One of the things you notice about Joey Gibson after you observe him for a while is that the cast around him keeps … shifting.
Gibson, founder of the street-brawling group Patriot Prayer, brought his running far-right protest shtick to Seattle on Sunday when the local chapter of the hate group Proud Boys held a “MAGA Rally for Trump” event in the heart of downtown at Westlake Center. Once again, it was a fairly lame affair—only about 35 Proud Boys and their supporters faced with over a hundred counterprotesters— devoted mainly to a few shouted speeches about the “real fascism” in Seattle, followed by a brief march up the Capitol Hill area, followed by shouting antifascists.
There was a handful of familiar faces in the crowd—mostly diehard Patriot Prayer regulars from Gibson’s events in Portland, such as YouTuber Kerry Hudson and Skylor Jernigan, who created waves on social media last year with violent threats. But mostly, this was a fresh crop of Proud Boys and supporters, nearly every one of them from outside Seattle, there to tell the city how much it sucks. Oh, and to support Trump.
Certainly the cast was very different from the one Gibson organized in Seattle over a year ago when he pledged his eternal fealty to the Proud Boys. That, of course, was all before Gibson and the Portland-area Proud Boys had a big falling-out in which both sides were threatening each other, and before Gibson drifted off to try out a new career drumming up “constitutionalist” politics in rural areas.
The one constant in all these protests is Gibson, who preaches a fundamentally incoherent blend of InfoWars-style paranoid far-right politics and evangelical Christianity (on Saturday, he toted about a banner declaring “Jesus Christ: He Is King”) that is delivered with a high energy and zeal that pleases his followers. He’s great at jacking up crowds; however, the organizations he associates with have a history of crumbling apart rancorously, amid accusations of financial misdealings and interpersonal nastiness. His closest pals one week are personae non grata the next.
Saturday’s rally was part of a normalization blitz being put on by far-right activists like Gibson and the Proud Boys, attempting to convince the public that they are just normal, peace-loving conservatives who love America (except for the leftist and liberal parts), the innocent victims of evil violent antifascists. Yet as paltry as their numbers were, what was noticeable about Sunday’s gathering of “Patriots,” for observers who have been to many of these things, was who wasn’t there—both among the Proud Boys and among Joey’s crowd.
One of the Seattle-based Proud Boys who definitely was absent Sunday was a red-haired young man named Sean-Michael Scott, a resident of the Seattle neighborhood of Ballard who was recently outed by Puget Sound Anarchists as a member of the neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen SS and a regular contributor to some of the most vile corners of social media discourse. (Scott’s image was plastered on fliers posted around the Ballard neighborhood.)
Despite his previous presence at numerous Proud Boy events, it was apparently important that he not show—though his associate Zac Staggs, a Capitol Hill-based security guard who was the subject of previous outing, was indeed among the leaders of the crowd Sunday. Staggs has a history of trolling downtown Seattle with a sign bearing the white nationalist slogan “It’s OK To Be White.” He also participated in an attack on a Seattle Sounders fan wearing an Iron Front T-shirt outside one of the team’s games at Century Link Field during a far-right trolling event in August (which conservative radio station KTTH-AM’s Jason Rantz managed to recast as an assault on the innocent conservatives).
The event reportedly was planned by Seattle Proud Boy Kyle Tautfest, who was one of the four people arrested by city police for various forms of disorderly conduct throughout the event, along with Staggs. However, Gibson’s planned presence added a layer of right-wing celebrityhood to the proceedings, and, as expected, Gibson gave the crowd at Westlake Center a rousing speech decrying the “evil” running the streets in Seattle.
Another kind of celebrity was present: Anton Sakharov, a Russian emigre of Jewish descent who is running as a Republican for Washington governor on a platform of “opposing socialism”—which appears to include a full embrace of the radical right. Sakhorov, whose slogan is “Make Evergreen Evergreat,” could be seen mingling with the gathering of Proud Boys and supporters throughout the event, and wound up marching with them to Capitol Hill. (Sakharov was recently the subject of a friendly interview on KTTH-AM’s “The Jason Rantz Show.”)
For Joey Gibson, this new crowd was a lot like the old crowd that was at his side when he got his start. They had just shifted to a new rotation, the old associates having been used up and discarded.
When Gibson first began organizing these events in the spring of 2017—after having participated in the hyperviolent clash between alt-righters and antifascists in Berkeley on April 15, 2017—it was largely in the context of his circle of friends at the time, which largely consisted of a group of bikers from the American Freedom Motorcycle Association in Vancouver, Washington, across the Columbia River from Portland. These bikers decided to form a kind of “Bikers for Trump” political wing that called itself American Freedom Keepers.
At his first event—on April 29, 2017, in southeastern Portland, protesting the cancellation of an event—AFK members comprised the event’s security, such as it was, even as marchers clashed with antifascist protesters.
One of those marchers was a man named Jeremy Christian, who wrapped himself in an American flag, complained about the police separating the two sides, and loudly called one of the antifascists a “white nigger”—which brought a quick shutdown from AFK members. Eventually, they ejected Christian from the march for being too far right-wing.
Three weeks later, Christian first verbally assaulted two women of color on a Portland MAX commuter train and, when three men tried to intervene, he slashed their throats with a knife. Two of the men died; the third, a young man named Micah Fletcher, had been one of the antifascists who had confronted him in April (Fletcher can be seen juggling balls and joking with Christian).
At his arraignment, Christian shouted the kinds of slogans used by his fellow far-right marchers: "Free speech or die, Portland! You got no safe place. This is America! Get out if you don’t like free speech!
"Death to the enemies of America! Leave this country if you hate our freedom. Death to Antifa! You call it terrorism, I call it patriotism!"
Less than a week later, on June 4, Patriot Prayer held another “free speech” rally, this time in downtown Portland, and this time with thousands of protesters out to decry their activism and their perceived role in the MAX slaughter. AFK, renamed Warriors for Freedom, also provided the security for that event; Gibson brought them all up to the stage and lauded them. However, within a few weeks, their relationship would be severed, mainly because the bikers had become uncomfortable about fighting antifascists.
By then, Gibson had forged new relationships with key alt-right figures, two of whom appeared and spoke at the Portland rally: Kyle “Based Stickman” Chapman, a white nationalist who would go on to help found the Proud Boys (he also had his own street-brawling organization called the Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights), and Tim “Baked Alaska” Gionet, another white nationalist whose alt-right stardom was ascendant in 2017, but which faded quickly after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August of that year, which he participated in. (Stewart Rhodes, founder of the far-right Oath Keepers, was also there with a number of his compatriots, but that relationship did not continue long.)
The most striking figure at the earlier Patriot Prayer rallies, however, was Gibson’s then-right-hand man, a hulking Samoan named Tusitala “Tiny” Toese, who had a knack for being in the middle of violent brawls, often instigating them with aggressive tactics. Toese and Gibson, in fact, seemed nearly inseparable, with the large sidekick setting the tone for most of the group’s street confrontations with antifascists. Toese also had a knack for getting charged with assault—which eventually led to him fleeing the country. But by then, Gibson had already discarded him.
By early August 2017, Proud Boys had become a real thing and were playing the role of “security” for Patriot Prayer. One of their more prominent figures—an athletic protein-supplement salesman from the Seattle suburb of Auburn named Ethan Nordean, though known among the Proud Boys as “Rufio Panman”—eventually rocketed to viral social-media stardom when, in a June 2018 riot in Portland, he knocked a Black Bloc protester out with a well-timed punch and it was caught on video. Like Toese, Nordean has a pronounced fondness for initiating violence.
Another marcher who showed up at those 2017 events was the organizer of the Portland chapter of Identity Evropa—the explicitly bigoted white-nationalist college organization that played a key role in the Charlottesville violence—Portland State University student Jake Van Ott.
A regular at Patriot Prayer events for its first year was Christopher Buck Robertson, who ran an early Proud Boys-like militia organization called the Cascade Legion. Robertson, a defender of white nationalism who has written for the alt-right publication Counter Currents, liked to promote the Legion to reporters, often flanked by his lieutenants and foot soldiers. However, he appears to have dropped out after a May 2018 Patriot Prayer rally in Seattle.
As Gibson became more of a celebrity, he began traveling widely—to Austin, Texas, and San Diego, California, notably—and expanded his reach among both the Proud Boys and other street-brawling groups, such as American Guard, which was founded by a longtime skinhead organizer Brien James.
After initially refusing to associate with AG because of its white supremacist background, in October 2018, Gibson traveled to Providence, Rhode Island, where he connected with AG members (taking a selfie with James Camden, another leading AG figure) who had helped organize a far-right rally in which Toese (who had also flown out) again predictably stirred up violence.
When confronted by antifascist Daryl Lamont Jenkins as he was leaving the scene about how easily he rubbed shoulders with white supremacists, Gibson shrugged. “You’ve got straight-up Nazis out there, and they’re here with you,” Jenkins said.
“That’s just fine. They can hang with us. I don’t care,” Gibson replied. “As long as they’re not causing problems, they’re fine.”
Toese expressed a similar lack of concern about joining ranks with racists. He went on a far-right podcast and explained that he didn’t really have any problems with white supremacists. “I don’t give a fuck if real racists come to the rallies, real alt-right,” he said. “We’ve been trying to beat these people up for a long time, it ain’t gonna work. The only thing that we can do to solve this whole fucking problem with Nazis and all this shit is to have a civil conversation. And both sides understanding what the other side wants.”
That was about the time that things began crumbling apart. A young woman named Haley Adams—who had made her debut as a far-right celebrity at a Gibson appearance in Austin, Texas, giving possibly the ditziest speech in history as a “conservative millennial”—became a leading figure in Patriot Prayer circles, leading to multiple resentments and internecine bickering. A couple of key lieutenants and Adams defenders, Russell Schultz and Reggie Axtell, contributed mightily to the increasingly violent bickering, combined with heightened antileft rhetoric. Jernigan, notably, posted a video warning: “I’m fuckin’ tired of it,” he said. “You’re really gonna be gettin’ it, OK? You’re gonna be getting knives put into your throat, you’re gonna be getting bullets put into your head if you don’t stop this shit with us. OK?”
The end result was that Toese and other longtime participants in Patriot Prayer events no longer were associated with the group. Toese and another Proud Boy, Donovan Flippo, were charged with felony assault after they chased down a Portland man who taunted them and beat him badly. Flippo was sentenced earlier this year, but Toese fled to his home in Samoa and continues to avoid charges.
Unsurprisingly, Gibson began showing interest in a somewhat less incendiary political career elsewhere. Having already run for the U.S. Senate in Washington state in 2018 (garnering 38,676 votes, only 2.27% of the overall vote), he has spent much of the past year pitching far-right “constitutionalist” theories about individual counties nullifying statewide gun laws approved by the voters.
Patriot Prayer, meanwhile, has mostly been participating in minor scuffles with antifascists in the Portland area, but one in particular—essentially a raid on an antifascist hangout, the Cider Riot tavern in Portland on May 1—has produced direct results for both Gibson and some of his lieutenants. Gibson was one of five people charged with conspiracy to riot for the attack and now awaits trial.
The day after turning himself in and being freed on bail, Gibson participated in the Aug. 17 Proud Boys march in Portland, joining the main body of Proud Boys in their march across Hawthorne Bridge. He and Adams led a large contingent of marchers back across another bridge and into the city’s downtown, where they eventually dwindled into a tiny group and left the city.
Patriot Prayer continues to attract an unhinged and potentially violent element, just as it did at the outset. One of the participants at a protest led by Adams outside Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler’s home launched into a speech about his plan to hunt down and assassinate antifascist leaders in their homes. The FBI used Oregon’s new “red flag” law to confiscate the man’s weapons, but he nonetheless was given airtime on conservative Portland radio host Lars Larson’s show to expound his theories.
On Sunday, as Gibson wandered the crowd with his eerie banner, the Proud Boys and their supporters were defiantly insistent that their event was extremist-free. One woman approached me and, having identified who I was, proceeded to declare that I was a liar, that the Southern Poverty Law Center (for whom I previously worked) was a crooked sinkhole, and that there were no white nationalists among the crowd that day. Surveying the participants, I replied with some confidence that she really had no idea.