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Idealistic ‘freedom fighter’ Joey Gibson offers inner circle a kind of kinship

Patriot Prayer leader, those in his orbit find a sense of purpose, camaraderie in violent right-wing extremism

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Joey Gibson, leads supporters in prayer on the steps of the Capitol Building in Salem, Ore. following the conclusion of a flag waving rally in October 2017. Gibson, the leader of Patriot Prayer, is extremely active on social media, where he has attracted a large following.
Joey Gibson, leads supporters in prayer on the steps of the Capitol Building in Salem, Ore. following the conclusion of a flag waving rally in October 2017. Gibson, the leader of Patriot Prayer, is extremely active on social media, where he has attracted a large following. (Kit MacAvoy /Pamplin Media Group) Photo Gallery

March 14: A bar, Vancouver

Carmen Estel comes around the shuffleboard table and leans in. “You see this?” She uses her glass to point to her boyfriend. “This is hanging out with Joey.”

Joey Gibson, 35, the founder of Patriot Prayer, is standing at a table by himself, on his phone.

“He’s always off answering Facebook messages, texts,” Estel says. “He’s constantly stimulated.”

Gibson walks over to me. He wants to shoot pool.

As we play, Steve Drury and Russell Schultz are sitting at a table together, watching Estel and a friend play shuffleboard. Drury and Schultz are Gibson’s friends and informal lieutenants in Patriot Prayer.

Schultz gathers “intelligence” and offers Gibson counsel. Drury is an enforcer, a big man who stands next to Gibson at rallies, offering consequences to anyone who tries to touch their leader. Drury stepped into the void that Tusitala “Tiny” Toese left when he quit the group and fled to American Samoa amid assault charges.

Gibson asks me about my goals in life. He’s sizing me up. I ask him the same question.

Band of others: Patriot Prayer and Joey Gibson

Joey Gibson, leader of Patriot Prayer. Spectators drawn to Portland street brawls
Tom McCall Waterfront Park, Portland The summer of protest is coming to an end.
Patriot Prayer leader Joey Gibson, center, leads a protest in Portland in December 2017, a week after an undocumented Mexican resident of San Francisco was acquitted of the murder of Kate Seinle. It drew activists from both political extremes, including Kerry Hudson, left, who can be found at many Patriot Prayer rallies and Luis Enrique Marquez, right, a prominent anti-fascist protester. Patriot Prayer – the new face of ‘nativist bigotry’
Steven Stroud is sitting across from me, opening a bag of Reese’s Pieces, in the visiting room of a prison in Oregon that has been…

“It’s been a weird journey,” Gibson says. “I could go through the talking points, which I’m sure you’ve heard.”

I have. Gibson wants you to know he’s for freedom. “Gibson for freedom” is the name of his website. It’s also the name of the campaign committee during his failed U.S. Senate run last year. Gibson is for FREEDOM, the way Gillette is the BEST a man can get, and McDonald’s is LOVIN’ it.

“I really do, honestly, I really do want to promote freedom,” Gibson says. “But at the end of the day, what I really want to do…”

I lean in, to hear what he really wants to do.

“I want to inspire people to just stand up for what they believe in,” Gibson says. “I just want to be that symbol.”

I nod. I tell him what his girlfriend said about needing to be constantly stimulated. Gibson thinks about it.

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Over the past year, Sergio Olmos, a reporter for online news site Underscore, has been following the Vancouver group Patriot Prayer, meeting with its organizers, supporters and detractors, in an effort to better understand a dynamic that has rocked Portland for the last few years. Over the coming months, the Portland Tribune and The Columbian will be carrying his stories. Part 1 of the series was published Aug. 15. All of the stories can be found online at underscore.news.

“Yeah, true,” he says, chalking his pool stick. “So, the problem is, I was asleep for a long time, I was in a slumber.

“I’ve always wanted to do things, make change for the world. But I wasn’t.

“I went through this period … I was out wandering around not doing anything. Or I’d be at a friend’s house just watching TV.

“I used to watch TV for five, six hours a day, be homeless, just not do anything,” Gibson says.

“I was literally living in the woods. I broke into a restaurant. Stole food. I’m a felon. I got my gun rights back like three years ago.

“Finally, I woke and I started to do what I can to make change. Now, from when I wake up to go to bed, I want to have some sort of influence on the world.

“I can’t watch TV, I can’t do that anymore,” Gibson says. “I can’t, I don’t know. Like playing pool.”

We look at the table. “I don’t enjoy it like I used to. It’s more of a distraction.”

It’s almost a heart-to-heart moment and, like a lot of Gibson rhetoric, it sounds sincere. But it’s what he leaves out that gives him away.

Clark County court records show that in January 2002, Gibson admitted that he broke a window and entered the Old Fashion Maid Drive-in in Camas after hours. He stole $1,450 in checks and cash. He was charged with burglary in the second degree, pleaded guilty to theft in the second degree and was ordered to undergo an evaluation for treatment of substance abuse.

The court documents make no mention of food.

May 15: A bowling alley, Vancouver

Steve Drury is sitting in a bowling alley. It’s the kind of place that seems to resent the times it’s in.

We’re sitting in a corner booth in the bar section. Drury has a ZZ Top-style white beard and a leather biker cap. He is a convicted felon, serving two years for money laundering after defrauding more than 50 used-car dealerships in a subprime loan scheme. He’s here to tell me he’s no longer with Patriot Prayer; he’s done with all of it.

“I’m going back to work,” Drury says.

“One of my biggest motivations for getting involved: I wanted to know what was real.”

To see, or feel? I ask.

“Yeah, see, feel.

“I’m of the opinion that you feel things way different in real life than you do over that internet,” Drury says.

“I wanted to stand there, see what was going down and see what was real,” Drury says. “Almost like a reporter, but I wanted to add a little something to the spice, you know?”

I ask him if, in the end, he felt something real.

“None of it is real. It’s all WWE, man,” Drury says, referencing professional, scripted wrestling.

“Everybody’s milking it, man,” Drury says. “Everybody’s grifting it on both sides.”

I ask him how Gibson makes money.

“He has the camera in his hand, walks up, ‘Hey, look where I’m at,'” Drury says. ” ‘Oh, somebody took it in the face with a rock, donate.’ ‘Hey, man, somebody did this, donate, donate,’ ” Drury says.

He hands me a laminated flyer, a black-and-white image of Jews in the concentration camps overlaid with a Biblical quotation, like a Facebook meme made tangible.

“Joey has some serious abilities that he’s aware of to attract people to him,” Drury says. “But he lacks something, and he knows it.” He points to Timothy 3:1-5, a passage he says now explains how he’s come to see Gibson.

“There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive …”

I look up from reading.

“I gave it to him months ago,” Drury says.

I keep reading.

“… ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God … having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.”

Drury explains Gibson is not “the type of person that can say, ‘Oh, you’re hungry today, let me give you my lunch.’ ”

Drury orders a $3 iced tea; he tips $2.

Brad Galloway knows how groups like Patriot Prayer draw people. For 13 years, he led the Canadian chapter of Volksfront, a violent neo-Nazi gang founded in Portland.

“They’re seeking belonging, identity,” Galloway says. “There’s this sense of loneliness, especially in this age of the internet, sitting around hour upon hour, in echo chambers online. And they find (their identity) in the collective identity of the group.”

Galloway now works with groups like Life After Hate, a Chicago-based nonprofit that helps people leave white supremacy groups.

Galloway warns that, for some followers, it’s not just a club or WWE. “There’s still firm believers out there,” he says. Groups like Patriot Prayer, he says, “cause fear, division and create controversy, violence in communities.

“There’s nothing wrong with having political leanings, this way or that way,” Galloway says. “But if the nucleus of the group is violent, it’s something else.”

June 29: Pioneer Courthouse Square, Portland

“Do you see that?” asks Miguel Lowry. He’s standing at the corner of Pioneer Courthouse Square, squinting to see if the black mass in the distance is antifa — the black clad group of anti-fascists. A few blocks away, the trees outside Tiffany & Co. are shading the sidewalk, creating a black spot in the distance. “Is it moving?” Lowry asks. It is not.

“I’m gonna go check it out,” Lowry says, walking toward shadows that he thinks are his enemy.

Lowry hasn’t been listening to the speeches; he’s been on self-assigned patrols all afternoon. His first Patriot Prayer rally was in 2017, when he was riding the light rail downtown and saw Trump supporters marching.

“I wanted to know what it was about,” Lowry says. He wandered in and has been coming back ever since.

“It was like coming to church,” Lowry says. “They invited me to dinner afterward.”

There he goes, moving around the perimeter of Pioneer Square, with a purpose.

March 14: A bar, Vancouver

Russell Schultz is telling me how he met Gibson, as Gibson listens. Schultz says he followed the Patriot Prayer founder on the internet and interacted with his post.

“I’ve never heard this story,” Gibson says, laughing.

Schultz recalled getting a Facebook message from Gibson. “He said, ‘Dude, you have a lot of potential.’ You know, ‘Thanks for your input,’ ” Schultz says.

Then Schultz showed up to a march and saw Gibson in real life.

“I went up and introduced myself to him. He doesn’t know who I was. He was like, ‘Yeah, yeah. Whatever. Cool, nice to meet you.’ And then we had our march, had a good time. We just kept doing it,” Schultz says.

“And that’s also a good example of antifa pushing people together,” Gibson says, clinking his glass with Schultz’s. “Like camaraderie. Because they try to shut down the entire march.”

Schultz now lives with Gibson in northeast Vancouver. All three of the Patriot Prayer men — Gibson, Drury and Schultz — are unemployed at this moment. “Only once in a while, we’ll have different opinions on how to do stuff,” Schultz says. “He’s the ultimate decision-maker, it’s his name on the line, not me. I can fade off in the sunset and nobody will remember who I was. He doesn’t have that luxury.”

Standing in a circle nearby, with drinks of their own, is a group celebrating. A local high school football coach got his state championship ring tonight. The father of the coach wanders into the Patriot Prayer circle, creating a Venn diagram of conversation. He’s talking to Gibson and his girlfriend, Estel, about football. Schultz tells the man that Gibson once coached football. Gibson seems a little embarrassed by that. The father asks about it. Gibson admits he was an assistant coach and then changes the conversation.

“Are you for the Second Amendment?” Gibson asks.

“What?” the father says, not hearing.

“The Second Amendment.”

“What is that?”

“Gun rights,” Estel says.

“Oh, gun rights.” The father understands now. “Yes. I own several.”

They talk about guns. The man served in the 1960s. “I fired every gun in the military,” he says.

“You ever killed anyone?” Gibson asks.

The man takes it in stride. He chuckles. “I hope I didn’t; I may have,” he says. “Did you serve?”

“No,” Gibson says in a clipped tone.

It’s a strange moment for Gibson, who seems not to be enjoying this.

The father begins to excuse himself, thanking the group for the conversation.

“You ever heard of Joey Gibson?” Schultz asks.

Someone interrupts and says, “What’s a Joey Gibson?”

“He’s a freedom fighter,” Estel says. “He fights for our constitutional rights.”

“Oh,” the veteran says.

I look at Gibson; he seems happy to let his followers peacock for him.

The man’s son, the football coach, joins the circle, seeming to want to diplomatically bring his dad back to their circle. It’s the coach’s night, but his body language is less jubilee and more suspicion, like he just stumbled into a group of teens smoking cigarettes behind the gym.

“You ever heard of a guy named Joey Gibson, Portland troublemaker?” Schultz asks the coach.

“No,” the coach says. “But I been here for like three years, so …” he adds, offering them a way to save face.

They engage him in conversation, anyway, asking him where he played football in college.

After they leave, Gibson sits there quietly, he looks like somebody just told him his freedom movement is to patriotism what “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” is to policing.

“Did talking to that guy mess you up?” I ask.

“It didn’t mess me up,” Gibson says. A moment passes.

“I miss football so much.”

I ask what about seeing that coach made him miss football.

“I think the biggest thing is that I can tell … he’s for the boys, he’s for the guys he’s coaching, he’s not for himself, you know…. He’s for the higher cause, and that’s what I miss.”

“How is that different from what you’re doing now?” I ask.

“Football, there’s a lot more love. I don’t know what it is about politics, but even the people who say they are your friends … um, like they probably aren’t your friends.”

“What about these guys?” I say, nodding my head at Drury and Schultz, who are talking to Estel.

“They’re my friends,” Gibson says. “In the beginning, the circle was too big, I didn’t narrow it down and stuff. I saw the brotherhood, but in football you bleed together.”

What about all the bloodshed at rallies?

“So, at a rally, you show up, right, and you, yeah, when you bleed together over and over again, you build that camaraderie, like the way I did with Tiny,” Gibson says.

(Ten days earlier, “Tiny” Toese announced on social media that he would return from American Somoa to face his charges, but as this story went to press, he hasn’t shown up.)

June 29: Pioneer Courthouse Square, Portland

Antifa is across the street. “Don’t go over there,” Schultz says to Haley Adams, a Patriot Prayer devotee who spun off to form her own group called Portland’s Liberation.

“I kind of want to,” Adams says, putting her finger on her lips. She asks a couple more people what they think. Schultz is trying to tell her that the rally won’t be peaceful if she walks into the antifa crowd.

“Joey sent me to make sure the Proud Boys don’t push Haley around,” Schultz tells me, a little frustrated that Adams is itching for confrontation.

March 14: A bar, Vancouver

I ask Russell Schultz a hypothetical: If the government found a way to make bullets cost $35,000 each, would that violate the Second Amendment?

Schultz is excited and, like a little brother, turns to Gibson, but Gibson is looking away.

“But, but … does that violate the Second Amendment? That’s the question,” Schultz says in earnest. “I don’t know. I haven’t been able to reason that one yet. Because, because….

“A lot of things violate the Second Amendment,” Gibson says, trying not to get sucked in.

“Right, but you can…” Schultz mutters something under his breath about a special ammunition, and then almost to himself says, “There’s so much open for litigation.”

“It’s about infringement,” Gibson says, annoyed.

“It is about infringement,” Schultz says, like a professor debating a colleague on stage. “But what is infringement?” Gibson is uninterested. “And so, I need a defense for…”

A karaoke singer has launched into “The Way I Am” by Eminem.

“I need, I need, I need, I need an argument to defend myself from their argument. I need to counter their argument; how do I counter their argument?” Schultz is excited.

“Infringe,” Gibson says slowly.

“Great, but it’s deeper than that,” Schultz says, not realizing that Gibson wants to move to another table and talk to someone else. “We, we have to go back and define what ammunition is. Does ammunition count as a firearm? As in arms? Is it arms?” Schultz says, almost in soliloquy.

“How do you fire a gun without ammo?” Gibson says.

“Exactly!’

“Infringe,” Gibson says, intending to end the discussion.

A moment later.

“OK, so you’re saying that ammunition is arms?”

“Infringe, on your rights,” Gibson says.

Schultz starts speculating on a way to separate the bullets from the casing.

“What? What are you …”

“Because it’s part of the argument,” Schultz says, cutting him off.

“No, it’s infringement.”

“I know. But …”

“How do you fire a gun without ammo?”

“Right. It’s like, how do you sling a rock without a slingshot, right?”

“That’s ridiculous,” Gibson says, and walks away.

June 29: Pioneer Courthouse Square, Portland

I see Steve Drury at the Haley Adams protest. He nods in the direction of Schultz and the two men talk. He jokes that there’s a truce for the day.

This is Drury, who in April walked away from Patriot Prayer. Who said Gibson and antifa were using these WWE-style events to swindle their followers. Who told me that none of it was real. Who said he was done with all of it.

“What are you doing here?” I ask.

Drury laughs.

“How else can a 56-year-old man have this much fun?”

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