The pro-Trump, anti-left Patriot Prayer group, explained

Last weekend, a man associated with the far-right group known as Patriot Prayer was shot and killed in Portland, Oregon, amid ongoing protests that have taken place in the downtown area of the city for months.

The victim of Saturday’s shooting, identified by the group’s founder Joey Gibson as Aaron “Jay” Danielson, was 39 years old. He died after a pro-Trump truck caravan advertised on Facebook wound its way through the city on Saturday night, which protesters then attempted to disrupt.

Danielson was shot twice, allegedly by Michael Reinoehl, a 48-year-old man with a police record who expressed support for antifa online. Thursday night, Reinoehl was shot and killed by police who were attempting to arrest him.

Danielson, a native Portlander, was wearing a hat emblazoned with the Patriot Prayer logo when he was killed. In an interview with Reason Magazine’s Nancy Rommelmann, Gibson, who described Danielson as a good friend, said the truck caravan “wasn’t even a Patriot Prayer thing.”

Michael Reinoehl, 48, was killed as a federal task force attempted to apprehend him in Lacey, Washington. Reinoehl was the prime suspect in the killing of 39-year-old Aaron “Jay” Danielson.
Ted Warren/AP

What a “Patriot Prayer thing” is — and what Patriot Prayer is, exactly — depends on whom you ask. The group described itself on its Facebook page as an organization based on “encouraging the country to fight for freedom at a local level using faith in God to guide us in the right direction.”

That fight has often been physical. Patriot Prayer members have dedicated themselves to fighting antifa and leftist groups in cities across the Pacific Northwest, including Portland. Brutal street fights between the two groups, often captured on video posted online by observers and members, have taken place since 2017. Gibson, its leader, has been indicted on a felony rioting charge.

The group, founded in 2016, has also had close associations with far-right groups like the Proud Boys and with white supremacists. A man who murdered two people on a train in May 2017 had previously attended a Patriot Prayer event, giving fascist salutes and yelling racist slurs. (Gibson said in an interview with the Guardian that the man had “nothing to do with” Patriot Prayer.)

The group’s goals seem, at best, amorphous. But their enemy is not: They want to fight the left, and win.

Patriot Prayer’s origin story: Trump, Jesus and anti-leftism

The story of Patriot Prayer begins in 2016, when Gibson, a half-Japanese Vancouver, Washington, resident and a former football coach who makes a living flipping houses, formed the group in reaction to the rise of left-wing activist groups in the Pacific Northwest — with the intention of confronting those groups. I contacted Gibson for an interview, but he did not respond.

Before Patriot Prayer, Gibson was a prominent supporter of Donald Trump’s presidential run, and spoke at Trump rallies in Washington state. At a rally on October 2, 2016, he railed against culture war touchstones (transgender rights, for example) while saying that Trump will “slim” down Washington “just how you run a business.”

“Humans are beautiful creatures with hearts that just glow,” he said. “When we don’t have people with boots on our necks, we can do amazing things.”

Joey Gibson of Patriot Prayer leads protesters through the streets of Portland, Oregon, on August 17, 2019.
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

He also ran for the US Senate in 2018 as a “libertarian”-leaning Republican who wanted to abolish the IRS and spoke at anti-Covid-19 shutdown rallies across the Pacific Northwest.

But what Gibson claims about himself, and about Patriot Prayer, differs significantly from what he and the group have actually said and done.

In an interview with professors Daniel Martinez HoSang and Joseph E. Lowndes for the 2019 book Producers, Parasites, Patriots: Race and the New Right-Wing Politics of Precarity, Gibson said his influences were Jesus Christ and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “with him preaching love and peace and nonviolent resistance. A lot of stuff that he did is stuff that I have been trying to do.”

He decried mass incarceration and denounced mandatory minimum sentencing to HoSang and Lowndes: “It’s been completely disruptive to the Black community. Do we really need to put all these people in a jail cell and take away their freedoms because they have an addiction? It’s crazy to me.”

But as HoSang and Lowndes note, Gibson’s descriptions of his influences and inspirations don’t match the group’s activities.

Lowndes described Patriot Prayer as a “kind of far-right gang or crew” that participated in a “broad range of identifiably right-wing causes,” like anti-feminism and anti-communism. For example, in 2018, Patriot Prayer took part in a #HimToo rally aimed as a reaction to the Me Too movement against sexual assault. Led by Patriot Prayer member Haley Adams (who declared that “men are under attack in the US”), attendees decried a supposed rise in false rape allegations they deemed to be tied to the Me Too movement.

To be clear, Patriot Prayer is not explicitly a white nationalist group, Lowndes said. Its members, like the Proud Boys, “pride themselves on being multiracial.” But he added that Patriot Prayer is “definitely far-right, if not openly fascist”: “Members celebrate Latin American far-right regimes, wear shirts that read ‘RWDS’ (for right-wing death squads), [and] claim to be defending the nation against communists and anarchists in their attacks.”

That was clear at an August 2018 Patriot Prayer rally, where Patriot Prayer member Tusitala “Tiny” Toese and others wore shirts that said “PINOCHET WAS RIGHT” (referring to the late Chilean dictator) on the front, with “RWDS” on the sleeve and “Make communists afraid of rotary aircraft again” on the back — a reference to so-called “death flights” used by far-right military forces in Argentina and Chile during the 1970s and 1980s, where victims were hurled from helicopters into rivers or the open sea.

This January, Toese pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge for attacking a protester in 2018. In June, a warrant was issued for his arrest for his involvement in another fight with protesters.

Anti-“leftist” actions create bad bedfellows

If Patriot Prayer has a unifying characteristic, it is avowed and strenuous anti-leftism, with “left” interpreted broadly by the group. Sometimes that means protesting cities with “sanctuary” policies for unauthorized immigrants or holding rallies to protest stay-at-home orders aimed at stemming the tide of the coronavirus pandemic.

The group’s laser focus on the city of Portland is because of the city’s left-leaning reputation. Gibson lives in Vancouver, Washington, and few members of the group interviewed in 2018 actually lived in Oregon. (Patriot Prayer often uses Facebook to recruit attendees to events in Portland and other left-leaning cities.)

In a 2018 interview with conspiracy theorist and Infowars founder Alex Jones, Gibson said his reasoning for focusing on Portland was because of the city’s “darkness”:

Portland is one of the worst cities in this country. It’s full of so much darkness. That’s why I’m so motivated to go there. If we don’t bring all of this hate onto the streets from antifa and communists, well, people won’t see it. I’m happy to go down there and stand up for freedom and stand up for God.

But the real motivation for Patriot Prayer’s activities in Portland seems to center largely on generating a reaction. In Portland and in other left-leaning cities, Patriot Prayer is likely to find the two things the group seemingly desires: a physical confrontation with protesters, including anti-fascist and anarchist groups, and a sympathetic reception from right-leaning viewers watching the action at home across the United States. (That has allegedly even included Portland police officers, who have been accused of overlooking the group’s violence while targeting counterprotesters.)

For example, in 2017 the group showed up at a protest of a store in Portland that sold Confederate flag memorabilia, acting, in their words, as “antifa watchers” and arguing with attendees about the Civil War. At a “Free Alex Jones” protest in Austin, Texas, in September 2018, Patriot Prayer members walked to a street festival, where Toese and others screamed obscenities at a group of young people wearing Obama hats. (Police eventually restrained Toese.)

In a January interview with journalist Sergio Olmos, a Patriot Prayer member said that without the opposition the group receives in Portland and elsewhere, Patriot Prayer would receive no attention whatsoever.

“Nobody would pay attention to us” without antifa, he said. “In liberal Portland we would be a couple of crazies, nutcases carrying a flag. We wouldn’t have a platform. We’d have been like four or five guys waving flags over an overpass. They’re the ones that made us famous.”

But Patriot Prayer is also perfectly able to generate violence on its own. Gibson was charged with starting a riot at a bar where anti-fascists were drinking following May Day celebrations in 2019, a fight allegedly instigated by Patriot Prayer members.

Patriot Prayer has a “close affinity” with right-wing militia groups

Because of Patriot Prayer’s anti-leftist perspective, Lowndes told me that the group has developed a “close affinity” with right-wing militia groups who share their disdain for the left, like the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters. The Three Percenters’ name stems from the historically inaccurate claim that just 3 percent of Americans fought against the British during the Revolutionary War, and is used by the group’s founder to refer to the supposed “three percent” of “gun owners who will not disarm, will not compromise and will no longer back up at the passage of the next gun control act.”

Gibson “claims only to support vague principles, like ‘freedom’ and ‘law and order,’ but he’s made a clearly defined enemy in anti-fascists and the left more broadly,” Cassie Miller, senior research analyst for the Southern Poverty Law Center, told me. “This has created space for groups and individuals across the political right to join Gibson’s rallies. … Anyone who wants to confront the left appears welcome at Patriot Prayer events, no matter their other beliefs.”

A right-wing demonstration organized by Patriot Prayer supporting gun rights and free speech held in Portland, Oregon, on August 4, 2018.
Karen Ducey/Getty Images

That welcome has extended to white nationalist individuals and organizations, despite Gibson’s purported disavowals of their ideology. Leftist groups like Rose City Antifa have compiled lengthy lists of white nationalists and white supremacists linked to Patriot Prayer and even invited to speak at Patriot Prayer events. As HoSang and Lowndes note in their book, Patriot Prayer events in 2017 and 2018 “drew members of white-supremacist groups, including the Ku Klux Klan and Identity Evropa, and featured racist speakers and renowned streetfighters.”

Most infamously, on April 29, 2017, Jeremy Christian, the man who killed two people on a train in May 2017, attended a Patriot Prayer-led “free speech” event held in Portland. According to reporting by the Willamette Weekly, “He carried a baseball bat. He threw Nazi salutes and shouted racial slurs in a Burger King parking lot.”

While some attendees of the rally wanted him to stay (arguing that the right to unpopular speech was part of the point), he was eventually asked to leave the rally. In video of the rally, you can see Christian, wearing a Revolutionary War-era flag as a cape, being told by another rally attendee, “Dude, you’re giving the Nazi sign and you’re saying the n-word, so please go away.”

The following month, Christian (who had a long history of mental illness) stabbed two men to death and wounded another after the three men tried to stop Christian from harassing two young Black women on a Portland MAX train. He had been screaming at the women to “go back to Saudi Arabia” and saying that “colored people” had ruined Portland before the three men stepped in.

Gibson disavowed Christian after the murders, saying he had nothing to do with Patriot Prayer. But in a January interview with Olmos, he said that Christian had been a Bernie Sanders supporter, adding, “Jeremy Christian is not a racist,” before asking Olmos to name one racist thing Gibson had ever said. A few days after the murders, Gibson organized another rally, saying in an interview, “There is no way that we will stop. It is even more important that we come out with a strong message of love.”

A memorial rally, and removal from Facebook

On September 5, a memorial was held for Danielson in Vancouver, Washington. Attendees, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with “Justice for J,” prayed together and listened to remarks made by Gibson, who told the crowd that anyone who started violence in Danielson’s memory was not associated with Patriot Prayer.

One day earlier, Facebook removed Patriot Prayer’s page from the site, as well as Gibson’s Instagram page, as part of an effort described by a Facebook spokesperson as “part of our ongoing efforts to remove Violent Social Militias from our platform.” In response, Gibson said in a statement, “Antifa groups murdered my friend while he was walking home, and instead of the multibillion dollar company banning Portland antifa pages they ban Patriot Prayer, Joey Gibson, and several other grandmas that are admins.”

Patriot Prayer has long attempted to straddle two sides of a political demarcation that exists in Portland and far beyond. The group purports to eschew violence while welcoming violent members and allies into its gatherings, and alleges to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ and MLK Jr. while making friends with white nationalists and anti-government militia groups. Danielson’s killing wasn’t the fault of Joey Gibson or Patriot Prayer. But his death was part of a longstanding battle between the group, its allies, and the far-left activists they loathe, one with tragically real consequences.

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