Director Jay Krajic and producer Marcia Franklin with Norm Gissel and
"I don't know how you're going to do this," Tony Stewart said to me as I was writing this documentary. "Human rights issues never end!"
Stewart, one of the founding members of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, knows that all too well. Although the Task Force had a leading role in getting rid of the Aryan Nations in north Idaho in 2000, it continues to be active, as hate in our society never truly goes away.
"We are still as busy in many ways as we were 10, 15 years ago," says Norm Gissel, another founding member of the Task Force.
In addition to the "moving target" conundrum that Stewart referenced, ie: that hate crimes and diversity issues are constantly in the news, there's the overall question: what are "human rights?" As Marshall Mend says, "human rights is for human beings." That's a lot of people.
So the greatest challenge for me in this program was indeed that: trying to cover a subject as vast as human rights in only an hour, and to narrow the subject down. After talking to several human rights leaders, the two issues that came up over and over again were gay rights and immigrant rights. Both are also national topics, which meant I had to find a local angle for each. I couldn't cover issues such as disability rights, which actually make up the bulk of the complaints to the Commission on Human Rights.
In addition, I also wanted to spend at least half of the program looking at the history of the Aryan Nations and the Task Force. One could easily spend an hour just on that.
As a result, many excellent quotes from the interviewees were left "on the cutting room floor" (although we use videotape these days, so "on the shelf" may be more accurate.) And several important interviews never made it into the show, including one with Bob Hughes, a former U.S. Department of Justice official who initially sounded the alarm over the Aryan Nations and showed locals how to build coalitions between law enforcement, religious leaders, educators and the public in order to fight the group peacefully. I also interviewed several refugees but couldn't put their stories in because of time. That's a great regret of mine.
Another challenge: the lack of source material. The Task Force didn't take pictures of themselves in the early days; they were too busy accomplishing things. And most television channels had thrown away or erased their tapes from the '80s or '90s. What was left wasn't catalogued correctly or had degraded because it was recorded on ¾" tape. It is a sad fact that much of America's videotaped history from 1979 to 1992, when ¾" tape was used, is lost.
I am indebted to Chuck "Videosmith" Smith, a citizen and former member of the Bonner County Task Force on Human Rights, who on his own videotaped several of the events at which the Kootenai County Task Force members spoke. He and his wife were unfailingly gracious as I sat in his office for a whole day and went through his stack of tapes. They even fed lunch to me and Director Jay Krajic.
Chuck "Videosmith" Smith
Were it not for people like Smith, who videotaped events, or people like Gayle Speizer and Tony Stewart who kept scrapbooks of newspaper headlines, or Jim Zimmer at KSPS in Spokane, who kept raw footage from that time, or Steve Sibulsky of St. Pius Church who had photos of Father Wassmuth, this program couldn't have been made. As it was, I couldn't find many photos or headlines of certain people or issues, so there were some events I wanted to write about but couldn't.
That's because in television, if you don't have a visual, you can't say it. There were many times making this documentary that I wished I were a print or radio journalist!
Speaking of Jay, the documentary was immensely aided by not only his skills as a director and videographer, but his interest in the topic. He would hear of some events and mention them to me, or go up on his own to interview someone. He also helped me spend the hours needed to scan headlines and photos.
When it comes to the present-day stories, a documentary like this could not be made without people speaking up about uncomfortable subjects. Laura Doty was willing to talk about being fired because she was gay; an undocumented immigrant told me what it was like to live in fear every day; Raylen Smith, an African-American man, relived the night that he was assaulted by a gang. It is one thing to tell these stories to friends; it is another to tell them on camera. I am indebted to them as well.
photo Raylen Smith of Boise talked about the brutal hate crime he experienced in Nampa, ID.
The genesis of this program was the opportunity I had to film human rights leaders Bill Wassmuth, Marilyn Shuler and Idaho Purce going on to Aryan Nation compound for the first time since the court case that bankrupted the group in September, 2000.
In April, 2001, they were in town to honor the people involved in the court case, including lawyer Morris Dees, plaintiffs Victoria and Jason Keenan, and philanthropist Greg Carr. I had heard that the group was going to visit the compound, so I asked if director and videographer Jeff Tucker and I could tag along to record the event.
It was extremely moving to see the three walk onto the grounds: Bill Wassmuth, a human rights leader who had recently been diagnosed with ALS, a fatal illness; Idaho Purce, an African-American who would have been shot if she had attempted to go on the compound when the Aryans were there; and Marilyn Shuler, the former director of the Idaho Commission on Human Rights.
All had given so much of their time and passion to ridding the state of the group, but had never visited the "campus of hate," as Stewart calls it.
Raylen Smith of Boise talked about the brutal hate crime he experienced in Nampa, ID.
Hate literature was still strewn or stacked up everywhere; I picked up a few pieces of it. What struck me perhaps the most was the playground outside; it showed that children had lived there and been exposed to hate every day. I would like to meet some of those children, now grown, and learn whether they espouse their parents' views.
Despite his weakening legs, Bill wanted to climb the tower where two of Butler's guards had been right before they shot at the Keenans. I can still remember being behind him on the ladder, in case he started to fall. I knew I would not have been strong enough to hold him, so we would have fallen together. He made it up, though, and as Idaho Purce says, "that was his victory."
It was also moving to watch Wassmuth stand at the pulpit where Butler had threatened his life many times, and ring the church bell. Both brought the story full circle for me as a producer, and the actions in a sense were also a cleansing of the hateful atmosphere that had reigned there for nearly 30 years.
When I came back to Boise with the video, I felt strongly that it could be part of a longer documentary about how a small group of people had pushed a hate group out of the state, slowly, persistently, and non-violently. So the station started fundraising. That was almost exactly a decade ago.
In 2002, I would visit Wassmuth at his beautiful Victorian-style home in Ellensburg, WA. By then, he was in a wheelchair and his voice was becoming faint. His spirits were high, though, and he joked about trying out different foods and drinks through his feeding tube. A constant stream of friends, plus the support of his wife, kept him upbeat.
"Somebody said that one could judge the success of one's life by the amount that one was loved in their latter years," he said. "If that is true I feel like I've had a very successful life."
He was serious when it came to talking about the threats he still saw, despite the destruction of the compound. September 11 had just occurred, and he was concerned about a backlash against Muslims. He was concerned about immigrant rights. And, as always, his message about the importance of everyone examining their own prejudices rang through loud and clear.
"For the real change to happen that needs to take place community by community and person by person," he said. "It's the hearts of people that need to move forward.
It was so tough to say goodbye to him that day, knowing that it would be the last time I would see him. The videographer that day, Tom Hadzor, had known Wassmuth when he was one of his teachers, and he and I both spent quiet moments on the way back to Boise reflecting on our visit. I felt only a bit better knowing that Wassmuth had said he was ready to go.
"I'm not afraid of dying," he told me. "I'm not afraid of what is on the other side, so that helps a great deal. "
I will never forget Bill Wassmuth, and have a picture of him on my office door at home and at work. The bravery of his work, and the dignity with which he died continue to inspire me and many others.
Idaho Purce, Bill Wassmuth and Marilyn Shuler enter the
This documentary was the toughest project of my career, because of the subject matter and because of the research issues mentioned above.
But it also contained some great pleasures, moments that I will never forget. In addition to the compound visit, we also went to John Day, OR, where Tony Stewart and Norm Gissel had been asked by a local newspaper publisher to address the community. A supposed neo-Nazi, Paul Mullet, had come to town saying he wanted to buy land there.
The community hall was packed with people from all walks of life. Resident Meliana Lysne, one of the few non-whites in the city, stood up to thank everyone to come out. Her tearful praise created a spontaneous standing ovation. Outside on the street, people young and old held signs for human rights and people resoundingly honked their car horns as they went by. One man, a garbage collector, told me it was the first time he had ever done anything like this.
Producer Marcia Franklin with Bill Wassmuth, 2002
I was moved as well looking at the AIDS quilt in Idaho Falls, which includes panels honoring Idahoans who have died of the disease. "Breaking Boundaries" brings parts of the quilt to Idaho Falls every year as part of a benefit for people with HIV/AIDS.
The audience at the John Day, OR community hall listens to resident Meliana Lysne.
And I was extremely impressed with T.J. Leyden, a former neo-Nazi skinhead who now lectures all over the world against hate. His energy was contagious, and I hope to bring him to Idaho to speak.
Producer Marcia Franklin with T.J. Leyden, author of Skinhead Confessions
One of the most inspiring parts of this project was meeting the many young people who are involved in human rights issues, whether they be gay rights, bullying, poverty issues, or race relations. They don't see divisions between people, and are filled with optimism and energy. They were a joy to be around. Many of the interviewees, like former governor Phil Batt, said the same thing.
"It comes natural with them to not have these negative thoughts," said Batt, "and I just hope they will keep that up. We have a bad rap in some of the national press and I hope those kids are able to wipe that clear off the face of the map."
Students in Idaho Falls look at the AIDS quilt brought to town by "Breaking Boundaries"
Resident of John Day, OR, protesting against the possibility of an Aryan Nations compound being built there.