White supremacists face death by lawsuit

Heavy damages sought against thugs who beat mother and son near race-hate group's Idaho compound
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The Independent US

The Aryan Nations, the white supremacist group notorious for its Nazi-uniform parades and racist rhetoric, risks being sued out of existence in a court case beginning today in which a mother and son beaten outside the group's compound in Hayden Lake, Idaho, are demanding hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages.

The Aryan Nations, the white supremacist group notorious for its Nazi-uniform parades and racist rhetoric, risks being sued out of existence in a court case beginning today in which a mother and son beaten outside the group's compound in Hayden Lake, Idaho, are demanding hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages.

The case is being brought by a civil-rights lawyer, Morris Dees, whose track record includes the closure of a Ku Klux Klan chapter in Alabama and the dismemberment of a far-right hate group based in Portland, Oregon.

In each case Mr Dees has sought to trace acts of violence to group leaders and hammer them with financial penalties. "Put them out of business, that's what we try to do," Mr Dees said when he filed his suit against the Aryan Nations last year. Today's court hearing in Coeur d'Alene, will re-examine the case of Victoria and Jason Keenan, attacked and hounded by neo-Nazis in 1998 after their car backfired outside the Aryan Nations encampment during a summer drive.

The backfiring was apparently mistaken for a gunshot, and the Keenans found themselves pursued by a truckload of uniformed men brandishing firearms and shooting at them. After their car veered into a ditch, Mrs Keenan was hit with a rifle butt and her son was beaten as he lay cowering under the dashboard.

The two men accused of carrying out the attack are now serving prison sentences for assault following an earlier criminal trial.

The civil suit, brought by Mr Dees on behalf of the anti-racist Southern Poverty Law Center, lays blame for the violence on the 82-year-old leader of the Aryan Nations, Richard Butler, accusing him of recklessness and negligence in supervising his security guards.

Following a preliminary hearing, in which a judge said Mr Dees was entitled to press for punitive damages as well as straightforward compensation, Mr Butler stands to lose not only his personal assets but also the group's property, believed to be worth around $200,000.

The Aryan Nations are clearly spooked, intoning on their website that "the barbarians are at the gate" and urging supporters - including the publishers of white-supremacist skinhead music - to contribute to a legal defence fund. Mr Butler, who has begun charging $100 for media interviews, told the Associated Press last week that he saw the case as a conspiracy by enemies of the white race. "I think it's a rape of the American justice system," he raged.

Sympathetic neighbours in nearby Sandpoint have circulated a flier denouncing what they call a "Jew team of lawyers trying to destroy a white Christian church" (Mr Dees is not Jewish).

But the Aryan Nations are not what they were in the 1980s, when as many as 60 neo-Nazis were living at the 20-acre compound and taking "lessons" on the iniquities of blacks, Jews, homosexuals and left-wingers.

According to activists such as Mr Dees, they were also given paramilitary training, leading to acts of violence such as last year's gun attack on a Jewish daycare centre in Los Angeles for which a former Aryan Nations acolyte, Buford Furrow, is on trial.

However, the numbers at Hayden Lake have diminished to single figures, with only one event each year - the so-called Aryan World Congress, held on Hitler's birthday - attracting anything resembling a crowd.

Credit for the diminished appeal must go to local activists, who have worked hard to counter northern Idaho's media image as a haven for right-wing extremists.

"We'd like to see the trial over and done with and the Aryan Nations gone," said Marshall Mend, a Coeur d'Alene estate agent and a prominent opponent.

When the Aryan Nations organised a parade through Coeur d'Alene last summer, Mr Mend and others organised a fund-raiser in which residents pledged money for every minute the white supremacists marched with white sheets over their heads. "Butler wound up making about $38,000 for human-rights causes," Mr Mend added.

The suit is not without risks: some activists fear retaliation if the Aryan Nations lose, and a torrent of unwelcome publicity if they win.

Mr Dees and others have received death threats, and security at the courthouse promises to be ferocious. The trial is expected to last up to three weeks.

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