Nazi family values

Chewing the fat with a white-supremacist mom and her 6-year-old daughter at an Idaho barbecue.


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Amy Benfer
July 15, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Last Saturday morning, 20 members of the Church of Jesus Christ Christian/Aryan Nations assembled in front of Zip's Hamburgers in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, to begin what had been billed as the "Aryan Nations 400-Man Flag Parade." As they gathered, an employee of Zip's arranged letters on the restaurant's marquee to spell out, "We support human rights."

Despite the parade's name, this is really family day, Nazi-style. At the head of the marchers is Richard Butler, a retired airplane mechanic and the 82-year-old founder and pastor of the Aryan Nations Church, so fragile that he spends the latter half of the parade in a plastic lawn chair carried on a flatbed truck. Behind him are Michael Teague, his chief of staff, in full Nazi regalia, and a smattering of women and men. But the crowd of protesters who line the streets has already decided to focus on a much smaller target: Michael Teague's 6-year-old daughter, who is carrying the Aryan Nations flag and marching with her mother, Christian, and 9-month-old sister.

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"Come over here with us," the protesters call to her. "We love you. Your parents hate." The little girl, a strawberry blond in a pink dress, hides her face behind her flag, then holds the flag up straighter. "Show them your 'heil,'" her mother urges. The girl turns to give the protesters a practiced Nazi salute.

Originally, the parade had been scheduled to coincide with the Aryan Nations World Congress the weekend before, when Idaho Nazis would be supplanted by tourist Nazis. But July 3 is the date of Coeur d'Alene's annual Kiddie Parade, so it was pushed back a week, after most of the delegates to the congress had returned to their own parts of the world. Then the city rerouted the parade past the old town dump instead of through downtown. The Nazis objected and were given the usual parade route, thanks to the American Civil Liberties Union, an organization that certainly would be eliminated under the proposed Aryan National State.

As it turns out, the march has drawn about 400 protesters, well outnumbering the handful of Aryans. But Butler is not discouraged. For one thing, the Aryans clearly have supporters behind the police line on the protesters' side -- the Teagues' little girl frequently points and waves to them as she passes. And Butler is philosophical. "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world," he says, quoting Margaret Mead.

Although a group of protesters staging a sit-in disrupts the parade route slightly, it otherwise proceeds peacefully, ending in a parking lot. There, as a final gesture, the marchers throw a black baby doll into the air and take turns stamping it into the blacktop with their boots.

This is when the fight breaks out. On the protesters' side of the police line, three young women with babies in strollers salute the Nazis. Immediately, they are surrounded by screaming protesters. One young Nazi mother cradles a baby in one hand and uses the other to punch a young man repeatedly in the face until he is bloody. A young Nazi man who is with her stands back and lets her be the warrior. The strategy works: The man who has been beaten will not hit a woman. The crowd allows them to leave.

If you haven't been to Coeur d'Alene, you might think all of Idaho is redneck country. But Coeur d'Alene is a tourist town dominated by a luxury resort, a bikini-studded lakefront and a downtown with specialty boutiques. The only potatoes you'll see in this part of Idaho are pureed and piped into morels. Emptied of the out-of-town protesters in tie-dye and beards, it returns to its natural state. The women are Aryan: slim, blond, with delicate features and fair skin. Coeur d'Alene resembles nothing so much as it does Southern California, though not the actual Southern California, which has never been white. Instead, it is the Aryan nation that Hitler dreamed of and Hollywood duplicated. The population is wealthy, attractive and 98.6-percent white. People in Coeur d'Alene will tell you that they hate the Nazis, and you will believe them. But then, you might begin to realize that the Nazis are the police who patrol the borders, who keep Coeur d'Alene beautiful. Just the reputation alone is enough to keep out the non-whites; the cost of living keeps out the rest.

I lived in Idaho when this area was gaining national attention as the hotbed of the white supremacist movement; the Nazis I knew were mostly confused teenagers. Most published accounts of Nazi activity tend to be about the men -- church leaders such as Richard Butler who preach white supremacy and urban racist skinheads who beat people up -- but after today's display, I am more interested in the women. I want to visit with them in their homeland, the Aryan Nations headquarters, located on a rural road out of town. The people who live there think of it as home and call it "the church"; the anti-Aryan activists in town think of it as a military fortress and call it "the compound."

I got permission to go up to the compound from Christian Teague; I got it because I was polite, I did not carry a sign or start a fight during the parade, and I am white -- in fact, as it turned out, I was the only journalist around who was white enough. Although I had not wanted to visit the headquarters alone, I could not find anyone to accompany me who was sufficiently Aryan. The Associated Press reporter was Jewish; Boise's Channel 2 News correspondent was Asian-American; the protesters, of course, were out of the question; and a journalist from the local paper, who has covered the Aryan Nations for 20 years, was white enough but on deadline. "Just be careful, these aren't nice people," he told me.

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In this case, "be careful" translates into "don't do anything that will cause them to shoot at you." Idaho law allows people on private property to shoot and kill people who could be classified as intruders. Although the Coeur d'Alene Nazis have not killed anyone approaching the compound, they have vigorously exercised their right to "defend" themselves with gunfire. Photographers and protesters who have come near the property have reported being greeted with bullets. Just last weekend, an anti-Nazi activist, who asked not to be identified, was allowed on the compound during the convention, but only after passing through an armed security checkpoint manned by Aryans in Nazi uniform. After that, her only harassment was verbal; she was called a Jew and asked to leave. The most publicized incident happened last July to a woman driving by with her young son when their car backfired outside of the compound. She ended up in a high-speed car chase with the Aryan chief of security, while two men with him fired shots at her car. When one of the shots blew out her tire and she pulled over, the men roughed them up.

But then again, after last year's march, the Aryans invited the protesters who picketed the compound to come up for a barbecue dinner. The protesters declined.

I headed out to the compound accompanied only by Jack, a white cab driver. Before I left, I tore out all the notes in my notebook; emptied my satchel of all photographs, phone numbers and anti-Nazi literature; and left everything in my overnight bag with the bellhops at the Coeur d'Alene resort, who also had the phone numbers of people to call if I didn't return in two hours. Jack, however, was not afraid. A Coeur d'Alene native and veteran of World War II, he was less disturbed by the Aryan Nations march than he was by an incident at the "Car d'Alene" hot-rod show riots two weeks before, when a rowdy drunk began throwing beer bottles at bicycle cops in shorts. It escalated into a riot that had to be quelled by a full-county police squad with tear gas. Coeur d'Alene, Jack tells me, is prone to such senseless gestures. For instance, there was the beer riot of '57 or '58, caused when all the taverns in town ran out of beer on the same night. Like most Coeur d'Alene residents, Jack claims to be bored with the Nazis and believes if they are ignored -- particularly by out-of-town protesters and journalists like me -- they will simply go away. Jack can recall only one African-American family living here -- he says they finally left town because the town barbers claimed they did not know how to cut their hair.

Jack and I expected the Aryan Nations compound to look like a military bunker. Instead, we find a Nazi pastoral. The only thing alive at the open gate is a horse. Granted, it is a horse grazing in a field studded with metal Nazi flags, but it doesn't look especially menacing and I've never heard of an attack horse. The only thing we pass on our way up the drive is a sign posted to a tree that reads "Whites Only."

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"Well, we're both white," Jack said as we decided, uncertainly, to proceed. "I'm going to be the first cab driver to go all the way up to the compound."

We called Christian on Jack's cell phone and she said, "C'mon up." So we c'mon up. At the top of the hill a young woman, two young men, Christian and her children are sitting on the front porch of a small, wooden house that serves as an office for the Aryan Nations headquarters. Were it not for the picture of Adolph Hitler on the office door and the watchtower clearly visible through the trees, it could be any front porch in any wooded area in rural America. They are preparing a barbecue. "Make sure to segregate the hot dogs and the hamburgers," one of the men jokes.

The young woman, Nikki, 18, wears combat fatigues and an Aryan Nations T-shirt; she also wears Doc Martens with the trademark Red for Racist laces. Nikki has belonged to the Aryan Nations Church since she was 9, but she says that she "just knew" that she believed in its ideas since she was 5 years old. She lives in town with her parents, who support her decision to become a Nazi "100 percent." Nikki went to public school in Coeur d'Alene, where she says she had a pretty easy time of it -- except for the time another student tore the upside-down American flag off her backpack and threw it in her face.

Like Christian, Nikki has brown hair and brown eyes. Both of the men, Steven Hayes and Shaun Winkler, have cropped blond hair and wear blue jeans. Shaun smokes Marlboro Reds, the same brand as one of the protesters I met, who claimed that Kamel Reds were Nazi cigarettes. I ask them if they have seen the activist flyer that tells how to spot a Nazi, which includes a picture dictionary of Nazi symbols. They have not. "But I can spot a nigger a mile away," Shaun says.

It turns out that Jack is not the first cab driver to make it up to the front door of the compound. Once, on a Sunday, Christian says a cab driver brought a "nigger" up. "The dogs were going crazy. They weren't used to the smell." When the Aryans came out of church, they told the man to "get the heck out of here," Christian adds, scooping formula into a baby bottle.

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Still, the Nazis find my initial paranoia about security extremely funny. They find it so funny that they start telling jokes. Here are some examples of Nazi humor: They tell me that the pot of white petunias at my feet rolls back to expose an assault rifle. They tell me that a beat-up gray van nearby is really a gas oven.

"Do you really think we need all that propane for cooking?" asks Shaun, gesturing toward a metal canister on the porch.

Nazis, the ones I knew, did not grow up in an urban jungle. They grew up in a vacuum -- namely, the town of Boise, Idaho, where I lived when I was a teenager. At least five of my friends in high school stumbled into the Nazi subculture, mostly through cluelessness. These were not factory workers whose jobs had been "taken away" by cheap immigrant labor or high school kids who had to deal with gangbangers. They were punk-rock kids who thought that they became uber-punk when they put on a swastika, or rockabilly kids who thought that the Confederate flag meant "rebel" not "racist," or runaways who chose the wrong group of people to feed them. When one friend who had once wanted to be an ACLU lawyer began sporting swastikas, he was excused by the other kids because it was after he had been beaten by a black man in a bar fight. Most of the time, people telling that story neglected to mention that the friend had been wearing a jacket with a Confederate flag on the night of the beating.

I've never figured out how Idaho breeds racist activists when there are virtually no other races. How the hell can people build their lives around hating Jews, gays, blacks and Latinos when there aren't any around? So I asked these Nazis where they came from.

They tell me that, with the exception of Nikki, most residents on the compound came to northern Idaho seeking refuge from the "filth and corruption" of the big cities they had called home. Shaun came from San Francisco. Christian and her family left Phoenix three years ago because it was a hotbed of "hookers, pimps and black men." (Phoenix? Who knew?) "Because we don't have much money, we lived in a high-crime neighborhood," she says. (Translation: a mixed-race neighborhood.) The final straw, she says, was when a black man busted into her apartment, thinking she was alone. Luckily, her husband, Michael Teague, now head of security for the compound, and his friends were there to give chase -- "because they knew what he was going to do."

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Like other Nazi women, Christian believes that joining the Aryan Nations was the only way to protect her family: "If we hadn't, I believe my daughter and I would both be hurt or killed by now." As we speak, Christian's daughter, who is playing in the yard, finds a small object, which she kicks at with her foot. "Ooh," she says, "dirty." She picks it up the object and both she and I recognize it immediately: It is the black baby doll's decapitated head.

"Nigger," she says, and tosses the head into the yard.

Christian's daughter will not go to public school this year; she did last year, Christian says, and it was a big mistake. To begin with, her daughter was transferred out of her school for fighting non-white kindergarteners in her class, even though her mother insists that they picked the fight with her. "Honestly," says Christian, "even the principal admitted it."

In her next school, there were other problems. "They taught her that the Indians saved the Pilgrims' lives," Christian says. Then came Black History Month, when the children learned about Martin Luther King Jr. Says Christian: "My daughter is not black. My daughter has no need to know about a black activist."

"And then they did that flag thing," the little girl adds, suddenly interested in our conversation.

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"'One nation under God!'" Christian exclaims. "Heck, no!"

"They made me put my hand by my heart," says her daughter.

Finally, Christian's daughter was not allowed to pray in school. This struck a particularly deep chord with Christian, who believes the absence of Bible instruction in public schools is the reason she herself was groped and fondled by "apes" in the school hallways in Phoenix. She had to run and hide; eventually, she just dropped out of school.

I ask Christian if she supports the Supreme Court ruling designed to stop sexual harassment like that in public schools. She doesn't. Sexual harassment only happens when girls wear short skirts and tank tops, she says. "Sexual harassment is a girl's way of getting back at whoever she wants to."

An even worse fashion offense, however, is the "wigger" or "white nigger" look -- big pants, small shirts and clunky shoes -- and the slang that goes with it. In a grocery store, a girl once told Christian that her tattoo was "phat." Christian thought she had called her fat and almost slugged her.

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Here's another grocery store story, told to me by the father of a biracial child who lives in Coeur d'Alene: When he was shopping one day, another shopper flipped over his grocery cart. While his son was still in it.

Other rules of living in the Christian compound: Girls' and women's hair is long, boys' and men's is short. Everyone must follow the dietary laws of the Bible. Everyone must shower. No drugs. No alcohol. No illegal activities.

The Nazis claim to be adamant about the last point. Aryan Nations leaders often state publicly that they do not condone violence. When I ask if they support the actions of Benjamin Smith, the Chicago man who shot African-Americans and Asian-Americans before killing himself on the Fourth of July weekend, Christian replies, "Absolutely not. Killing yourself is a sin."

But their philosophy does include one big loophole. Shaun tells me that illegal activity is allowed "only when the laws of God come into conflict with the laws of man." If you consider the principles of the proposed Aryan Nations constitution -- which would return the United States to a pre-Civil War state -- this could cover a lot of ground. In the proposed nation, only whites would have the right to vote, bear arms, hold office, own property, hold positions in the military or law enforcement and be employed in the positions they choose.

While we are talking, I notice that an older man with a gray beard has appeared quietly on the step next to me. He says his name is Jack Reed. In preparation for the march, I had been debriefed by an anti-racist skinhead on how to spot Nazis in a crowd. "Look into his eyes," he said. "You can see the hate." But I don't see hatred in Reed's eyes. They are kind and intelligent, and his smile is mild. Or maybe his eyes are shrewd, his smile self-assured and he has been sent to watch me. Later on, some of the protesters tell me that Reed is Richard Butler's bodyguard.

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The Nazis in front of me are happy Nazis. They are not at war; they are at home. Most revolutionary groups -- left and right -- condone revolution by any means necessary. Revolt means war, war means violence. But even Hitler didn't intend to create a race of perpetual warriors. He wanted to create an Aryan homeland. If he had succeeded, it might have looked like Coeur d'Alene.

When I return to town that evening, I see a Nazi sitting with a latte at an outdoor bistro table. This Nazi has no swastikas, no tattoos, no combat fatigues. Instead, she has a chic red bob, blue tinted sunglasses and a small son. If I hadn't seen her heil the Nazis at noon, I would only see a pretty mother in her early 20s enjoying the late evening sun.


Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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