Vancouver’s Joey Gibson always paid some attention to politics but had little practical interest in the process. Then he took to the streets outside the Republican National Convention in Cleveland last summer.
There, the leader of the Patriot Prayer online community-slash-movement, whose organizing and activism has garnered national headlines after recent clashes on college campuses and the streets of Portland, was caught on camera tearing up a demonstrator’s anti-police cardboard sign.
“Why would you destroy my property?” asked the man, who was wearing a T-shirt that read “F*** the police.”
Because Gibson, 33, was fired up. But then he felt bad for ripping up the sign.
He handed the guy a $20 bill, and the interaction ended with a handshake.
Now, a year later, Gibson said he is still evolving as an activist and organizer. On Facebook videos and YouTube, he preaches “Hatred is a disease.” He counts the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. among his political heroes. He once invited a transgender person to speak at one of his rallies because he said it’s time all people were accepted.
Yet trouble seems to follow his activism.
Most recently, fighting broke out as marchers with Gibson met with protesters Friday at Tom McCall Waterfront Park in Portland, during the Waterfront Blues Festival.
He took a tossed can and a blast of pepper spray to the head, and saw his tires slashed, when he and others rallied June 15 at The Evergreen State College in Olympia. Police arrested eight people at an April 1 pro-Trump rally in downtown Vancouver, when militant left organizations and others came to counterprotest. Jeremy Christian, accused of killing two men who moved to defend two teen girls, one of whom is Muslim, on a Portland MAX train, was ejected from one of his rallies.
Following the killings, Gibson and others went ahead with a “free speech” rally in Portland on June 4, which prompted so much consternation the mayor asked him to hold off. He refused, and 14 were arrested as police clashed with protesters who came to face down Gibson and company.
Gibson called throwing that rally one of the tougher decisions he’s had to make.
Members of conservative nationalist groups, militia organizations and other corners of the so-called alt-right — an amorphous category of online white nationalists, white supremacists, internet trolls and others bothered by “political correctness” and multiculturalism — made appearances that day.
Gibson argued delaying or canceling the formal rally could have meant more trouble. There likely would have been hundreds down there anyway, he said, and with less organization or accountability.
“I truly believed God wanted me to have the rally,” he said. “I do believe the scheduling, the way it was scheduled, happened for a reason.”
In less than a year, Gibson went from political bystander to busy conservative activist, and recently stepped down from his job of flipping homes after protest groups placed his employment information online. Although his rhetoric is peaceful and he spouts messages of love, many argue his organizing has given a platform to others with malicious intent.
He’s unsure why extremists are attaching themselves to him. Some, he thinks, might be looking for a home, or a place to recruit.
“I didn’t do a good enough job of speaking out against it,” he said, adding that when left-wing groups contacted him and pointed out, with photo evidence, specific extremists at his rally, it was an eye-opener.
Jeremy Christian was one of those people. Gibson said he knew nothing about Christian until he showed up at one of his rallies and started to harass people, and he was eventually forced out.
Gibson thinks there might be a loop where he’s denounced as a white supremacist by those trying to discredit him and his efforts, thereby attracting the real white supremacists, white nationalists and other extremists.
Debate over rhetoric
Randy Blazak, who teaches criminology at the University of Oregon, heads the Oregon Coalition Against Hate Crime and has been studying skinheads in the region for more than two decades, said Gibson’s peaceful rhetoric is not unusual.
“There is a language game played on all political fronts. The language game puts your side on the moral high ground,” he said. By those standards, “The KKK is a love group. They don’t hate anybody. They love white people.”
White supremacists and extremists have used the election of Trump to elevate their profiles, he said.
“It’s not your old version of racism,” he said. “It’s a new type of nationalism that shies away from tropes.”
A lot of the rallying around the theme of free speech, such as June 4’s rally, is strategic, Blazak said. It frames these groups as the underdogs. They go places where the right and other conservatives might be outnumbered — college campuses or liberal cities — where they invite hostility and appear as the victim, which garners media attention and helps their cause.
Gibson doesn’t see himself as right-wing, and shuns most political categorization beyond conservative-libertarian. Indeed, Gibson said he’s more interested in attitude and culture than a specific program or policy.
Gibson said he is driven by two forces: freedom and God. But he was also inspired by President Donald Trump. And one of his top goals is to “liberate the conservatives on the West Coast.”
He detests political correctness, said he’s no extremist or white supremacist, and doesn’t hate liberals. Gibson, who is of Japanese descent, has kicked several extremists out of his rallies.
Meeting the opposition at its points of strength, though, is indeed part of his strategy.
The conservative conventional wisdom, he said, is that Portland is a lost cause for them, and he wants to change that.
On the rise
Gibson grew up in Camas, with good parents and strict rules, which didn’t mesh with his rebellious teenage spirit.
After his senior football season, Gibson, a quarterback, got in trouble with the law. There was alcohol, probation violations and a break-in at a restaurant in Washougal.
He spent some time in jail, which led him to dropping out of school. For a time, Gibson was homeless, living in Portland, Seattle, Mexico, Hawaii, and making bad decisions, he said.
Then, one day, Gibson’s former middle school athletic director gave him a call and asked if he’d be willing to coach football.
“For some reason, that moment in time, before I’d even coached that first day, I decided I needed to clean my life up, because I was so excited to do that, but I can’t be around these kids and not be a good example,” he said.
He coached at Skyridge Middle School in Camas, got his high school equivalency diploma, and went to Central Washington University to earn a degree in psychology.
Gibson ended up coaching around the county, and got in on the house-flipping business at the start of the housing market crash.
A break in coaching gigs, he said, helped lead him to activism.
“I’ve always been passionate in terms of politics,” he said. “But it’s always been sitting in my house, complaining like everyone.”
He saw TV coverage of the June 2, 2016, violence at a Trump rally in San Jose, Calif., where protests turned to brawling.
What he saw, he said, was people being discouraged from participating in politics.
“That put a fire in me that I never experienced in my entire life,” he said. “Something changed in me at that moment in time, because at that point I decided that our country is not America anymore, and that was the first time I saw that.”
He booked a ticket for the Republican National Convention, his first time traveling or making a significant investment of time and money for politics.
He camped out and walked around Cleveland for a few days, talking politics.
“I noticed that the left owned the streets, and so I came back committed to getting people involved, to getting people on the street, the libertarian, the conservative,” he said.
The opposition had marches and chants, while the conservatives in Cleveland were there just to watch.
He came home, attached some flags to poles and started marching around Clark County, he said, “Because I didn’t know what to do.”
Over time, the reaction seemed fairly positive, and that prompted him to throw his first rally, in October at Esther Short Park, to stump for Donald Trump.
He started posting videos on Facebook and YouTube, which became the Patriot Prayer page, to promote it.
As things started to pick up, Don Benton, still a state senator from Vancouver and Trump’s state campaign chair, and others signed on to join.
“I had no clue what I was doing. I just wanted to do something and so I just started to do stuff and, you know, learn from my mistakes,” Gibson said.
Outside the parties
Gibson has something in common with antifa and the far left: They operate outside of traditional party politics.
The Washington State Republican Party said it was unfamiliar with Gibson or his activities. Kevin Hoar, communications director at the Oregon GOP, said the party has no formal connection with Gibson, but supported his group’s right to rally in Portland on June 4.
He agrees that the primary source of street-level activism in the Northwest in recent years usually came from the political left.
“However, I should distinguish (Gibson’s work) from the left in that it’s vocal, but not violent,” he said.
What is new, he said, is a movement from the political left to silence Trump supporters and those more Republican-oriented. He compared Gibson to the early days of the Reagan revolution or the Tea Party.
“We’re always subject to these cycles of where there’s a new grass-roots revival or new grass-roots element of the party that eventually becomes part of what the party is,” Hoar said.
Washington State Democratic Party Communications Director Alex Bond decried in an email the growth of the far right and its effect on the GOP.
“We’re definitely very concerned about the rhetoric and actions being taken by Gibson and other extremists, and the violence they are encouraging,” he said, pointing to mounting reports of bias incidents in the Northwest.
“There’s a long American tradition of protests in the street,” he said. “But the violence promoted by Gibson should have no place in our politics. … It’s concerning and bad for American politics for the GOP to be pulled to the extreme right by Gibson and his people.”
Gibson said only a handful of unsavory people have attended his events. He pointed to the June 4 rally. There were liberal-leaning people out protesting his event and his ideology, which, he said, is “what it’s all about.”
“And then you have the anarchists (and) antifa over here, who are throwing stuff at the police, trying to break the law. They’re purposely dressed in all black, covering their faces so they can break the law and then blend into the crowd,” he said. “The liberals need to disown that, they need to get away from that, and we need to get to just protesting.”
It’s an imprecise analogy, Gibson said, but saying his rallies lead to violence because they invite rowdier elements is akin to saying the peaceful diner sit-ins in the Jim Crow era were incitement.
“There’s nothing wrong with us having a rally, there’s nothing wrong with us marching,” he said. “So their action is on them.”
Gibson, who’s married with two young children, said he’s unsure how long he’ll go as an activist.
“I don’t worship Trump. I don’t worship politicians, because I don’t trust them,” he said.
He’s quick to note his speeches aren’t especially Trump-centric. If four years pass and Trump doesn’t live up to his promises, he said he’ll be deeply disappointed. His hope is others will start taking up his mantle.
“This could end any day now, really. I don’t have any huge ambition. I would really like to see other people stand up and to start doing their own thing,” he said.
But with that, there’s still some disconnect between expectation and reality.
“That’s the angle really. 2018 is going to be huge. I don’t know how we’re going to be involved with the elections but we will be. We’ll see how that goes.”