Joey Gibson and Patriot Prayer: The Westboro Baptist Church of the Alt Right

About Spencer Sunshine

Joey Gibson is a Far Right activist who, since March 2017, has made a name for himself by organizing confrontational rallies in liberal enclaves on the West Coast that have frequently descended into violence. Based in Vancouver, Washington (located across the Columbia River from Portland, Oregon) Gibson organizes events under the name Patriot Prayer. He draws support from the Patriot movement, the Alt Right and fascists, homophobic Christian nationalists, and right-wing bikers. Patriot Prayer is the Alt Right version of the Westboro Baptist Church—they purposely antagonize people they perceived as opponents by engaging in public protests at sensitive times, and then in turn portray their targets as intolerant. Patriot Prayer has gone to the Bay Area in California; Portland, Oregon; and Seattle and Olympia, Washington.

Joey Gibson (bottom left) posing with Identity Evropa organizer Jacob Von Ott on Sunday 8/6/17.

While white nationalists are constant fixtures at Gibson’s rallies, his own views seem to be fairly moderate compared to other Alt Right figures. He has libertarian views about dismantling the federal government, informed by conspiracist Alex Jones; Christianity strongly pervades his political vision; and he is deeply Islamophobic, claiming Islam is “ideology” and not a religion. One of his main political talking points hinges on focusing on “antifa” (antifascists) while casting them in the role of the old anti-Communist conspiracies, and more generally Gibson is fixated on baiting leftists and so-called “Social Justice Warriors.” Gibson has been a strong Trump supporter but more recently has downplayed this in an attempt to appeal to Democrats, portraying Patriot Prayer more as a populist movement for cultural change. And despite the frequent presence of white nationalists at his rallies, Gibson identifies as a person of color (he is Japanese-American), and some of those he works with are as well. They include Tusitala “Tiny” Toese, who is from American Samoa and is almost always seen at Gibson’s side in public.

Gibson’s first political event was the July 2016 Republican National Convention, and that fall he appeared at pro-Trump rallies in Washington state. He is reported to have attended a counter-protest against the large protest at the Portland airport in January 2017 opposing Trump’s Muslim travel ban. There he accompanied an intensely homophobic group, the Hell Shaking Street Preachers, who frequently oppose left-wing demonstrations in Portland. On March 4, as part of the nationwide March4Trump marches, Gibson appeared at the Lake Oswego rally (a suburb of Portland), alongside 3%ers and a Ku Klux Klan grand wizard. There, clashes broke out with counter-protesters.

On April 2, 2017, Gibson held a march in Vancouver, Washington which was attended by the Hell Shaking Street Preachers and 3%ers. Rose City Antifa reports that they were joined by the Tacoma, Washington motorcycle club American Freedom, as well white supremacist recruiters.

On April 15, Gibson travelled to Berkeley, California for the third clash of the year there between anti-fascists and Alt Right activists. There Gibson joined the Oath Keepers and a range of Alt Right activists. He was photographed helping self-proclaimed fascist activist Robert Boman escape from a fight.

On April 29, Gibson held a “March for Free Speech” in Portland’s Montavilla neighborhood. This was in response to an annual parade on 82nd Avenue which was cancelled after an anonymous threat. The event was attended by members of the KKK and Identity Evropa, as well as Jeremy Christian, who was excluded from the parade for his conduct, which included sieg heiling and yelling “fuck all you ni**ers.” Christian was recorded shaking hands with Identity Evropa organizer Jake Ott, a frequent attendee of Gibson’s rallies. Christian later was arrested for allegedly murdering two men on May 26, who intervened against his racist and Islamophobic tirade against two young women on mass transit.

Jake Ott shaking hands with Jeremy Christian at Gibson’s Montavilla rally. Soon after Christian was arrested for a double murder of two men who intervened against his Islamophobic and racist tirade on public transit. (Source: Rose City Antifa)

At this point, Gibson started appearing more frequently at provocative marches, including in Seattle on May Day, and in downtown Portland on May 13. Gibson had been using the name American Freedom Keepers for his group, but after an internal feud, other members left and registered the name as an LLC. Gibson then took the name Warriors For Freedom for his group (not to be confused with another group using the same name).

Patriot Prayer’s map of antagonistic appearances.

Gibson had received a permit for a June 4 rally in downtown Portland before Christian’s alleged double murder, and despite widespread condemnation, refused to cancel the rally. Thousands of people showed up to protest. Gibson was joined by a variety of Far Right actors, including the Oath Keepers (including leader Stewart Rhodes) and 3%ers; fascists from Traditionalist Worker Party, Identity Evropa, and Cascade Legion; and Alt Right activists, including the Proud Boys and Kyle “Based Stickman” Chapman. At the rally, Rhodes swore in Gibson’s associate Toese as an Oath Keeper. Toese—as well as American Freedom Keeper Todd Kelsay—were both photographed assisting police arrest a counterprotestor.

Gibson then went to Seattle for the June 10 “Anti-Sharia Law” rally held by the Islamophobic group ACT for America. On June 15 he went to Evergreen College in Olympia to antagonize students in the aftermath of a controversial day in which white people were asked to not go to on to the campus, and the subsequent shuttering of the campus after a mass shooting threat. There, Gibson was pepper sprayed and his car tires were slashed.

On June 30 and August 6, Gibson held more provocative marches at Portland’s Waterfront Park. At the latter, antifascists and Gibson’s followers (including Oath Keepers, 3%ers, and Identity Evropa) attacked each other while police stood by without intervening until the very end. Toese was eventually arrested for his participation in the brawls. Gibson was photographed posing with Identity Evropa’s Ott.

National attention became fixated on Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12, when street-fighting between antifascists and members of the fascist-led “Unite the Right” rally was followed by a car attack on an anti-racist march which left one dead and 19 injured. Gibson had a “Freedom Rally” scheduled the next day in Seattle and true to form Gibson did not cancel it. Over a thousand counter-protesters came, but police kept the two sides divided. On stage, Gibson said, “Fuck white supremacists! Fuck neo-Nazis!” and even invited a Black Lives Matter activist to speak.

On August 26 he attempted to hold a rally in Crissy Field in San Francisco; the rally was to feature Chapman, who by then had been arrested for felony assault, but made his $135,000 bail in time to attend. Post-Charlottesville Alt Right rallies had been swamped by large anti-racist counter-protests, but Gibson refused to back down, despite being denounced by the mayor and even U.S. Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). She had released a statement calling Gibson’s event “a white supremacist rally,” saying “I am deeply alarmed by the hateful and dangerous nature of the event, its timing so soon after the horrors in Charlottesville,” and asking the National Park Service to reconsider the rally permit. Gibson attempted to discourage his usual followers, writing on the Facebook event that “No extremists will be allowed in. No Nazis, Communist, KKK, Antifa, white supremacist, I.E. [Identity Evropa], or white nationalists.”

Gibson finally cancelled the rally the day before, claiming he was being “set up” by authorities. He then attempted to move it to another location, before settling for a press conference outside of the city in suburban Pacifica. The next day, Gibson and Toese attended a Berkeley “March Against Marxism” in a downtown park, where they were chased away by antifascists; police arrested them in order to keep them safe from the crowd. An outpouring of negative press against antifascists occurred after incidents that day.

Gibson is set to return to Portland, Oregon on September 10, 2017 for what he is calling a “Peaceful Portland Freedom March.” After the Berkeley incident, Gibson has changed the focus of the march several times. He has billed it at different times and places as a benefit for Oregon wildfire victims; looked for people who will be willing to be attacked by counter-protestors; and is now bringing in a defender of Confederate memorials to speak.

Members of Gibson’s Warriors for Freedom have also branched out beyond the Pacific Northwest. According to the Guardian, John Beavers, who was involved in the April 15 Berkeley fight, was “given a commemorative portrait of Donald Trump by a Republican political operative who worked on the president’s election campaign.” Beavers, Toese, and Jeremiah Dustin Harrington travelled to New York City for a rally against Muslim feminist Linda Sarsour on May 25, where Harrington was arrested. And a number of New York City Alt Right activists have attended West Coast Patriot Prayer events, including Modern Patriots organizer Jovi Val (Jovanni Valle), who accompanied Gibson at his recent Bay Area event.

Gibson is one of many charismatic people, usually in their 20s and 30s, who have realized the Alt Right moment allows them to make their own videos and attain mass audiences. An unknown before March 2017, he has propelled himself to prominence. Like many people who have attached themselves to the Alt Right, Gibson has fuzzily defined Far Right politics and a willingness to collaborate with the most bigoted elements of society, while simultaneously claiming that it is the Left that is filled with hatred and intolerance. Guardian journalist Jason Wilson has said that Gibson as “pretty good at stump speeches, and he’s an engaging and charismatic guy,” and Gibson harnesses his personality to his own ill-defined beliefs, a continual casting of himself as a victim, a penchant for street fighting, and a willingness to collaborate with white supremacists in order to promote his own toxic brand of intolerance and bigotry.

 

Spencer Sunshine, Ph.D. (associate fellow) researches the Patriot movement, unorthodox fascist currents, left/right crossover movements, and left-wing antisemitism. He is the lead author of the 2016 report Up In Arms: A Guide to Oregon’s Patriot Movement, which is a collaboration between PRA and Oregon’s Rural Organizing Project. Follow him on Twitter at @transform6789.