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Idaho Resistance Groups Work To Combat Extremism Seeping Into Mainstream

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Far-right extremist activity is not new in Idaho. You may remember the deadly standoff between a fundamentalist white separatist group and federal law enforcement at Ruby Ridge back in 1992. There's evidence that extremist ideas are becoming more mainstream there, and now an organized effort to push back is trying to establish itself. From Boise, Heath Druzin has this report.

HEATH DRUZIN, BYLINE: Well before the U.S. Capitol insurrection, this was happening in Boise.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting, unintelligible).

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASS SHATTERING)

DRUZIN: That's an anti-government mob shattering a glass door while storming the Idaho Capitol in August over pandemic restrictions. Tactics like that have become commonplace in Idaho, where what was once fringe is now mainstream. And it's not just happening at the state Capitol. Alicia Abbot lives in Sandpoint, where armed militia members took to the streets this summer.

ALICIA ABBOT: It was very frightening to have a few days' worth of anti-government thinkers and COVID conspiracy theorists, anti-BLM protesters out in our streets with high-capacity weapons.

DRUZIN: After that, she joined a new anti-extremist group. She and others worry about state lawmakers like Chad Christensen. He's also a member of the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters, militia movements whose members have been implicated in the U.S. Capitol insurrection. Christensen rejects the extremist and militia labels.

CHAD CHRISTENSEN: I believe I follow the Constitution and uphold it. And these days, you know, that's viewed as extreme, I think.

DRUZIN: Not everyone sees it that way.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORNS HONKING)

DRUZIN: That's members of the Idaho 97 project at a car rally for early childhood education in Boise. They formed in December to push back on what they see as radical ideologies. The number is a jab at the Three Percent militia movement and a nod to what the group's executive director, Mike Satz, says is a quiet majority who thinks state politics has gone off the rails.

MIKE SATZ: We have shared values. We have more in common than we have in different.

DRUZIN: He's dismayed by elected officials in all-out rebellion against the governor's pandemic orders and lawmakers like Christensen praising our men and women who have come out to counter anti-racism protests. Satz says, as a Black man in a largely white state, that makes Idaho feel unwelcoming.

SATZ: It has a very negative effect, and it has a deep, deep history for people of color in particular when people show up armed.

DRUZIN: The Idaho 97 is officially nonpartisan, but critics have pointed to liberal activism by founding members. Satz acknowledges that's a tough perception to overcome in conservative Idaho. So far, the group's results have been mixed. They claim more than 13,000 newsletter subscribers and collected 11,000 signatures on a petition calling for stricter pandemic precautions. But the petition remains unanswered, and the car rally attracted just a couple dozen people.

SATZ: I am under no illusion that this is an easy task.

DRUZIN: The Idaho 97 project is one of several anti-extremism groups across the political spectrum that have popped up in the region. Amy Cooter, who studies far-right groups at Vanderbilt University, says one challenge these groups face is recent success by far-right candidates.

AMY COOTER: I think it's absolutely a trend, both at the state and the national level, where we maybe have a good number of Republicans who feel like things are going too far but who fear they'll lose the next election if they actually say that.

DRUZIN: Cooter sees a mixed forecast for anti-extremist groups. She doesn't think militia groups take them seriously, but...

COOTER: Long-term, those sorts of coalitions might actually be something that helps us move past such a divided political moment.

DRUZIN: Idaho 97 organizer Mike Satz acknowledges change won't come quickly.

SATZ: We're looking at years and years and years of standing up to this.

DRUZIN: But he says he's in it for the long haul.

For NPR News, I'm Heath Druzin.

(SOUNDBITE OF PDP'S "BLUE SECTION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.