To be given the honor of leading a purposeful life is a precious thing.
Norman Gissel is an attorney in Coeur d'Alene and one of the original members of the group that became the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, which spoke out against the Aryan Nations. Gissel also provided legal support for victims of harassment, and was particularly crucial in convincing the Keenans to pursue their case against Richard Butler and in securing the legal assistance of Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center. He spoke with Marcia Franklin in September, 2010.
Marcia Franklin -Was there something when you were growing up that helped inspire you to think outside of yourself?
Norm Gissel - The thing that affected my character the most I think was team sports. We always arranged the team sports as a child so that the contest was equal and if it was lopsided we would stop in the middle of the game and we would rearrange the players until the playing field was fairly level.
Franklin: Then you said when you got to college you started noticing inequities as well.
Gissel: The most interesting person in the '50's was Martin Luther King. He was the smartest guy around, he was the best strategist, he was the best tactician and his mission was the most difficult and therefore the most interesting. And so he was the topic of conversation with us at the University of Idaho a lot because he was really this vital human force that was dramatically seeking change in American culture. That informed our thinking a lot.
I think between my freshman and my sophomore year at the University of Idaho I was a Delta Tau Delta and we had an annual convention each year and I got to go with a friend of mine and so we took the train from Boise all the way to Boston and then we got on a bus and went to Squamscott, Massachusetts right on the coast.
The winds of change were really, really strong at that time and we in the fraternity wanted to know what the national fraternity was going to do about integration and things of that nature. And the leaders, the adult leaders of the fraternity were extremely nervous about all of these very direct questions and you could take the measure of them at that time and realize as you were sitting there listening and participating in this dialogue that Jim Crow was a crumbling institution and you saw it firsthand there.
So when we came back that next fall we had an opportunity to integrate our fraternity with an Oriental, an American who happened to be Oriental, and so in the application to become a fraternity member you had your name and your address and the fraternity that you wanted to pledge to and then you had a box and it said race and there was only one place to check and that was white.
And so we said what are we going to do? And the guy's name was Larry Eng and that's pretty obviously an Oriental last name or surname, so we just had him write his name down and we just didn't check the box. And either they didn't notice or they didn't have the strength of character to make a fuss about that. But we were ready to leave the national fraternity if they made a fuss about that because Larry Eng was going to be a part of our fraternity whether the national liked it or not.
Franklin: Why did you want to be an attorney?
I was just fascinated with solving problems. I was good at solving problems of all types and the law in large measure is solving problems and they are as unique as the people that walk through your door and that's one of the big reasons. And the other reason was that attorneys had put themselves in a position where they are part of a moral theater and that you can make immense changes and you can contribute immensely to society because of the consequential things that you involve yourself in.
Franklin: When did you first start noticing anything was awry in terms of the Aryan Nations or the White Supremacist movement?
Gissel: It was when a Jewish restaurant owner by the name of Sid Rosen who had a restaurant in Hayden Lake, Idaho and he came to his restaurant one morning and the outside walls of his restaurant were covered with graffiti ….the people that did that used the German words for Jew for example, Juden, and it reminded me and it was identical with the markings that were used on Jewish shop owners windows during Kristallnacht, which was the terrible, terrible period of time in Germany... it was the first public assault on Jews in Germany at that time.
Outside of Sid Rosen's restaurant, Hayden, ID, 1981. Photo courtesy: Joe Rosen
Franklin: At the time what was your hope by forming the group?
Gissel: I think initially we believed that the laws needed to be strengthened....that was number one. Then number two, that were true victims of these acts and that these victims could not feel isolated. They needed to be reminded that they were part of our culture and that they were not the "human other."
Franklin: Is North Idaho inherently racist?
Gissel: There is no question in my mind that the culture of north Idaho is the culture of America, and that we don't have an isolated culture that has a uniquely racist base. That is just simply not possible when....the task force has had as much success as it has had over the past several decades.
Franklin: It's amazing what happened from just starting that small group.
Gissel: There was no way to tell that this journey would be this long and this fascinating and this consequential. No way of knowing that. But one thing did lead to another and we never looked back.
As a consequence of this there is a whole group of us who have led what you could say is highly consequential lives. We've led useful lives and we've been involved in important business for decades and it has changed all of us. We're different people than when we started twenty some years ago, that's for sure.
Franklin: Did you have any regrets when you first jumped in to help Sid?
Gissel: No. We never looked back and at different stages, we in our family would have family meetings - should we go forward? Those family conversations were pretty short because we all agreed that....we didn't see that we could do anything but what we were doing.
...in 1986 there was lots of activity. There was the attempted murder of Bill Wassmuth and the Aryan Nations was very, very active and very, very threatening and we were followed at different times and photographed and we had a rock through the window of our house, threatening phone calls. It was a dark time.
We had a serious family huddle at that point and it was unanimous, it was four to zero that we should continue on our course and we look back on it, we didn't have a choice but to proceed and so we did.
A lot of people were relying on the task force to articulate an opposition to the Nazis. There was no other civil rights group in north Idaho. We were it and we were creating the model for it.
Franklin: What was your impression of Richard Butler?
Gissel: I was unable to see any charismatic qualities to him and I did look for those because he was a leader and he had a group of people that followed him so I had a clinical interest in what it was that attracted other people to him and his beliefs. I was unable to see anything but a boring old man who was wildly wrong on almost every subject known to mankind.
I did see video tapes of him talking in a casual way to young men and I did see that - how adoring and attracted they were to him and perhaps a father-like figure to them.
I think most of the people if not all of the people that did come to the compound over time...had dysfunctional qualities to their personalities. And many of them were former prisoners and former inmates.
Franklin: Was the Aryan Nations powerful? Many people just thought they were a small bunch of malcontents.
They were powerful in several senses. They were powerful enough and vocal enough to have stained Idaho generally and particularly north Idaho for decades.
They were determined people and they were actively recruiting and they wouldn't tell you how many people belonged to them. Just like the Nazis in early Germany, early in the 1930's.
It was wildly serious. The number of felonies that they committed that were race based felonies... was just legendary. It was well over a hundred so it was serious business and it seriously affected us and seriously affected our culture and we lived with this stain for these decades and only now we're getting rid of it.
I think it is abundantly clear to anybody that objectively looks at the history of these Nazis and the history of the task force that if it weren't for the task force it would be a wildly different culture than the one that we enjoy at the present time. ....they would have been able to imprint their racist beliefs on this culture for generations.
...if you put say, 3,000 people that are determined, articulate advocates for a particular view in a culture of 100,000, they can carry the day, if they're not countered and dealt with.
Franklin: Some people wanted to ignore them, not give them press.
Gissel: The worst possible thing you can do is ignore them. They regard ignoring them as assent and they will tell you that. If you are quiet around Nazis you lose and they win. There is no historical example of where you can ignore Nazis safely and come out the other side with some sort of cultural victory.
Franklin: And now you're asked to go speak in places like John Day, OR. (Where a neo-Nazi said he wanted to buy land.)
Gissel: John Day did what John Day did. We were there and we maybe catalyzed some of their beliefs and some of their activities but it was primarily a Grant County and John Day activity.
But we would not have had the moral authority to go down there and speak the way we did and advocate the way we did had we not gone through this baptism of fire so to speak, that we had dealt with Nazis for well over twenty years and almost nobody else in the country has done that. And we've done it and we came out the other side the stronger people and advocates, in almost a different way than anybody else in the country.
Franklin: Are we seeing a resurgence of hate?
Gissel: ....there are two ways to look at culture. You can hear the noise of culture, or you can see the music of culture. And there is lots of noise out there and it takes a lot of concentration and a lot of knowledge to hear the music of culture.
I think that this period that we're going through right now is just a bunch of noise and I don't think that America culturally has moved off of its basic concepts and precepts that have guided us for so many, many years.
I think in 10 or 15 years Americans will just stand around and apologize to one another for behaving like the fools that they are--or that they seem to be--at this present time in our political and cultural history.
Undoubtedly there are some feelings of white disenfranchisement going on out there in American culture as a result of Barack Obama being our president, but I don't think that's over time going to be a determinative factor in the future of American society.
There is always going to be a disaffected Nazi element in American society.... there is almost an Elliot Wave process that is going on. It was prominent in the late '20's and early '30's and then declined and then was up again after World War II and then it was up again in the Kennedy Era.
But each time it was less prominent and less spectacular than the preceding times and I think that what we're seeing is maybe remnants of those eras.
Those days are gone and they're not going to return, but we see them constantly testing the waters and constantly out there seeing whether they can mount another attack...
But they haven't been able to do it and the reason why is because America - all of its individuals and all of its city organizations and its political organizations, have ultimately turned their back on that vicious, naked racism that used to dominate so much of American culture.
Franklin: Do you miss Bill Wassmuth?
Gissel: Yep, a lot. He was a great guy and an enormous personality and a friend to be valued and someone who we think a lot of to this day and remember and talk about. He's always in our thoughts. He was a spectacular human being and was the leader that we needed when we had him. I can't imagine that we would have been able to do what we did as well as we did during those terrible times had we not been led by Bill Wassmuth. A great guy. We miss him a lot even to this day.
Franklin: At least he got to see the compound.
Gissel: It was a great day for all of us because we knew how ill he was but he was a happy man. He walked on that compound and it was a marvelous moment for all of us, all that work that we put in was worth it just to see Bill wandering around there with that big smile on his face.
Franklin: You were able to take photographs of the compound before it was torn down.
Gissel: We..maybe we only reached one agreement with the Nazis the whole time during the litigation, and that was that after that litigation we could have a photographic record of the compound as an ongoing, existing Nazi enterprise.
And so there was a specific time and a specific day that we could go up there and Edgar Steele (Butler's attorney) was there to make sure that we weren't injured or anything and so that was a rare opportunity to make that photographic record of an ongoing Nazi enterprise in the middle of America.
Inside of Aryan Compound before it was torn down. Photo: Diana Gissel.
Franklin: And what was your sense walking around?
Gissel: The manifest evilness of that place and its contents was almost a physical force. You almost felt that you being physically assaulted by the images that you saw there. It was an awful a place as I've ever been. It was horrifying. Horrifying to see rooms upon rooms of nothing but images of Nazis and SS troops and photograph after photograph of Hitler in all different manner of dress. It was just an utterly evil place.
Franklin: So when you came onto the compound describe what they were doing.
Gissel: ...they started playing German marching music as soon as we arrived...and looked at Diana (Norm's wife) and said rude things to Diana. I think they regarded her as the 'human other.' She's an American citizen of course but as a person of Palestinian background they regarded her as the 'human other' and maybe were as angry about that as anything else that day- that she was violating their sacred land. And we on the other hand, thought they were violating our sacred land.
Franklin: And are you glad to see it as an empty space or do you hope that something will be there?
Gissel: It's hard to say. It's really appropriate for right now to be a place just like it is. Later on - it will probably be after I'm long gone -it might be memorialized in some different way but for now it's resting and being used in a pastoral way and that's just perfect for that land. Really from the beginning it was pasture land and was used for cattle and it had a dairy farm.
Franklin: Is the negative aura gone?
Gissel: Yes. That is gone. I can go up there finally and I can't fully escape but I can practically escape the recollections that go through your mind when for all the decades that we were dealing with these guys.
Franklin: Was it hard to find a legal way to get at the Aryan Nations?
Gissel: Well, it was for a long time because the leadership of the Aryan Nations was pretty careful about separating this enormous litany of crimes that were committed and their own direct participation in those crimes.
The fundamental mistake they made was when....there were armed guards on the property - always a dangerous thing - and that they were inebriated which is a lack of supervision. And they heard there the Keenan's car and they concluded in this inebriated condition that something bad was about to happen to the compound and so they jumped in this pickup and gave chase from the compound and chased the Keenans two miles down the road and put five bullet holes in the Keenan's car and shot them off the road and assaulted them.
There is a direct agency relationship that exists from the owners of the compound to the guards of the compound, because they wouldn't be guards unless they were authorized to be guards.
Franklin: Of course you needed the victims to come forward.
Gissel: ...if the task force had not been in existence the Keenans would have had no entity to report this terrible event to.... there was a report to the police but there was not a follow-up dialogue with any civic organization or with any lawyer.
Franklin: Did you have a sense immediately that this was the crack you needed to go after them?
Gissel: Yes. This was more than a crack. This was a huge, huge fact situation. It was a criminal enterprise, it harmed people and the laws of agency took that crime and put it right at the foot of Richard Butler and the Aryan Nations.
Franklin: How would you describe Morris Dees? (The lawyer from the Southern Poverty Law Center who tried the case.)
Gissel: He is a legal genius. He really is but even more than that his intuitive qualities are the best I've ever seen. He can understand more about a human being by chatting with them fifteen minutes than I would know about that person knowing him for fifteen years. He is acutely sensitive to other people and the amount of information that he can pick up from somebody just by talking to them in a brief time is just absolutely amazing.
Franklin: What was the atmosphere in the courtroom like?
Gissel: It was electric. It was riveting. Morris doesn't ask questions, he talks to people. When he was talking to the jury there at the last time it was an intimate conversation that he was having with that jury almost on another level of human existence.
He was using ordinary English words but there's a way he has of communicating that was just absolutely riveting. It was one of the most remarkable moments in my life to listen to him chat literally with the jury and have that jury so fascinated and so interested that there's just nothing else in the world that those thirteen people - twelve jurors and Morris Dees.
Franklin: How did you feel when you heard the verdict?
Gissel: When that jury did come in it was a huge, huge emotional moment for everybody. My wife was sitting there with me and Tony and none of us will ever forget that moment.
Franklin: Does it seem like its ten years ago?
Gissel: No, it seems like it was yesterday. I can go back and taste the air. I remember exactly everything about that day. It seems like it maybe occurred this morning. That's how fresh it is in my mind.
Franklin: The settlement is considered so creative in the sense it bankrupted the Aryan Nations.
Gissel: What was interesting about that was that the jury knew that....the land was worth roughly $225,000. That's what they knew but they brought back a jury verdict of six million dollars. And the difference between $225,000 and six million is functionally a political and cultural statement of how angry that jury was that they did these things to the Keenans and by a larger extension what these people had done to north Idaho.
Franklin: The plaintiffs never saw the $6 million, though, right?
Gissel: No. Oh no, no. They saw $225,000 and they had no attorneys' fees to pay.
Franklin: Amazing that everything can crumble that way.
Gissel: There's no way to even calculate the odds of that happening a second time. It just wouldn't ever occur. It was just bizarre. The whole thing was bizarre but it actually had happened.
Franklin: Do you think that Idaho has changed or do you think that we still have - like much of the country - a ways to go?
Gissel: ....it's a function of democracy to constantly reach out to people who are disenfranchised or treated differently or are identified as the 'human other' at some point in our history and democracy consistently reinvents itself and incorporates these minorities.
The disabled community just recently in the last 15 to 20 years has been mainstreamed and is part of our society where they weren't before.
If you were in a wheelchair in Coeur d'Alene in 1980 you couldn't get into the library. It seems unbelievable that a person in a wheelchair could not get into our library and if they did the books were so close together in the stacks that they couldn't run the wheelchair up and down there. Now it's just a matter of course that they are.
So democracy has a way of reinventing itself continually to incorporate minorities and minority status and mainstream those people. Otherwise democracies have a far more difficult time functioning.
Franklin: The rest of the state pitched in during all of this.
Gissel: That's right and I want to point out that while we were up here dealing with these Nazis on not one single occasion did we ever ask a governor to do something that they weren't willing to do.
And the legislature for the state of Idaho did yeoman service at one time and I think still to a large extent. We have the best civil rights laws in America and our legislature when they were asked at important times in our history to write this legislation they did so and they did so clearly and affirmatively. And the symbolic value of that was immeasurable. It was a big deal.
We didn't act alone, that's for sure. We had lots and lots of support. And the business community here in Kootenai County supported us and has been very, very valuable and very useful for us.
Franklin: So a small group of determined people can do a lot.
Gissel: Yes. And the task force has proven that, but one of the things the task force did prove is that the community, if they're asked the right questions will support you in these really trying times and will give of themselves and their time and their money and their efforts.
And so while you could regard the task force as a plucky few that lived through this, that is true in a sense, but what is really true is that there was this enormous support throughout the community and throughout Idaho and throughout the inland empire for almost every one of our actions. So that was the function of our success was that our culture allowed us to be successful.
Franklin: I assume you feel this will be one of your legacies, your work on this issue?
Gissel: Yes....to be given the honor of leading a purposeful life is a precious thing and certainly this part of my life and this part of my wife's life, we will never forget it.
I don't wish it on anybody else, but we did live through it and we learned an immense amount from that and it changed us as people. It changed our community and we are culturally different now in north Idaho and probably the inland empire as well. We're just simply different cultural animals than we were at the beginning of this Nazi movement.
There is an immense pride and sense of accomplishment that people of Kootenai County have certainly and the people of north Idaho generally about what we were able to achieve here. And it wasn't just the task force as I've indicated. The task force would have failed if the culture of our community hadn't given us the permission to succeed, quite literally.
We saw the beginning and the middle and absolute end of an American Nazi movement.
Franklin: Is it over?
Gissel: ....you are tempted to stop and look back and say "Man, what a great job this was" or "What a great job that was" or "Thank goodness that's over with," but it is never over with. It is never over with. So we are still as busy in many ways as we were ten, fifteen years ago.
Franklin: You've said this is a test of a community.
Gissel: In any time when there is an introduction into your community of a racist element and a nakedly vicious racist element such as the Aryan Nations, that is a challenge to your community. That is a direct assault on your community values and so a community has a choice of either reacting and reacting aggressively or not reacting. And if it doesn't react it is a form of acquiescence which is bad, which is tragic.
It is a fundamental character changing event in a community's life to be presented with--which we were-- an American Nazi movement. How do you deal with that? And there are no blueprints because every culture is different, so you have to invent your own blueprint but it is necessary.
You cannot not do something. You just can't do it. You just cannot allow nature to take its course so to speak. You have to affect nature and you have to affect the outcome.
Franklin: And it worked.
Gissel: It did in fact work. Aren't we fortunate?
Norm and Diana Gissel at former Aryan Nations compound, September, 2010