PORTLAND, Ore.– Joey Gibson and his Patriot Prayer group came to Portland on Saturday itching for a fight, raising alarms in the Portland community and national press. Instead, the Portland Police did their work for them.
Patriot Prayer rallies, packaged in the language of free speech, attract far-right and alt-right pro-Trump groups, such as the Proud Boys, who provide “protection” for attendees. Gibson himself, however, cagily avoids using the kind of language that smacks of hate.
Gibson’s main intention seems to be to provoke left-wing, anti-fascist activists into physical confrontations with his rally-goers.
As it turned out, Gibson hardly needed help from the Proud Boys; Portland Police went beyond their mandate to provide protection by aggressively chasing counter-protesters down side-streets, and hurling flash-bang grenades into the crowds who had come to demonstrate against Gibson and his far-right comrades. The police handling of the Patriot Prayer protest provoked condemnation from the American Civil Liberties Union.
Joey Gibson Truly Came Out Of Nowhere
Coming seemingly from out of nowhere, Gibson sprang onto the West Coast political protest scene with no documented political involvement prior to January 2017, when he livestreamed protests of the Trump administration’s Muslim ban at the Portland airport. In April last year, Gibson began organizing his own rallies on the West Coast, particularly in the Pacific Northwest. That month, a Patriot Prayer rally in Portland attracted neo-Nazi Jeremy Christian, who allegedly murdered two people on the city’s public transit a month later.
He says he’s not a white supremacist, doesn’t say hateful things about racial minorities in public, is accepting of LGBTQ people, and identifies as Japanese American. But members of alt-right groups—folks that are vehemently racist, anti-LGBTQ, and oozing with extremist hate—travel across the country to attend Gibson’s rallies. Yet, speaking at rallies surrounded by some of the most dangerous people in American politics, Gibson has voiced no public objection that would lead anyone to believe he thinks that’s a problem—and has made remarks that might suggest just the opposite.
In recent months, Gibson has been hoisted into the national spotlight by right-wing media megastars, including Fox News host Tucker Carlson, Infowars host Alex Jones and talk show host Lars Larson, who have provided sympathetic coverage to Gibson while they advance a narrative set on vilifying people who protest against fascism. This narrative has also been used to argue for applying to anti-fascist protesters—who often cover their faces during protests—anti-masking laws that were created for the Klu Klux Klan. Other suggestions include encouraging the federal government to classify people who protest fascism as terrorists.
Gibson is also a favorite among West Coast chapters of the “Proud Boys” right-wing fraternity, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has identified as a hate group on account of repeated violence Proud Boys members have engaged in and the extreme rhetoric that emanates from the group’s members and its founder, CRTV host Gavin McInnes.
A former real estate agent, Gibson is running for U.S. Senate in Washington state as a Republican, vying against 28 other contenders in today’s primary election. Gibson’s platform is somewhat vague but heavy on rhetoric about guns, God, and brutalizing the American left. He’s not expected to win, but he’s not going down without a physical fight (or two).
Since declaring his Senate candidacy in February, Gibson has missed two FEC filing deadlines. His campaign is opaque about its finances, and Gibson only told reporters that his late filings had been “taken care of.” One thing is apparent, though: His 2018 Patriot Prayer rallies have doubled as de facto campaign events. In fact, video of the August 4 rally is trumpeted on his Gibson for U.S. Senate website.
‘Obviously … There Will Be Conflicts, There Will Be Violence’
Local leftist activists told me that Patriot Prayer rally attendance in the area had started to slump in early 2018 and that as a result, fewer anti-fascism groups had been showing up to counter-protest his group. But in recent months, the rhetoric and actions of Patriot Prayer members severely escalated. In July, Tusitala “Tiny” Toese, Gibson’s right-hand man and friend of the Proud Boys, was filmed physically attacking people unprovoked. Gibson also began ratcheting up his rhetoric about potential violence, and in an apparent effort to boost attendance, recruited gaggles of Proud Boys to attend a rally on June 30 that resulted in a riot. Patriot Prayer members have also been harassing leftist groups protesting at a local Immigration and Customs Enforcement center.
For the August 4 gathering, the group moved their rally to a site where they believed demonstrators could open-carry rifles—a plan that was later snuffed. In Oregon, people may open-carry rifles if they are unloaded and may conceal weapons if they receive a permit from the state. Oregon does not recognize concealed carry permits from out of state. Portland Police Bureau originally planned to set up weapons checkpoints at the entrances to the rally.
“We’ve always had guns at every single rally that we’ve had. We just don’t pull them out,” Gibson told Infowars on July 31.
Recent events convened by Patriot Prayer have spiraled into chaos. Portland Police declared the outcome of Patriot Prayer’s last official rally there on June 30—which was co-sponsored by the Proud Boys—to be a riot. Last year, Gibson was arrested at a Patriot Prayer rally in Berkeley, California, after he reportedly ran at police. Toese was arrested on December 7 for assaulting a counter-protester.
This event was expected to continue that trend.
“Obviously, August 4th there will be conflicts, there will be violence,” Gibson said in a video posted to Facebook. Ahead of the rally, the Proud Boys even sold commemorative coins heralding “The Battle of Portland,” and featuring a graphic of Proud Boy Ethan “Rufio Panman” Nordean punching an anti-fascist protester.
Responding to the threat of escalating violence, activist and watchdog groups set into motion plans for counter-action. Organizers prepared for the possibility of another riot. Anti-fascism groups in the area cast aside their differences and united under the banner POPMOB (shorthand for “popular mobilization”), orchestrating their own counter-programming in Chapman Square Park, three blocks away from the site of Patriot Prayer gathering.
“We worked within our network to mobilize as many folks as we can to show up today because we know when we show up in mass and we have larger numbers than they do that we have less incidents of violence and that we have a better chance at drowning out their rhetoric of hate,” POPMOB’s Effie Baum said.
They added, “Our coalition was homegrown. We don’t have to fly people in from all over the country. We have a very strong, resilient, diverse community right here that we were able to mobilize from Portland and Oregon.”
On its Facebook page, Patriot Prayer claimed that it had organized some of its supporters to dress up as anti-fascism protesters and infiltrate these groups: “I stress to my Patriot brothers and sisters, do not attack unless first attacked, or for immediate self defense. You could be going friendly fire on one of your own.” At the rally, many Patriot Prayer supporters said they were concerned that anti-fascism protesters were undercover on their side, too.
Just after 1 p.m., pepper spray hit Patriot Prayer supporter Bassad Pesci, who turned and struck, with his megaphone, the woman he believed was responsible, accusing her of being a secret anti-fascist plant. (I could find no evidence to support his claim.) Pesci would later tell me that he opposed the alt-right personality Kyle “Based Stickman” Chapman, a convicted felon, because Pesci believed Chapman was working with federal agents.
It’s not far-fetched to imagine the event could have been a bloodbath, as many had feared, if the Portland Police Bureau’s heavy presence at the rally had not strictly enforced the dividing line between Patriot Prayer and the anti-fascism protesters. But the police did far more than that.
A Hotspot For Extremists, Obscured By MAGA Normies
At about 10 a.m., across the river in Vancouver, Washington, Proud Boys and right-wing activists sporting military-style helmets, vests, body cams, radio systems, visors, knee pads and gloves rallied at the Marine Park boat launch, after the owner of a shopping complex where they initially planned to rally had ordered security to remove any Patriot Prayer rally attendees and members of the press from the premises. Instructions for Patriot Prayer supporters to instead gather at a nearby boat launch were conveyed silently by a woman affiliated with Patriot Prayer who had scribbled them on her hand, so that she could show arriving supporters but hide the information from the press. Across the street, members of a local anti-racism group were sitting at a table with a sign that read, “No hate, just debate.”
At nearby Marine Park, more than 100 Patriot Prayer supporters socialized, many smoking cigarettes and drinking beers, while they waited to board the short school buses that would transport them to the downtown Portland waterfront.
I spoke with a rally-goer who was dressed in all-black body armor, including a full-face helmet like those worn by Stormtroopers in the Star Wars movie franchise. He carried multiple canisters of mace. I asked him if he was wearing the armor because he was nervous about violence at the day’s rally. He said he wasn’t, telling me that “Antifa isn’t really a threat,” and said rather that he was more concerned about the vehicles parked in Marine Park and whether they would be towed or if they would return to slashed tires. He wouldn’t tell me his name.
A young man, who appeared to be college-aged, stood by himself amid the horde. He wore a Pepe the Frog pin on his chest, and told me he came to the event from Hawaii. I asked him whether it was expensive to travel and why he chose to do so.
“I get deals,” he said, about plane tickets. Before he walked away from me he said, “There’s people in America who will attack you for holding an American flag. Does that make sense?”
He, too, declined to give his name.
Another young man named Jarrett gave me his first name, but wouldn’t tell me his last name. We spoke at length. He traveled to the rally from Seattle, he said, and claimed to be a Proud Boy.
I asked him which cereals he named during his second-degree initiation beat-in, which requires a Proud Boy to name five breakfast cereals while being beaten by members of the group. He told me he was still a first-degree Proud Boy and hadn’t advanced to the second degree yet, but hoped he would during the day’s rally.
Jarrett recounted his journey across the political spectrum, once identifying as a Democrat, he said, and now crossing state lines to support the Proud Boys. He told me that he realized that liberals “were full of lies” and “want people to feel ashamed of who they are, of wanting borders … of being heterosexual.” He said he believed that the media misrepresents the Proud Boys because reporters hold an anti-Trump bias.
There was also a pronounced Infowars presence at the rally, with Infowars hosts Owen Shroyer and Jake Lloyd ostensibly covering the action. Lloyd attempted to ambush-interview me but dodged my questions about whether he was aware that some of his Infowars guests were white nationalists. Many Patriot Prayer supporters were wearing Infowars shirts at the rally.
In downtown Portland, other right-wing demonstrators less directly involved with the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer behaved in ways that were sometimes embarrassing to watch. One man calling himself “Based Green Bastard” adorned himself in a bizarre green outfit with homages to lingo and iconography made popular by users of the anonymous image board 4chan. (He has since been mercilessly ridiculed online.)
— Ken Klippenstein (@kenklippenstein) August 4, 2018
A flower-adorned straw hat stood out in the crowd of battlefield-ready, helmeted Patriot Prayer protesters and the Infowars fanboys. The hat rested on the head of a local retired woman, who told me that she was unfamiliar with the Patriot Prayer group but she had seen on the news that there would be Trump supporters at the rally and that she was excited to be in a space where she could mingle with them.
And then, there were the hardcore extremists.
Laura Sennett of the anti-racism group One People’s Project, photographed violent extremist Christopher Ritchie in attendance. Ritchie is a Texas man whom anti-fascist groups documented participating in violence at the so-called Unite the Right melee in Charlottesville last year. He also attended the far-right “Mother of All Rallies” in Washington, D.C., last year. Ritchie has publicly admitted his desire to commit political violence and leftist activists familiar with Ritchie told me he has exhibited stalking behavior. He has also threatened journalists at the Texas Observer with violence.
Antonio Foreman, who attended Unite the Right with alt-right personality Tim “Baked Alaska” Gionet, was also at the rally. Foreman is frequently spotted at alt-right events and has been at the scene of violent clashes between protest groups. Last year, he was hospitalized after he was stabbed during a confrontation in a parking garage. His attackers were charged with attempted murder.
Sennett also captured photos of a t-shirt inscribed with “Wotan mit uns”—a play on the Nazi slogan “Gott mit uns” (God is with us). “Wotan” is the German name for the pagan god Odin, which some white nationalists venerate. The shirt was also adorned with an eagle rendered in the style of Nazi iconography.
There were gobs more of right-wing extremist symbolism on-site at the rally. I witnessed handfuls of Three Percenter logos, one flying proud on a flag. Toese and others wore t-shirts that read “Pinochet did nothing wrong,” referring to the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who imprisoned and tortured—and frequently murdered—tens of thousands of his liberal political detractors.
There were also handfuls of neo-Confederate demonstrators, including “The Hiwaymen,” a group of pro-Confederates affiliated with the Three Percenters movement and led by Billy Session of Arkansas. One activist held a flag that faded between an American flag and a Confederate flag. In a Facebook post after the rally, Session admitted that one picture of weapons confiscated by Portland police officers “was all Hiwaymen gear.” In a video uploaded that night, Session said that the “real racism” came from anti-fascists across from the Patriot Prayer rally.
“They look down upon us because we’re white and we’re from the fucking South. If you want to talk real racism, there it was,” Session said in the video. “Maybe they’re white-people-aphobes.”
— PDX Mike Bivins (@itsmikebivins) August 4, 2018
But the clusters of extremists easily blended into the scene at the rally, where at one point participants danced along to the Cupid Shuffle. For clueless bystanders, it could be difficult to understand why thousands of people would put on masks and spend a perfectly good Saturday screaming, “Nazi punks, fuck off” at a crowd of Trump supporters gathering in prayer circles.
‘A-C-A-B! All Cops Are Bastards!’
When Patriot Prayer rally-goers finally arrived in Portland to begin their rally, they were met by thousands of anti-fascist protesters. Alongside the masked anti-fascist protesters that people often imagine when they think of “Antifa,” there were also union members, a makeshift marching band, church groups, concerned mothers and other Portland civilians. One such mom told me she was on the sidewalk to protest Patriot Prayer for her son, who is a toddler, because “he has to grow up in this world.”
“Antifa shouldn’t have to face these people on their own,” she said.
Protesters held signs commemorating Heather Heyer, who was killed by a white supremacist at the Charlottesville white nationalist melee, as well as other victims of violence at the hands of fascists.
“We remember Charlottesville! You got Heather Heyer killed!” the anti-fascist protesters chanted at one point during the rally. Others yelled at police and shamed them for using militaristic force to defend people who, counter-protesters told me, threaten the most vulnerable members of their community.
“A-C-A-B! All cops are bastards!” some protesters chanted.
When attendance reached a peak in the morning, Gibson led the rally-goers north along the park perimeter to taunt the anti-fascist demonstrators across the street. When it became apparent the group would not be able to exit the park on the north end, the group headed south.
Once the groups reached the underpass of the Hawthorn Bridge, tensions flared further.
“Black Lives MAGA!” a Proud Boy screamed at Black Lives Matter protesters gathered under the bridge; other rally attendees held him back from fighting. Portlander Wes Worrells, who was holding a sign protesting Patriot Prayer, said under his breath, “Brother, you’re lost.”
Patriot Prayer leaders demanded that police let them exit the park’s south end to march, even though they did not have a permit. Minutes later, police used violent force to clear the area for the far-right demonstrators.
Around 2 p.m., the Portland Police Bureau announced on a loudspeaker that anti-fascist protesters would need to move west, away from the Patriot Prayer rally. Over a loudspeaker, police announced they had reports of weapons held by anti-fascism protesters. (The police never made a similar announcement regarding Patriot Prayer supporters, although officers did confiscate some weapons from the group.)
The anti-fascists didn’t budge. Then, seemingly unprovoked, police fired flash-bang grenades toward the crowd and charged toward protesters with a mix of batons, rubber bullets, pepper spray, and more flash-bangs, to the cheers of Patriot Prayer supporters. There is now video footage circulating in which Portland police officers seem concerned about squad cars parked within the anti-fascist crowd.
Video shows when @PortlandPolice unloaded munitions, apparently unprovoked, into the anti-racist protest march yesterday while they were protecting #PatriotPrayer and #ProudBoys.
In order of shots fired, shooters were Officers Flippo & Caler #AllOutPDXhttps://t.co/E1raAbOi60 pic.twitter.com/L0C3Jw5HGF
— Unicorn Riot (@UR_Ninja) August 5, 2018
One of those flash-bangs reportedly struck an anti-fascist protester’s head. Photos show the round lodged in the back of his helmet, which seems to have prevented a potentially fatal strike. I personally witnessed police aiming flash-bang grenade launchers directly at anti-fascist protesters, and saw a cop shove a woman who was yelling at them for their use of force. One flash-bang landed just feet from where I was standing and briefly disoriented me.
CW: very graphic.
My comrade was shot in the back of the head by @PortlandPolice today. He was hit with the very first flash bang the cops shot. Make no mistake this was an act of aggression and there will be hell to pay @tedwheeler #defendpdx #AllOutPDX pic.twitter.com/oSHqhpyzfC
— Dimestore Guevara (@wherestherevolt) August 5, 2018
After the initial police charge, some counter-protesters threw projectiles at the riot cops, one of which struck an Oregonian reporter. Police proceeded to use anti-riot rounds to force anti-fascist protesters through the city, further away from Patriot Prayer supporters. Police declared a civil disturbance and said protesters who did not vacate the area would be arrested.
The police attack has provoked widespread condemnation. In a statement to the Associated Press on Sunday night, David Rogers of the Oregon ACLU chapter said, “The Portland Police Bureau’s response to protest is completely unacceptable in a free society. The repeated use of excessive force, and the targeting of demonstrators based on political beliefs are a danger to the First Amendment rights of all people. We call on the Portland Police Bureau, Mayor Wheeler, and Chief Outlaw to immediately end the use of weapons, munitions, and explosives against protesters.”
Portland Police Bureau chief Danielle Outlaw has ordered an investigation into the use of force at the rally. I have been unable to track down any reporters on the scene who witnessed anti-fascists attacking police prior to the police using force against them.
At separate points in the day, anti-fascist protesters reportedly attacked Patriot Prayer members exiting a transport bus. Another video shows an anti-fascist protester striking a man with what appears to be a pole, sending him to the ground clenching his head. Other reporters witnessed Proud Boys unloading bear mace at anti-fascist protesters.
Proud Boys in a truck just sprayed bear mace at antifa blocking their way, leaving a street full of coughing, tearing people behind pic.twitter.com/nt6uEYREAK
— Brendan O’Connor (@_grendan) August 4, 2018
After the rally, Baum and other POPMOB activists were working with activists who were providing jail support for anti-fascist protesters arrested by Portland Police. In a brief conversation by phone, she told me that they viewed the day as a success because it demonstrated law enforcement’s coddling of right-wing extremists and disdain for the left.
“I can honestly not even imagine why they think that they won. They may have succeeded in being able to have their march because there was violence and oppression by the Portland Police Bureau that was targeted at the left so that they were able to have their march. They could see that as a victory, but we don’t see that as anything surprising because that’s just another day in Portland with our PPB targeting the left,” Baum said.
Citing the police action against anti-fascist protesters, Patriot Prayer supporters were quick to claim victory—not just for its group. It was “a big win for America,” Tiny Toese said.
“The cops did their job, and thank God for that,” he said to the Patriot Prayer group when the rally began to wind down in the afternoon.
As I was leaving, I overheard one Patriot Prayer rally attendee ask of two uniformed men on the other side of the park, “Are those cops over there? I want to go shake their hands.”