Whether dealing with an abhorrent event precipitated by neo-Nazis in Charlottesville or just an everyday spouting-off of hatred by white supremacists, responsible public officials should stand up for decency. Congressman Raul Labrador says it is “not his style” to comment on events such as that which occurred in Charlottesville over the weekend. Standing mute against hateful speech and actions does not work. Idaho history demonstrates that the way to stop white supremacy is for people in positions of power to strongly and publicly denounce it.
Back in the early 1980s, the Aryan Nations organization in northern Idaho was on the rise. It attracted other white supremacists to Idaho, many of whom had cut their teeth in prison. Many good people in the area stepped forward to speak against them but it was a formidable task. I had just taken over as attorney general and was asked by Marilyn Shuler to help with malicious harassment legislation that was designed to combat the supremacist threat. The legislation had hit a roadblock in the Legislature, which we were able to overcome. Marilyn, who was a powerful Idaho voice for human rights, brought me into the effort to deflate the supremacist cause.
I participated in a number of rallies to speak out against the supremacist group and its hateful creed but noticed something interesting about the meetings. Kootenai County Undersheriff Larry Broadbent and I observed that we were the only identifiable Republican officials at the rallies. It appeared that many were holding back to see where the tree might fall.
As time went by, the public became aroused by the Aryans’ message of hate, but also about the black eye they were giving to the state of Idaho. Responsible Republican officials started stepping forward to denounce the hate mongers and that was the key to the group’s eventual demise — it took an all-hands-on-deck approach. People take note of what their leaders say and it is incumbent upon those leaders to help provide a moral compass.
Idaho leaders were generally quick this time in calling out the neo-Nazis, KKK, and other white nationalists. Gov. Otter, Congressman Mike Simpson, and Sen. Mike Crapo spoke out strongly and were soon joined by Sen. Jim Risch. Congressman Labrador held back until goaded by the governor because, as he explained, his style was not to speak out on these “issues” since he regarded the Charlottesville events as “politics.” White supremacy is not an issue or politics. It is indecency and it requires denunciation by society in order to deprive it of any hint of legitimacy.
The congressman is correct that “trite media statements” will not solve our country’s problems. But, powerful, heart-felt condemnation of hatred, bigotry, and racism by people in leadership positions in our fine State can make a difference, as history shows. This is especially so for anyone who aspires to be governor, the most important position in State government. And, the condemnation should specify the hate groups being called out, such as the KKK, neo-Nazis, and other white supremacists and nationalists. We should expect or accept no less from those who would lead the State. If a candidate does not already have such a “style,” he or she should certainly adopt a public anti-supremacy posture.
This appeared in Thursday’s Washington Post.
It took four days for President Donald Trump to utter Heather Heyer’s name, in a tweet, and it appears that no one from his administration bothered to attend her memorial service on Wednesday. But Heyer, who died Saturday protesting the racist goons who descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, hardly needed official Washington’s imprimatur. Her principles and resolve were incontrovertible proof of her integrity—far more proof than a morally compromised president could possibly confer by his words.
“They tried to kill my child to shut her up,” said her mother, Susan Bro, speaking at her daughter’s memorial service and pointing a defiant finger. “Well, guess what? You just magnified her.” She received a standing ovation.
Heyer never sought the celebrity she achieved in death. A 32-year-old paralegal with a high school education, she supplemented her income by working as a bartender and waitress. She was also, by all accounts, passionate about the injustice she saw around her. “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention,” she said in a Facebook post.
She was killed when a car allegedly driven by a Nazi devotee rammed into a crowd that had turned out to stand up to some of the most noxious elements in American society—anti-Semites, Ku Klux Klan members and other white supremacists who chanted and hurled racial and ethnic slurs as they made their way through the low-key college town.
To protest against those hoodlums took guts, and Heyer confided to friends beforehand that she was nervous about getting hurt. In those circumstances, and in the face of that sort of evil, though, there are really just two choices: silence and action. Heyer chose action. She went to the rally.
At her memorial service, many attendees wore purple, her favorite color, and spoke of her devotion to justice. There was no talk of revenge, and no one bothered to dignify Trump by mentioning his rant equating the violent racists who assailed American values with those who challenged them.
There was dignity enough in remembering Heyer’s fundamental decency and devotion to righteous causes. She was honored by friends, colleagues and relatives who recalled her pluck and spirit, her refusal to take vacations, the care she took with her work, the ardent views she expressed at the dinner table with family. “We’re not going to sit around and shake hands and go ‘Kumbaya’ . . . it’s not all about forgiveness,” said her mother. “But let’s channel that anger not into hate, not into violence, not into fear . . . into righteous action.”
In America’s long-running battles over civil rights, there have been many others whose convictions led them to take risks for which they sometimes paid dearly. On its website, the Southern Poverty Law Center devotes a lengthy page to such martyrs. Heyer is in that tradition of ordinary Americans of all races and creeds who perceived injustice clearly and, in standing up to it, lost their lives.
We upset a sheriff and a grieving family last week — not because we wanted to but because we had to.
I’m talking about our coverage of the deadly shooting Aug. 4 at the Magic Valley Portuguese Hall in Wendell. We began reporting what we knew not long after the shooting happened, updating our story with new information at Magicvalley.com as it became available.
By that Friday afternoon, we knew that two people were dead: Tony Sousa, 56, of Wendell, and Agustin Nopal Donu, 34, of Paul. Sousa was widely known in the area. Donu was not. Authorities suspected one man had shot the other, and then turned the high-powered rifle on himself.
What we didn’t know was who shot whom.
Gooding County Sheriff Shaun Gough wouldn’t say — understandable and not unusual in the hours just after a shooting when investigators are still trying to piece together a crime scene.
But by early the next week, Gough was still declining to identify the shooter even though police had closed their investigation. According to Gough, he had told one of the families he wouldn’t cooperate with the media. Moreover, he told a Times-News reporter he would do everything in his power to keep the public from finding out which man was the killer.
Here’s why that’s a problem:
Someone in that hall murdered another human being. That’s news. Whatever happened after the murder — in this case, the shooter’s suicide — doesn’t erase the fact that a heinous crime was committed.
Further, in an effort to protect the shooter’s reputation and spare his family some shame, however soft-hearted the sheriff’s intentions, he was unintentionally hurting the family of the victim. I’m sure that just as much as the shooter’s family wanted his identity kept out of the historical record, the victim’s family wanted their loved one publicly cleared of murder.
It’s unusual for police to take such steps, and the decision to obstruct news reporting puts law enforcement on a slippery slope. What if the shooting had not involved a widely known resident like Sousa? What if the shooting involved two minorities? A government official? What if it had happened in a mobile home park? Inside a business or school? Would the sheriff have handled this the same way?
Sheriffs shouldn’t be in a position to make those choices. And we shouldn’t be either. That’s why the Times-News will always strive to report the identities of perpetrators of deadly shootings — regardless of variables like a person’s race, prominence in the community or relationship with us or police. A shooter is a shooter. A victim is a victim.
In the end, despite the sheriff’s efforts, we obtained the police reports through a records request under Idaho law.
Those reports indicated Sousa was the shooter, and that’s what we reported in a follow-up story once we obtained the documents. We did not share the gory details of the crime scene chronicled in the reports; just the facts the public deserved to know. Still, Gough called that afternoon to blast us, and that’s OK. He thought he was right from his side, and we thought we were right from ours. Both of us were trying to do our best.
One last thought: Just as no one in the sheriff’s office took pleasure from investigating a tragedy like this, no one in the newsroom took pleasure in reporting the story or claimed victory in obtaining the documents. We don’t chase murder-suicides to sell papers or get clicks on our website. We do it to keep the public informed, to give truth to the historical record.
In this case, we did our jobs the best we could, which is to report the news fairly and accurately.
Sometimes the news hurts people’s feelings. But if my choice is to cover up a murder-suicide or upset a sheriff, I’ll side on reporting the truth every time.