Saturday, July 08, 2006

Making a Difference

[Part of our work is honoring our elders. Thanks to Florangela Davila of the Seattle Times for the following (edited) excerpts.]

Bill Wassmuth worked 21 years in Idaho as a Catholic priest. In his second career, Wassmuth battled racists as executive director of the six-state Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment, work for which he is best known. Driven and full of conviction, something inspired in part by his father, he took on the Aryan Nations. Not surprisingly, Wassmuth was singled out as an enemy and almost killed.

White supremacists bombed his house in 1986, prompting Wassmuth to consider how charmed a life he had led.

As he became a leader in the movement against the Aryan Nations, someone detonated a bomb at the back of his house. He garnered national media attention for helping reclaim picturesque Northern Idaho from the hate group. And sensing he might be able to do more, Wassmuth helped found the Northwest Coalition.

The bombing made Wassmuth realize how naïve he had been about the world and how he had never experienced hatred or discrimination. Leaving the priesthood, he continued his social activism, moving to Seattle to work full time with the coalition and mobilizing against hate groups. Wassmuth's partner, Eric Ward, a black man from Eugene, Oregon said Wassmuth raised enormous public attention about bigotry and how whites can fight hate.

In his dying days four years ago, Wassmuth worried about a growing kind of hate and intolerance--the escalation of mistrust and bigotry in this post-Sept. 11 world, with its racial profiling of Arab Americans and Muslims, is disturbing, he said. "I'm a very hopeful person," he said. "But I think we risk losing some ground. I'm concerned that in the interest of national security, we'll allow some things to happen."

[A year later, Bill Morlin of the Spokesman-Review in Spokane wrote the following (edited) epitaph to Wassmuth and Ward's organization.]

The Northwest Coalition for Human Dignity -- once a premier regional civil rights organization -- has ceased operations amid a severe financial crisis. The human rights group is an apparent victim of hard economic times and the misperception that the fight against hate has been won in the Pacific Northwest.

The human rights organization began as the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment, a group founded in Coeur d'Alene in 1987 by the late Bill Wassmuth and others to combat the Aryan Nations and other hate groups. Wassmuth was its executive director until 1999, when the Seattle-based group merged with the Coalition for Human Dignity, which started in Portland.

The organization battled hate groups in Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Montana, Colorado and Wyoming. But this summer, less than a year after Wassmuth's death, the human rights coalition was evicted from its Seattle office for not paying rent.

In the wake of its apparent demise, the Northwest Coalition left behind smaller grass-roots organizations carrying on the fight against hate. One of those groups is Gonzaga's Institute for Action Against Hate, founded in 1997 by Critchlow and Wassmuth.

"For 15 years, the Northwest Coalition was a very important force in the battle against white supremacy," said Mark Potok, of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala. He described the coalition as the largest grass-roots civil rights organization of its kind in the United States.

The coalition's sensitive records about white supremacists and hate groups in the Northwest were sold to the Center for New Community, an anti-hate group based in Chicago. Devin Burghart, director of the Center for New Community, confirmed, "We are a repository for any civil rights groups in the Northwest that may want to use these records."

"The perception that the apparent demise of the Aryan Nations meant an end to hate groups in the Pacific Northwest had a definite negative impact on the Northwest Coalition," Burghart said. "Those of us who continue to be involved in human rights work know that the perception is false," he said.

The notion that hate groups had been defeated "reverberated with foundations and the giving public alike and seriously impacted the funding of the Northwest Coalition," Burghart said. Ward, the Northwest Coalition's last director, has been working for the Center for New Community since early September.

Potok, at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the Northwest Coalition "helped the Pacific Northwest face its racist demons." "There had been a marked reluctance to squarely face the problem of white supremacy until Bill Wassmuth and others organized the Northwest Coalition," Potok said.

Burghart said, "Hate group activity is a continuing menace in the Northwest."

"People who are concerned about having safe, welcoming and inclusive communities need to lend their support to organizations [and individuals] that are on the ground, making a difference."

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