Hitting hate right in the wallet

THE BALTIMORE SUN

HAYDEN LAKE, Idaho - It was an ugly incident on a lonely country road.

Victoria Keenan and her teen-age son, driving home through the summer twilight, were chased and beaten outside the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations compound by a truckload of security guards. Two men were sentenced to prison in the 1998 attack.

But civil rights groups want more.

In an Idaho courtroom next week, they will attempt by way of the legal system to do what they haven't been able to in more than two decades: Shut down the Aryan Nations compound - with its barbed wire, watchtower, chapel and "Whites Only" sign. It is one of the most important gathering places for the white supremacy movement in America.

A Kootenai County jury is scheduled to hear a civil suit filed on Keenan's behalf by the Southern Poverty Law Center - a case that, if successful, could award enough damages to bankrupt the Aryan Nations and seize control of the 20-acre compound from its leader, Richard Butler.

The case, to be tried under extraordinarily high security, is part of a growing movement to use the civil courts as an economic weapon to bankrupt the purveyors of organized racism.

Increasingly, human rights groups are filing lawsuits that seek to hold the ideologues and mouthpieces of the nation's most visible white supremacist organizations accountable for the crimes committed by their followers:

In California, the Hammerskin Nation is being sued, accused of sanctioning the 1999 beating and stabbing of a black man by a group of skinheads in Riverside.

In Illinois, survivors of a racist shooting rampage by World Church of the Creator member Benjamin Smith are seeking to hold leader Matt Hale and the organization legally responsible.

Aryan Nations officials say it is inappropriate to hold them liable for an action that occurred more than two miles from their compound. In general, defense lawyers say, the lawsuits are an attempt to use the court system to suppress unpopular political views.

"Nobody has found a shred of evidence that Matt Hale even knew about the crimes, let alone participated in them," says his lawyer, Glenn Greenwald.

Civil rights groups "have said their intent ... is to bankrupt these hate groups by forcing them to put their resources into litigation so they don't have any money for anything else, which I think ... is an abuse of the court system."

Butler, 83, is accused of recklessness and negligence in supervising his security force - and the entire organization faces claims for assault, battery and false imprisonment.

"The lawsuit we're now facing has one purpose and one purpose alone: to bankrupt the Church of Jesus Christ Christian and the Aryan Nations," Butler says.

"This land is going to be here as long as we are. We bought it, we paid for it, we've worked for it, and they want to steal it. ... It's proof positive that the white race is under attack."

Plaintiffs' lawyers, however, say it is important - in the widening circle of violence that has characterized racial conflict in recent years - to hold accountable not only the perpetrators but also the groups that inspired them.

"There are First Amendment issues that protect political speech, expressions of ideas and philosophy. But the goal is to make sure they don't protect organizations when they advocate ... specific courses of violence, when they ratify acts of violence," says Andrew Roth, who is representing Randy Wordell Brown, 24, in two civil rights lawsuits filed against the shadowy skinhead group Hammerskin Nation and four of its California chapters.

In Idaho, Butler says legal fees have put him $50,000 into debt and he has been placing $600 of his $800 monthly Social Security check into a defense fund.

And a judge's ruling earlier this month that the plaintiffs will be able to seek punitive damages lent new urgency to the campaign for contributions from racist supporters across the country.

Six major distributors of skinhead music have said they are donating proceeds from sales of their music to help cover the bill.

The suit has attracted wide backing in communities surrounding the compound. More than 1,000 people, for example, turned out to protest against recent Aryan Nations parades in the streets of Coeur d'Alene, and demonstrators on both sides of the issue are expected to gather near the courthouse when the trial opens.

"We would rejoice if [the suit] was the end of the Aryan Nations in our area, although we wouldn't wish them on anyone else," says Brenda Hammond, a human rights activist in Sandpoint.

And community leaders in Coeur d'Alene - which has moved to hire a human relations coordinator to help dispel its image as a haven for white supremacists - have said they hope the suit will spell an end to an organization that for years has been a troublesome neighbor.

The case has attracted popular sympathy in part because Keenan and her son are locals.

They said they were driving by the compound one evening when Keenan's son accidentally tossed his wallet out the window. As they were circling back to look for it, their old Datsun backfired, apparently leading Aryan guards to believe a shot had been fired.

A truckload of guards began chasing them, firing gunshots and driving their car into a ditch. One man rushed up and hit Keenan with the butt of his gun. Others struck her son, Jason, as he huddled weeping on the floor of the car.

"They were yelling, 'Don't mess with the Aryans,'" Keenan says.

She tearfully denies that she had shot at the compound. She begged them to take her, and not her son. The men seemed to have second thoughts. "Because you're white," she says one of the men told her, "we're going to let you live today."

Last month, as about 100 Aryan Nations members and their families gathered in Hayden Lake for what might be the group's last annual World Congress, there was widespread belief that Southern Poverty Law Center attorney Morris Dees Jr. and his group are using the high-profile lawsuits to attract donations.

Neuman Britton, the California Aryan Nations leader who is set to take over the national group when Butler retires, says he is convinced the Keenan incident was a setup to provide grounds for a suit.

"The lady just drove by, saying her car backfired. It's very unusual for a car these days to backfire. Either she did fire a shot, or her son did or set off a firecracker or something. It was a setup, planned and sponsored by the forces of Morris Dees."

From prison not long ago, the man convicted of leading the 1998 assault, former Aryan Nations security chief Edward Jesse Warfield, sent a letter to Keenan, apologizing and asserting that he was "just as scared as you were" during the incident.

He said he simply was trying to prevent possible harm to those he was assigned to protect.

He warned Keenan against allowing herself to be "used" by Dees. And he issued a warning: "Please don't let Mr. Dees put you and Jason in a spot. Where you might need to look over your shoulder for the rest of your life. ... Some people are not as understanding as I am."

During his address to the World Congress, Britton used the suit as a rallying point. "There's not going to be any stopping of the hate!" Britton roared. "We're in the staging area right now for one of the greatest conflicts there ever was - and that is a racial war!"

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