Several dozen right-wing demonstrators rallied at a nearly empty Clark College campus Monday, offering a taste of what’s to come as the group protests on college campuses this week.
Patriot Prayer, led by Joey Gibson of Camas, gathered around the Chime Tower outside of Clark’s Gaiser Hall for speeches opposing Initiative 1639, the gun-safety law before voters this November.
But Gibson’s audience was scarce, as Clark College canceled classes ahead of the demonstration. Instead of students, as Gibson had hoped, he was surrounded by a throng of supporters and Portland and Vancouver media.
After some debate with a handful of counterprotesters, the bulk of the group marched down to the Evergreen Boulevard overpass over Interstate 5, then marched back to campus. About as many police and campus security personnel as demonstrators watched from nearby. Police cars were stationed along the road as the group marched toward the overpass, but did not intervene in demonstrations.
The group plans to demonstrate at Washington State University Vancouver Tuesday and return to Clark College on Wednesday.
“Come back here, because right now, what I’m doing is I’m preaching to the choir,” Gibson told the crowd.
College spokeswoman Hannah Erickson said the college is aware of the second demonstration, but administrators do not plan to cancel classes for a second day.
Steven Cox, a former Vancouver mayoral candidate who in 2017 fatally shot a man in the head after he entered Cox’s backyard, was among the speakers. Cox called himself a “personal expert on self-defense,” saying he’s drawn his firearm three times to defend himself.
Details of the 2017 killing were scarce. Vancouver police did not refer charges against Cox, who told police last October he’d been woken early in the morning by an alleged prowler in his yard. He armed himself and confronted the man, 30-year-old Ryan J. Anderson. The two apparently got in a fight, and Cox shot Anderson.
“For that I am not proud. I was deeply troubled. But I want you to know it is my choice to survive,” Cox said to scattered applause.
Clark College President Bob Knight announced last week the campus would close ahead of the demonstration in light of community safety concerns.
Patriot Prayer events frequently lead to violence as counterprotesters battle group members and the white nationalists and other extremists drawn to Gibson’s rallies. This demonstration remained largely civil, but it at one point devolved into a shouting match between Gibson, his supporters and several counterprotesters in the audience.
Tammy Chalcroft was among those who tried to shout Gibson down, asking him to respond to the violence that accompanies Patriot Prayer demonstrations in downtown Portland. Chalcroft later said she was frustrated that class was canceled.
“It gives them too much power,” she said.
Chalcroft wasn’t the only frustrated student on campus. Agnes Moldovan, a Washington State University Vancouver student, attended the rally to “get the vibe” of what to expect on her campus Tuesday.
Though WSU Vancouver Chancellor Mel Netzhammer said last week that campus would remain open, Moldovan said both her teachers canceled classes. District spokeswoman Brenda Alling said individual professors may decide to cancel classes, though it’s unclear how many have done so.
Moldovan said she didn’t know of any classes being held Tuesday.
She said she generally agrees with Patriot Prayer’s perspective on the gun-safety legislation but worries about the violence the organization’s presence facilitates. She’s frustrated by the disruption of her education.
“I want there to be civil discourse,” she said.
Gibson characterized Monday’s demonstration as a success, saying that the fact the demonstration went smoothly is proof the college and Knight overreacted in closing the school.
“It sends a clear message to the president … that there was no reason to cancel classes,” he said.
Gibson didn’t consider Monday’s event a full-blown Patriot Prayer rally, the kind that have filled the streets of Portland and other cities with supporters and counterprotesters.
“It’s not going to be the same high-octane, adrenaline type of thing,” he said. “It was specific on the thing that we’re there to talk to students, so you’re going to bring in a different crowd.”
Patriot Prayer’s larger events are typically planned for weekends, for one thing, and this week’s demonstrations are more focused on a single issue.
Previous rallies have been ostensibly organized around more amorphous concepts like free expression or support for President Donald Trump, or to goad reaction in typically liberal strongholds, not as much for specific candidates or policy proposals.
Gibson said he’d like the group to be more “reactive” to contemporary events and issues.
“I think it’s a good way to get focused, to get the group focused, and it’s going to bring in different people for different reasons,” he said. “In the beginning, it was really about kind of exposing how crazy things are, but I think we’ve already done that.”
He expected Tuesday’s demonstration at WSU Vancouver, and Wednesday’s return to Clark College, will go largely the same as on Monday.
“We can just sit around, enjoy ourselves and just relax,” he said. “Let students come to us.”