongly believed would deny human rights to gays. The ballot measure was voted down in Idaho by a narrow margin, 3,098 votes out of 406,000 cast. In Bonner County it was defeated by 854 votes &emdash; which means little Sandpoint alone produced 28 percent of the plurality that defeated the initiative statewide.
There are other measures of tolerance. With a population of 6,000, Sandpoint's churches and community groups work actively to address social ills that go begging in much larger towns. There are three soup kitchens, a homeless task force, a shelter home, several groups that advocate on social issues. "This is an involved community," observes Buzz Arndt.
If one takes the time to study racists and learn how they operate, one learns they are big on the rhetoric of hate and the art of laying their problems on the shoulders of others. When they are met with resistance in the form of exposure and truth, they fade back into the woodwork. Sandpoint and the larger communities of North Idaho and the Northwest have formed organizations to combat racism with just those tools. Those organizations were formed before the world press came to town looking for something to say about Sandpoint.
Indeed, we are not a very ethnically mixed community but we are certainly a culturally diverse community. People from all over the planet are moving here (see sidebar). They come not for the purpose of bringing the "new world order," but for the purpose of bringing a new order to their lives.
And Sandpoint welcomes them all. In fact, it is only those who are themselves intolerant the Richard Butlers, the skinheads, the racists of any stripe who will find no welcome here.
Hopefully, the national media who have by association tainted Sandpoint will find that this is the real story. Out there in the great world, the relentless coverage of Sandpoint is coloring people's thinking of northern Idaho. Ron Chaney tells the story of a reaction he once received when traveling in Mexico. Talking with a friendly local who wanted to practice English, Chaney told the man he was from Idaho.
"He looked at me and said, `Ah, potatoes and Nazis,' " said Chaney. "I thought that was a sad statement an area as beautiful as ours being known for potatoes and Nazis. That's not Sandpoint at all."
Sandy Compton is himself a lifelong Sandpointer. He was assisted in this story by Sandpoint Magazine staffers Chris Bessler, Billie Jean Plaster and Nann Alleman.
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Reprinted from the Winter 1996 edition of Sandpoint Magazine. COPYRIGHT 1996 by Keokee Co. Publishing, Inc. Sandpoint Magazine is published twice a year, in Summer and Winter. To subcribe, call 1-800-880-3573.