Sandpoint voices not yet united

by Aly De Angelus
Staff Writer | June 30, 2020 1:00 AM

SANDPOINT — Citizens from all parts of North Idaho attended Sandpoint’s last council meeting, where Mayor Shelby Rognstad’s proclamation on love created tension in the chamber.

Those who spoke were clearly split on concepts related to safety, individual freedoms and respect, all community values that have been reevaluated as a result of the increasing national and local attention to the Black Lives Matter movement.

“One thing that all of these groups have in common is they are all concerned about public safety, concerned about lawfulness, we all want equal justice under the law and that’s where we all converge,” Rognstad said.

Prior to opening the public forum for comment, Rognstad pledged full support for the Love Lives Here campaign where he swore commitment to upholding the rights of all individuals, regardless of their race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, nation or immigration status and more.

“It is my belief that our community is dedicated to love, unity and inclusivity, equity and respect,” he said. “The message of hate has no place in Sandpoint and all are welcome.”

Many residents like Rebecca Holland, who personally delivered a yellow flower to the mayor before taking the podium, expressed gratitude for Rognstad’s statements. Holland is a supporter of the Love Lives Here campaign who unveiled a new kindness campaign program for businesses to encourage racial and gender equality at the meeting.

Business owners who pledge allegiance to denounce acts of hate will be given a sticker for their window. In addition, business owners will be given a response guide to assist with confidential harassment reports.

Dave Van Natter, a resident of Bonner County for 50-plus years, spoke after Holland and likened the Loves Live here movement to core principles found in the U.S. Constitution.

“I want to read the original Love Lives Here document,” Van Natter said. “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal … This has always been in America and we have just had some bad apples … We all want to love each other the best we can.”

Other attendees, however, felt that Rognstad’s affiliation with the Love Lives Here campaign was a political statement that further divided the community. Many voiced concern of divisive language that marginalized citizens in support of guns at protests.

“Vigilante, intimidation, harassment, these are some of the words being used to describe armed citizens,” Community resident Steve Wasylko, who was formerly trained in de escalation and take down tactics for his security profession. “Why are we not called peaceful armed citizens since we were legally armed and there were no incidents? The language is clear that there is a side being picked … Your message to me is one of division.”

Jane Purdy was another who echoed the sentiments of numerous other gun supporters during the public forum. To her, the only intention of carrying a gun is to ensure the safety of Sandpoint’s citizens.

“If all is peaceful, then all is well,” Purdy said. “There is a reason why North Idaho is peaceful, because we are armed and we are a polite society and we do respect each other and I suggest we teach our children to do the same.”

Rognstad recently published a letter to address his intention of words such as “vigilante” to describe Sandpoint’s armed citizens who have maintained presence at anti-racial protests. He has been working on precise word choice to facilitate greater conversation with the community on the nation’s topical issues such as racism and prejudice.

“The word vigilante is a citizen who enforces the law without the legal ability to do so,” Rognstad said. “To me that is exactly what those people told me they were doing. Those people were down there to protect the downtown, right? That’s what a vigilante is, so I was just using their own description for why they were there.”

Rognstad has continued to support the Sandpoint Police Department and urge citizens to trust in the system that holds law enforcement officials accountable.

“I think it’s dangerous for a democratic society to blur the line with what is a police force that is accountable to the public and they are not perfect,” he said.

Sandpoint’s police officers are going through new police protocol to protect the citizens from acts of police brutality. The town is also exploring new methods of training such as bias training.

Robert Rosendary is an out-of-town attendee, whose cousin and aunt were murdered in the 2015 South Carolina shooting after his cousin attempted to shield his aunt from a bullet. He has friends who reside in Sandpoint and said that the Black Lives Matter movement was not meant for a community like Sandpoint, where the population of Black people is less than .01 percent.

“Why is there a Black Lives Matter (movement) here at all? Why do you have the cuffs on those men’s hands, policing the police like they are breaking laws?” Rosendary said. “Take the cuffs off of those men, let these people live their life the way they want to live it without division … I am like one of the five chocolate chips in the cookie here.”

Though Rognstad said his proclamation was intended to assert values that unite the community, Sandpoint’s conversation on what respecting community members looks like has only just begun.

“It used to be love was sort of something that everybody could get behind. I still want to believe that it is,” he said.