When prosecutors in Portland, Oregon, in 2019 filed riot charges against Joey Gibson, the leader of the Proud Boys-adjacent street-brawling group Patriot Prayer, it provided a glimmer of hope that the city’s law enforcement officials would finally start taking the organized violence against their citizens seriously.
It didn’t work out that way. On Tuesday, after only a few days of trial, the judge in his case threw out the charges against both Gibson and his cohort Russell Schultz—largely because the prosecutor had chosen a peculiar strategy in prosecuting them on charges that didn’t seem to fit the evidence, while other charges probably would have. Two days later, the jury convicted their third co-defendant, Mackenzie Lewis, because it found the evidence supported the charges.
Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Benjamin Souede chastised the prosecutor for his strategy. “I am somewhat bewildered that the state has driven the case to this point,” Souede said. “As an institution, the district attorney’s office’s decision to push this case to trial is surprising, given the state of the evidence.”
The charges arose from an ugly incident on May 1, 2019, when a cluster of Patriot Prayer and Proud Boys activists led by Gibson descended on a Portland tavern, Cider Riot, where Rose City Antifa was holding an event. Multiple fights broke out, and one woman was knocked unconscious with a baton that fractured a vertebra in her neck.
Souede rebuked both Gibson and Schultz for their behavior. “The record is overwhelming, and I suggest indisputable, that Mr. Gibson spoke obnoxiously to the crowd that was gathered at Cider Riot,” the judge said in his ruling. “He was provocative, he was taunting, he was acting like a troll.”
Nonetheless, none of the video evidence showed either Gibson or Schultz participating in the violence they had egged on. “The state appears to be trying to convict Mr. Schultz for being present at an incident where violence occurred and it may not do so,” Souede said. “It’s the job of this court to prevent this kind of overreach.”
The judge appeared to suggest that charges of offensive touching or harassment might have been effective: “These defendants are not charged with inciting anything or with encouraging anything or with provoking anything,” he said. “The grand jury issued indictments solely for the charge of riot.”
Gibson expressed his gratitude afterwards. “Thank God,” he said outside the courtroom. “I’m thankful for the decision that the judge made and the judge seemed insulted that they [prosecutors] brought this in.”
District Attorney Mike Schmidt disputed the judge’s reasoning. “While we respect the court’s decision regarding Mr. Gibson and Mr. Schultz, we disagree with the legal analysis used to reach it and stand by the charges the grand jury indicted based on the facts and evidence in this case,” Schmidt said in a statement.
The video evidence in Lewis’ case, however, clearly showed him engaging in violence—first punching a woman, then hurling a tear-gas canister at the people drinking on Cider Riot’s outside deck. On Thursday, the jury quickly returned a guilty verdict for the 32-year-old husband of Patriot Prayer figure Haley Adams. He faces up to five years in prison for the riot conviction when he is sentenced Aug. 1.
Gibson’s right-wing supporters were exultant, and used the acquittal to rewrite history. “Now, if officials had listened to Gibson, it might have avoided the deadly riots that consumed downtown Portland with a hundred nights of arson and looting and violence,” crowed Portland radio host Lars Larson. “But Gibson’s attorney says Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler sent out an email confessing that his real goal was to silence the founder of Patriot Prayer.”
Another longtime Gibson supporter, pseudo-journalist Andy Ngo—who was present at the Cider Riot attack, was seen on video laughing along with Patriot Prayer members as they discussed their strategy that night, and who a witness identified as present during the planning—began viciously attacking one of the witnesses in the trial, targeting him for harassment by tweeting out his name and smearing him to Ngo’s million-plus followers.
Their court victory worries civil rights groups in the region. “We frequently see groups like Patriot Prayer and other bigoted and anti-democracy groups pushing legal boundaries because their goals are to accelerate political violence and conflict without facing accountability,” Lindsay Schubiner of the Portland-based Western States Center told Oregon Public Broadcasting.
She noted that the entire purpose of groups like Gibson’s and the Proud Boys is to create the conditions where political violence can occur. That’s not a problem the law enforcement apparatus can tackle alone.
“That makes it even more important that other community and government institutions respond to the threat posed by bigoted and anti-democracy groups,” she said. “We can’t let them normalize political violence.”