How Patriot Prayer Is Building a Violent Far-Right Movement in Portland
As the leader of Patriot Prayer, a radical right-wing group with followers ranging from Trump supporters to white nationalists, Joey Gibson’s persona has become a focal point for communities tired of violent right-wing rallies in public parks. He has been labeled a fascist, not only by the angry left but by newspapers and academics alike. Still, even this blurs his brand.
Over the past 18 months, Patriot Prayer has amassed crowds up and down the West Coast. While faith, family and traditional values are mentioned in Gibson’s speeches, his focus has been infiltrating liberal cities and holding far-right demonstrations to antagonize the left.
The group’s most recent convergence on June 3 in Portland, Oregon, was intended to send off his bodyguard and fellow Patriot Prayer organizer Tusitala “Tiny” Toese. A 21-year-old Samoan Vancouver resident, Toese got involved in Patriot Prayer by lingering around the edges of the militia movement, and was planning on heading back to Samoa. He had become the group’s de facto front-man, often picking fights with protesters on camera. He was arrested on August 6, 2017, for instance, after confronting anti-fascist activists in Portland’s historic Waterfront Park. Since then, he has joined the Proud Boys, the street gang labeled by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group with ties to white supremacist organizations across the US.
Without a statement of purpose or any planned speeches, Gibson’s supporters — which included members of Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys — showed up ready to fight from the moment they entered the park. Their anger was pointed directly at the several hundred anti-fascist protesters quartered across the street at another length of the park, broken up by a surprisingly small line of police in riot gear.
The confrontations started almost immediately as both Proud Boys and anti-fascist protesters were left bloodied by brutal confrontations. Once Gibson arrived, co-organizer Toese led a series of short marches lasting only a few blocks and returning, each time walking directly into counter-protesters, resulting in vicious melees.
They would corner counter-protesters, often out of sight of the police, and brutally attack. Pepper spray was being deployed at regular intervals, tossed back and forth from protesters on both sides. The Proud Boys, with Toese as their enigmatic leader, were barely able to keep it together as frantic outbursts, infighting and spontaneous attacks colored by homophobic slurs occurred in a continuous string of conflict. A series of “fire and brimstone” street preachers were calling counter-protesters “faggots” and cornering stragglers for gang-style attacks.
After the fourth march through the streets, the police finally intervened, telling Toese he and his group would be arrested if they did not leave. Toese then announced the “women and children” would be escorted to their cars by Proud Boys, but as their numbers thinned, they became visibly frightened about what could come next. “Why the fuck are we still here?” screamed one Proud Boy as they loaded a few people onto a bus. “We need to get the fuck out of here, they are going to outnumber us.”
Hundreds of counter-protesters then descended on them as they ran for cover in a local festival, hoping police would protect them. In the end, four people were led away in handcuffs, two from each side, though additional arrests could come after more video footage is released in the coming days.
During all of this, Gibson spent his time in the back, mostly talking into his cellphone livestream. While he would laugh and egg on his battle mates, he would then jump onto YouTube and talk about how he was here “for love.” No politics were on the agenda that day, no talk of the issues Gibson had set his “campaign” on, nor what he insisted Patriot Prayer stood for. Instead, the event was centered entirely on a street brawl with the “left,” the perfect way to send off Toese back to Samoa.
Patriot Prayer Joins the “Alt-Right” in 2017 Clashes
When Gibson’s public displays of Trumpian conservatism in Portland’s urban core first arrived in 2016 and 2017, his cause was taken up largely by militia cohorts in the Oath Keepers and the “III%ers,” still riding high from the Bundy family occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Southeastern Oregon.
Over the next year and a half after becoming a public force, Patriot Prayer began inviting others in the far right to join in their public events — the kind of call white nationalists are always primed for. Open white supremacy is generally unpopular in the US. To gain a connection to the mass culture, white supremacists require a crossover point, a group of people close enough to their ideas and built into the larger conservative social framework to help move them onto a public stage.
As a career “house flipper,” Gibson had done pretty well for himself, and Trump seemed to speak his language. While his early public rallies in 2016 seemed geared at responding to what he saw as unfair treatment of Trump conservatives, the tone shifted quickly to “standing his ground” against opposition.
While Patriot Prayer billed its politics as moderate Trumpian populism with a broadly Protestant flavor, it mattered little to the community surrounding Gibson. His persona has always had an “aw shucks” approach to conservative principles, opting to speak in vague platitudes about love and community. It was the company he kept, and his stubborn defense of them, that inspired such a virulent backlash from activists in June 2017 during a so-called “free speech” rally. Gibson served as the face that a distinct sector of the white nationalist right could support.
Identity Evropa, the white nationalist fraternal group that had been organizing at nearby universities, immediately descended, with local organizer Jacob Lott leading the charge. Organizations like the national socialist Traditionalist Worker Party, True Cascadia and a slew of actual neo-Nazi skinheads famous from the heyday of violence in the 1980s and ’90s began to buddy up. Next, the militia movement joined in, brandishing semi-automatics and Soros conspiracy theories, bolstering the perception of Gibson’s crew as a fighting force. Then the Proud Boys joined in the mix, seemingly more for the conflict than the conservatism.
While a large Trump contingent drew Gibson toward the Oregon GOP, he refused to disassociate himself from the large “alt-right” contingent that had started joining his events. Instead, he acted as a de facto organizer, providing them a platform and access to his conservative following. Gibson was, for all practical purposes, their most effective tool for growth. His own politics mattered little as his movement has functioned as a Trojan horse for actual white nationalism, facilitating its growth and expansion.
The most famous of his followers, however, has been Jeremy Christian, who was accused of murdering two people on public transit as they were attempting to de-escalate his Islamophobic attack on two women. Only days after the stabbings, Gibson decided to hold another one of his “free speech” rallies, almost identical to the one that Christian had attended months earlier.
His rally in Portland on June 4, 2017, was beset on all sides: Rose City Antifa and militants to the South, a labor cadre to the East and a massive show from progressive-left organizations to the West. Inside, however, it was a collage of combat fatigues and “Pepe” flags set against helmets and capes.
Local “alt-right” celebrities like “Baked Alaska” used the rally as an opportunity to livestream as he spoke into the camera for hours, a popular pastime on their side of the barricades. Based Stickman Kyle Chapman was an honorary guest. I caught up with a member of the Traditionalist Worker Party who told me he was far too busy to speak to me since he had left his “White Genocide” banner unattended around the block.
Organizations like Rose City Antifa and the Pacific Northwest Antifascist Workers Collective had put out a series of images of local neo-Nazis from the National Socialist Movement and skinhead gangs they thought would be in attendance — a prescient action, as faces known primarily in mugshots walked unassumingly through the crowd.
While Gibson and his crew antagonized and periodically picked fights with their neighbors, it was obvious that stepping out of their park was not an option.
Patriot Prayer Returns to Portland After Turbulent Year
Almost exactly one year later, Gibson has again brought a contingent back into the Terry Schrunk Plaza in downtown Portland, though this time, a much smaller one. He had provided a laundry list of reasons for the rally: freedom of speech, supporting Trump, standing up for gun rights, fighting communism. When Truthout asked Gibson on Sunday, June 3, why he and his supporters were there, all he could say was that it was a “freedom march.” It wasn’t surprising that Patriot Prayer again set up their own rally after finding out about a protest against police violence earlier in the day, since they are known for taking left-wing events and using them as provocative moments to steal the limelight.
Over the last year, Gibson has done his best to stay relevant. He took his act on the road, going to Berkeley just weeks after the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally while the national wound was still fresh. He was met by a massive organized contingent of local unions and community organizations that overwhelmed his presence in the park. He continued on, making it up to places like Vancouver, Washington and Spokane, Washington, while antagonizing locals and watching his core followers shrink. At the University of Washington, Gibson was detained when his apparent Patriot Prayer friends were brandishing firearms.
His string of high-profile media spectacles led him to his filing as a Republican senatorial candidate in Washington, where he even had a brief moment as a possible front-runner until GOP politician Susan Hutchison was established as the leader in the race.
Yet interviews on “Tucker Carlson Tonight” and hints at collaboration from the regional GOP and the militia movement have led to nothing. When he arrived late to his own rally this June, his crowd was both smaller and angrier than before. The Proud Boys lined the wall of aggressive attendees, dominating the new lineup of supporters. The militia movement, the beltway GOP types and the Trump-supporting students were largely gone. Instead, the Proud Boys appeared to be the largest demographic.
What’s Next for Patriot Prayer?
Gibson can’t stop because he has nothing left: His career is in tatters, his reputation is haunted and his world has become the mundane and shrinking suburbs of Portland. Without such public brawls, how could he possibly drum up clicks on YouTube with long-winded speeches about fiat currency?
This is why Gibson keeps his public politics center-right, even supporting same-sex marriage despite his alliance with homophobic screaming street preachers. After the melee with counter-protesters earlier this month, Gibson was invited on air by conservative talk radio host Lars Larson to pin the blame for the events back on the rest of the community and the police, while simultaneously promising to “rethink” his current strategy.
White nationalists around the country immediately came to Gibson’s defense, with “The Daily Shoah” showing its support for Patriot Prayer on a June 6 podcast. Program co-host Jayoh, who publicly makes comments in support of the mass genocide of Black people, said he was going to be reaching out to Gibson directly to show support.
While Patriot Prayer rally attendance has shrunk dramatically, the Proud Boys have grown exponentially and their willingness to engage in violence, both with and without purpose, mirrors the ugly attacks of the Hammerskins throughout the 1990s or Volksfront in the 2000s. Moreover, while the Proud Boys maintain a multi-ethnic membership roll, their “Western chauvinist” rhetoric and hard-right stances have made them the new crossover point from reactionary conservatism to full-blown, street-fighting fascism. Gibson, in the meantime, seems fine with this, unable to differentiate between one type of high-profile follower and the next.
More recently, he has focused on protesting abortion clinics, leading him to a Planned Parenthood location on June 9. There, counter-protesters met him on all sides as less than two-dozen supporters stood behind police barricades, yelling back at counter-protesters about the “unborn.”
Shortly after the dust settled from the recent June 3 action, Gibson announced Patriot Prayer would be returning to the plaza on June 30 to again “stand their ground.” Meanwhile, Rose City Antifa has unveiled a series of articles doxing each local member of the Proud Boys and calling for supporters to put pressure on their employers to fire them.
What happens when Patriot Prayer loses all connection to mainstream party politics, is stripped of its broader followership and doubles down on acts of violence? That might be when Patriot Prayer’s Jeremy Christian will again show his face. If that happens, Gibson will be well shielded, livestreaming to a small audience on Facebook and denying all culpability. We would expect nothing less.
Originally published at truthout.org.