By Lyndsie Kiebert
The Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, based at the Georgetown University Law Center, sent a letter June 19 to Bonner County Commissioner Dan McDonald and Sandpoint Mayor Shelby Rognstad raising concerns about the constitutionality of militia activity at a Black Lives Matter protest June 2 in Sandpoint.
Mary McCord, legal director for the Washington, D.C.-based institute, cited local and nationwide news coverage, as well as Facebook posts from local officials, to point out that “militia members’ conduct in Sandpoint appears to have violated Idaho law” during the protest. Of particular interest in McCord’s letter — which was sent to all county commissioners as well as the city administrator and county prosecutor — was a Facebook post June 2 from McDonald sharing the time and location for a Black Lives Matter protest, in which he wrote, “It would be great to have some of the Bonner County folks come out to help counter anything that might get out of hand.”
“We wanted to call this to your attention in light of Commissioner McDonald’s express request to the militia members to attend the protest, what appears to be Commissioner McDonald’s continued solicitation on Facebook of militia members to attend additional protests, and the suggestion by some Idaho officials that no state law prohibits such conduct,” McCord wrote.
McDonald also noted in his June 2 post that it was a peaceful protest, which is protected by the Constitution, and should be respected. McDonald said he “would rather see a replay of [Coeur d’Alene] last night” and that attendees should “send a message we will not tolerate looting, property damage or violent acts.”
The evening of June 1 in Coeur d’Alene saw armed individuals patrolling downtown ostensibly to guard against violence and looting by Antifa — a loosely organized anti-fascist group rumored to be planning to infiltrate North Idaho. No evidence has been presented that Antifa or any other related group intended to cause unrest in any community in North Idaho.
In a live stream video June 5, Sandpoint Police Chief Corey Coon said his department works with surrounding law enforcement agencies to vet each claim that agitators may be coming to town. As of June 5, Coon said all leads were “really just basically rumors.”
Yet, Coon said of the armed patrols, “Their intentions are all great,” going on to applaud their ability to show up at a moment’s notice. “Their intentions were honorable.”
“I would say there is no ill will or intention with those guys walking [through downtown armed with weapons],” Coon said. “It’s odd for those of us who’ve never seen it … I know it can be shocking. … For the majority of them, it’s no ill will.”
McCord cited a number of Idaho laws prohibiting private paramilitary activity in the letter, and said the ability to call unorganized militia into active service is reserved for the governor. She noted that ICAP filed a successful lawsuit on behalf of Charlottesville, Va., following the Unite the Right rally in 2017, which ruled the militia conduct at that event to be unlawful.
In closing, McCord offered a pro bono consultation with Bonner County and Sandpoint officials “about how best to ensure that future protests remain peaceful and free from unlawful militia activity.”
McDonald told the Sandpoint Reader in an email June 23 that he was “a bit confused as to [ICAP’s] allegations” about him “calling out armed militia” via his Facebook page ahead of the June 2 protest.
“This appears to be an attempt to intimidate me and paint a narrative that does not exist,” he said, pointing out that the words “armed” or “militia” did not appear in his post.
McDonald said the letter from ICAP “appears to walk in lock step with the Sandpoint mayor’s divisive statement about vigilanties,” referring to a June 3 Facebook post from Rognstad in which the mayor stated that none of the protesters — mostly high school students — who he spoke with “felt any safer in the presence of these armed vigilantes.”
“Rather, they felt scared, intimidated and in some cases harassed,” Rognstad said.
The Reader confirmed similar sentiments among the parents of some of the participants in the June 2 march, with one father of a 19- and 21-year-old taking part in the demonstration stating, “I’m scared,” as he nodded toward a nearby Bonner County sheriff’s deputy and the group of armed individuals standing away from the protesters staging in the parking lot of the Bonner County Courthouse. The deputy paused to pose in a “thumbs up” photo with the armed individuals.
“I’m not going to let them be here without me,” the protester’s father told the Reader.
BLM solidarity members stated at a march June 6 that, “protesters do not accept protection from vigilante militia groups,” some of whom may have a history of white supremacy and “are even less accountable than police.”
“We reject the notion that armed militia members are here for protester protection,” the group stated. “It serves only to intimidate the free and lawful expression of speech.”
McDonald told the Reader that, to his knowledge, the armed citizens who showed up on June 2 “were just our neighbors and people we interact with every day.”
When it was pointed out that organized militia did appear to have responded to his June 2 post — including Kevin J. Korsund, of Spirit Lake, Idaho, stating that “The North Idaho Militia will be on site” within minutes — McDonald said the Reader was “moving the goalpost.”
“The charge from ICAP is that I illegally activated the militia or a militia, which I did not,” he said. “Contrary to [statements by] the Sandpoint mayor and some others, I don’t control groups of people, I didn’t call out the militia, I didn’t call people to arms and I don’t have my own private police force. Did we see organized militia? How many members were there? I don’t have the answer to either of these [questions] and have no knowledge of actual organized militia showing up. If they did, that’s on them, but they were never called to attend, at least, not by me.”
McDonald said he has no plans to communicate with ICAP regarding the letter, aside from possibly working to “set the record straight, as clearly, someone has led them astray.”
Representatives of the city of Sandpoint did not respond to a request for comment on the ICAP letter.
Additional reporting by Zach Hagadone.
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