“THERE HAVE DEFINITELY been a couple of times where I walked away from one our rallies and thought: Was that bad for the country? Did I just make things worse?”
This is not what I’d expected to hear from Joey Gibson, the founder of the Portland-based far-right group Patriot Prayer, when he agreed to let me interview him last year.
“I mean I don’t think that’s true, but I have thought about it a couple of times,” he said sheepishly.
Gibson is of white and Japanese descent. In his early thirties, he has a round, babyish face with a wide smile and a slight tan. His eyes are large, coffee brown and almond shaped, and are constantly shifting to check his surroundings. He has a strong jawline covered with a well-kept black beard, a shaved head, broad shoulders, and a stocky build. In fact, he reminded of the caricatures of soldiers used in video games like Call of Duty. Gibson doesn’t slouch; he walks with his back straight and his head up. He exudes confidence and is a passionate speaker. I can understand why so many people are drawn to him.
When I first met Gibson he was wearing a black trucker hat with a grayscale American flag patch on the front, similar to those sewn onto the tactical uniforms of battlefield soldiers. The same flag adorned the back of his black-hooded jacket, both of his chest pockets, and his left sleeve—the same place I wore mine when I was in Iraq with the Third Brigade of the Eighty-Second Airborne Division. He also sported “Don’t Tread On Me” and “In God We Trust” patches and carried a coyote-brown, military-style backpack. In the army, we called it an assault bag.
“I believe my purpose is to spread the message of free speech and love. No liberal is going to be mad when I talk about freedom, or free speech, or love, or God.”
When I accompanied Gibson and his crew to Seattle, Washington, for the Second Annual Women’s March in January of 2018, they dressed like they were going to war. They wore flak vests and ballistic helmets. Some had detachable, embroidered name tapes attached to hats, jackets, and the like. Of the approximately thirty people in the group, I met just one who was a military veteran like me. (In the army, we had politically incorrect names for guys who liked to deck themselves in all sorts of unnecessary gear. These were the soldiers who never left the big, cushy forward operating bases with their Pizza Huts and Burger Kings. The truth is, when you’re on patrol, conducting a cordon and search or on an overwatch mission, you want to be as light as possible.)
Joining Gibson’s Patriot Prayer were members of the “fraternity of proud Western chauvinists” known as the Proud Boys, led that day by Tusitala “Tiny” Toese. The Proud Boys is a faction of the alt-right listed as a general hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and classified by the Federal Bureau of Investigations as an extremists group with ties to white nationalism, according to an article published by the Guardian this past November. Earlier, in October, members of the Proud Boys were arrested in New York for assault following a speaking engagement at the Metropolitan Republican Club by Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes (who publicly broke with the group following the Guardian piece).
When we arrived at the march, I noticed flyers warning marchers of the presence of Joey Gibson and the “misogynistic Proud Boys” and urging marchers not to engage with them. “Don’t feed the trolls!” the flyers read. Some of the Proud Boys also wore flak vests and the like, and one wore a pin and carried a flag emblazoned with Pepe the Frog, a cartoon meme used by white nationalists but which the Proud Boys claim is not racist. In the spirit of true hipster exceptionalism, they claimed they’re just being “ironic” and “triggering snowflakes” when employing racists tropes.
The Patriot Prayer group and the Proud Boys both shouted overtly misogynistic slurs at the marchers and then screamed “Triggered!” if any woman dared to react. The only real difference between the two was the Proud Boys constantly shouting, “proud of your boy!” and “Uhuru!” intermittently. “Proud of Your Boy” is a song from the stage production of the Disney film Aladdin, and the impetus for the group’s name. The shouting of “Uhuru” comes from a YouTube video featuring well-known queer black activist Gazi Kudzo, who shouts “Uhuru” every time he gets a white person to agree that white people should pay reparations for slavery. Again claiming irony, it seems more akin to mockery.
The Proud Boys say they are pro-West and anti-white guilt. They also claim they’re not racist and have members of all races. As a matter of fact, most deny the existence of racism altogether and say the only reason it persists is because liberals say it exists. They are, however, proclaimed nationalists, anti-immigrant, anti-political correctness, and anti-gay and trans, though they do have some members from the LGBTQ community in their group.
During the Women’s March, the Proud Boys were decidedly inflammatory. Some wore shirts that targeted feminists as “parasites to the patriarchy.” They stole a pink hat off a woman’s head and passed it around like bullies on a playground. They called women fat whores, baby killers, faggots, and dikes. They told them that they only hated Trump because he wouldn’t grab their pussies and occasionally told them to go make a sandwich.
Later that night I drove Gibson to a rally in Portland, Oregon. When I asked him how he felt about the Proud Boys’ earlier escapades, he deflected and told me, “I didn’t hear them say that.” Likewise, when a woman confronted him, saying that one of his group had punched her in the face at his last rally, he told her that he hadn’t seen it and doubted that it had happened. “The Proud Boys respect women,” he said. Gibson told me that the Proud Boys were just there for security, to make sure that Patriot Prayer could spread their message, not to start a fight.
He went on to describe that message and tell me what inspired him to become an activist.
“It wasn’t Trump,” Gibson said, “it was the social justice warriors [SJWs]. I knew how bad the political correctness in America had gotten in terms of the SJWs. How they want to control our speech, and our thoughts, and how they’re brainwashing the public.”
He told me of a news clip he’d seen a year earlier in which a teenage Trump supporter was chased by a crowd outside one of Trump’s rallies in San Jose, California. “I knew things were bad in America, but I didn’t know they were that bad,” he lamented. “There’s something wrong when you start seeing mobs of liberals chasing kids.”
For Gibson this was a call to action. He says it changed his life and gave it purpose. As he talked he became visibly excited, gesticulating with large, sweeping movements. His eyes roamed around the inside of my Ford Flex like he was addressing a crowd. His voice took on a timbre tinged with authority and belief.
“I believe my purpose is to spread the message of free speech and love. No liberal is going to be mad when I talk about freedom, or free speech, or love, or God. One of the things I believe is that God has told me to be a protector of truth. He gave me the image of a lighthouse.”
When I asked him what exactly that meant, he said he was supposed to expose the truth,
To make people see the hypocrisy and the craziness of the liberals and the SJWs. Not with my words but through our actions. Being a lighthouse is basically just standing tall with a very consistent message, no matter how crazy things get. I’m like a beacon for other people who are nearby or watching or listening to the videos. God wants me to preach a certain truth to people and to protect that truth whatever it may be. Especially when we’re surrounded by so many lies in this country.
Despite his talk of love and peace, Gibson’s rallies often erupt into violence. Though he rarely, if ever, openly promotes violence, he draws and allows people into his events who he knows will be violent. In addition to the Proud Boys, Gibson had the SPLC-labeled hate group Oath Keepers conduct security at one of his rallies as well as the anti-government militia group called the Three Percenters. They were the ones in pseudo-military gear carrying AR-15’s across their chests during the “Unite the Right Rally” in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August of 2017—the rally that ended with the murder of thirty-two-year-old Heather Heyer, who was run over by a white supremacist.
I brought up the March 4, 2017, “March 4 Trump” demonstration in Berkeley, California, that turned violent. Members of the alt-right, decked out in faux-military gear, had faced off against members of the anti-fascist group Antifa, who donned their standard uniform of black clothes and covered faces. Though Gibson was present, it wasn’t organized by his group.
“It was like a total war zone,” he recalled. “I was running around, like helping people and stuff and…it was crazy. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Of course, I had seen a war zone during my active duty in Iraq, and I told Gibson that a bunch of people playing dress up and fighting in a field is nothing at all like a war zone.
“Yeah, but that was a huge eye opener for me,” he responded. “Especially the police standdown. It made me committed to go and keep hitting places until the police did their jobs. I felt like the politicians, the mayor, and the city council were using the police as political pawns. They stopped the police from doing their job.”
On May 26, 2017, in Portland, Oregon, fifty-three-year-old war veteran Rick Best, twenty-three-year-old Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, and twenty-one-year-old Micah Fletcher intervened and stopped a man from harassing two young girls on the city’s lightrail train, one of whom wore a hijab. The man they confronted was Jeremy Christian, a self-professed white supremacist who was in town for Gibson’s “Freedom Rally.” Christian stabbed all three men in the neck, killing Best and Namkai-Meche and severely wounding Fletcher.
I wondered how Gibson felt about the death of these two men. He’d held another rally in Portland just one week after the murders. A rally which, again, ended in violence.
“Tell me about Jeremy Christian,” I said. Joey turned to face me with narrowed eyes and a furrowed brow. This was something Joey did not want to discuss.
“Why are we talking about him?” he asked gruffly. “How did we get here?” He rolled his eyes slightly and let out a kind of sigh. “Look,” he said, “I posted a week’s worth of videos against white supremacy, and [neo-Nazi group] Identity Evropa, and identity politics before that march.”
“So, why do you think those people show up?” I asked.
“For the publicity,” he said. “To further their own cause.”
“What about Jeremy Christian?” I asked. “He didn’t have a group. He was just a white supremacist who was attracted to your message. Does it concern you that these are the people who are answering your call, so to speak?”
Gibson repeated that he’d never promoted violence against anybody.
I thought about his “message” of freedom and love that God supposedly gave him. I found it flawed in its reasoning. He says God called him to protect and preach the truth, which is that liberals are crazy. Really? That’s it? With all the horrible things going on in the world right now, is this really what Gibson and his group think God is worried about? Does God simply want to thwart the liberal agenda by making sure that people can have guns and high-capacity magazines for them, that they don’t have to pay too much in taxes, and that they don’t get free college or free health care? Wouldn’t Jesus, if he was real, want people to have free healthcare? He never charged any of the people he is purported to have healed.
To be fair, this is exactly what I believed when I was a Christian. Before I went to war, I heard it said there are no atheists in foxholes, yet I became an atheist in part because I was in a foxhole (technically a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle—same difference).
“What is that you and Patriot Prayer want for the country, Joey? I know you have a message to spread, but what is the point of it? What is the desired outcome?”
Gibson paused for a second, deep in thought. “I guess, in the beginning I was just protesting all of the political correctness and the hate that the SJWs were spewing around the country. This was before Antifa even came into the picture. When I first started carrying my Trump flag, people I didn’t even know started flipping me off and stuff— in my own hometown. That’s when I decided to get it on camera so that people could see the truth and so the country would know that the hate from liberals and SJWs is real. I mean, a lot of these so-called social justice issues just exists inside people’s minds anyway. They’re not real.”
“What about racism?” I asked. “You’re half Japanese. Have you ever experienced any kind of racism or discrimination before?”
“No,” he said assertively, “Not once.”
“Maybe you’re just really lucky,” I said.
“Well, there was one time,” he said. “I was coming out of this cowboy bar and I was wearing a black hooded sweatshirt with the hood up and these guys thought I was black. So they started calling me [the n-word] and stuff. But besides that, no.”
Good thing it’s all in our heads then. I asked him to tell me more about his faith and the role it played in all of this.
“Well, for me, it’s really about building a culture that stops looking at each other and starts looking above. I believe in God and in the Bible, and Jesus, and Satan. And I believe that there are evil forces manifesting themselves within humans to take over this country.”
As a former Christian missionary and ordained Calvary Chapel pastor, I once believed the same. I thought we Christians were in a battle for the literal soul of our country. Our main enemy in this battle was Satan, but as the old priests will tell you, the devil takes many forms. Presently, many Christians believe that the devil is taking the form of the liberals, the left, and the so-called SJWs. Right-wing author and Fox News contributor Ann Coulter broached this subject in her book, Demonic: How the Liberal Mob is Damaging America, when she compared liberals to the mob that asked Pilate to release Barabbas and kill Jesus instead.
Imagine thinking that the people who opposed your political views were actually being used by Satan. How would that affect how you treated them? How far would you go to stop them? How would you portray them?
Hitler’s propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, said: “Propaganda must facilitate the displacement of aggression by specifying and demonizing the targets of hatred.” Presently, we are at a point where liberals are often portrayed as evil idiots with stupid beliefs in things like equality, fighting systemic racism, and treating LGBTQ people like human beings. What if evangelicals ever actually take such suppositions seriously? The earth is filled with the blood of those who religions once called evil.
Gibson often decries the violence of the left. He says that Antifa is a “gang” that “just wants to kill people.” He believes that evil is manifesting itself in fellow Americans who don’t share his beliefs. So when he and his Patriot Prayer supporters say that “evil hates us and hates our freedoms,” they’re giving themselves license to discount, demean, and even harm the opposition.
Or as Gibson puts it, it’s really about “building a culture that stops looking at each other and starts looking above.”