By Zach Hagadone
It was another emotionally-charged, marathon meeting of the Sandpoint City Council on July 1, as council members and an overflow crowd navigated two public forum sessions that bookended the three-hour meeting.
Testimony covered charged topics ranging from the Black Lives Matter movement, to the notion of community “divisiveness” and Mayor Shelby Rognstad’s “Love Lives Here” proclamation adopted at the June 17 meeting, and disagreements over the role that armed individuals should — or shouldn’t play — amid protests.
The discussion was teed off by a message issued by the city earlier in the day, and which Rognstad read aloud, beginning with the statement: “The past several weeks and months a growing amount of divisiveness has gained a foothold in our community and this pains all of us to witness.”
The statement went on to call for citizens to come together, putting aside partisan political differences that have come to a boil on the heat thrown especially by the presence of armed “vigilantes,” as the mayor called them at the June 17 meeting, who converged on a local BLM demonstration June 2 and later patrolled downtown Sandpoint ostensibly to protect local businesses from potential unrest or property damage stemming from the march.
The Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, based at the Georgetown Law Center, sent a letter June 19 to Bonner County Commissioner Dan McDonald and Shelby Rognstad, suggesting that “militia members’ conduct in Sandpoint appears to have violated Idaho law” during the protest.
In its letter, ICAP offered to provide legal counsel to determine whether the presence of armed individuals was indeed illegal, though the city’s statement of July 1 made it clear that the center’s services will not be accepted.
According to the city’s statement: “[W]e have our own legal counsel at the City who serves as our chief legal advisor to ensure we are acting lawfully and protecting the rights of our citizens, business and property owners and visitors. We are confident in the advice we receive and will not be pursuing additional outside assistance at this time.”
Numerous residents provided often heated testimony on the ICAP letter, as well as the mayor’s Love Lives Here proclamation and the statement of “common ground” read at the July 1 meeting.
Several speakers thanked the mayor and council for declining ICAP’s offer of legal advice, but still took Rognstad to task for his June 17 proclamation. One resident called it “petty and childish and has no place in adult society” while another speaker called both the proclamation and the initiative which it supported “politicized sentiment” representing the “political weaponization of worry.”
Other residents stuck up for the proclamation while expressing disappointment that the city would not be contacting ICAP.
Sandpoint resident and lawyer Michael Waldrup told the council he was “absolutely appalled by the racism and intimidation” from the “armed militia” at the June demonstration and had been asked by organizers of that march — who were mostly teenagers and twentysomethings — to read a message on their behalf.
“We are your children, we have something to share: Our purpose was solely to peacefully protest against the injustices against people of color,” he read from the statement. “Our intent and our protest was peaceful.”
However, the message added, the “armed militia,” which the authors of the statement said were marshalled by Commissioner McDonald via a Facebook post — an allegation he has denied vehemently to the Reader — were “not wanted, not needed and 100% intimidating.”
What’s more, the organizers said that despite claims by some of those who turned out bearing arms on June 2 that their presence was appreciated by demonstrators, “This is not true at all. … They followed us, they loitered around town for hours.”
Waldrup also relayed the marchers’ experiences with being called racial epitaphs by the armed men — what one speaker later said was an example of a few people having “bad mouths” — and said, “The city of Sandpoint needs to do a lot better” in discouraging that kind of harassment.
Still others said the so-called “militia” members prevented harm on June 2, whether to people or property.
“They did absolutely nothing but apparently scare some kids and maybe say some inappropriate things,” said Bonner County resident Jan Gore, adding that by using terms like “vigilante” to describe those individuals, Sandpoint “continues to show why the ‘Love Lives Here’ is a joke.”
More than one young person delivered passionate testimony about the need to address what one speaker called “gaslighting” by those who claim to stand against division while intimidating others with firearms.
“Threats and actions of violence cannot go unnoticed,” said one young speaker, who added that as a Hispanic person, she has been told to “go back” to her country, despite being a native-born U.S. citizen.
“There comes a time when silence and apathy becomes betrayal,” she said. “Do not take our words and frustrations with a grain of salt.”
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