Is Patriot Prayer trying a new tactic?

March 5, 2019

Joey Gibson and Patriot Prayer held a police-protected indoor speaking event in Seattle rather than a public rally. Michael Zink asks whether this was by design or necessity.

THE UNIVERSITY of Washington College Republicans once again hosted Joey Gibson’s far-right Patriot Prayer organization on campus on February 23. The event was co-sponsored by the Washington Three Percenters, a militia group offering protection for far-right actions.

The response to the small indoor speaking event was starkly different from the 100-strong rally they held on campus one year ago. That event drew around 400 anti-racist counter-protesters, and after members of far-right groups crossed the barricade to incite violence, police intervened and made some arrests.

By comparison, despite the overbearing police presence of about 50 officers, the hundred or so people gathered to oppose Patriot Prayer’s racism and bigotry felt like they were protesting ghosts. Not only did the right not attempt to mount a visible presence, but police kept anti-racist protesters far from the venue.

Police provide security for the far right at the University of Washington
Police provide security for the far right at the University of Washington (Om Khandekar | The Daily)

What has changed? One possible explanation is that Patriot Prayer is struggling to mobilize numbers, and a more subtle effort to reach supporters is proving more effective than their usual method of stirring up violence and then posing as victims.

THE ACTION started normally, with anti-racist protesters gathering at one end of the quad. Attendees mostly consisted of members and affiliates of Seattle’s anti-fascist coalition groups, including the International Socialist Organization, Freedom Socialist Party, Party for Socialism and Liberation, Radical Women, and ANSWER Seattle.

An hour before the Patriot Prayer event, protesters marched across the quad behind a banner commemorating victims of white-supremacist violence like Heather Heyer and the 2017 Portland train attack victims. They chanted, “No fascists, no fear, immigrants are welcome here,” until stopping to picket at a central location to shame those attending the event.

Instead, they encountered police barricades at nearly all the passageways leading to the event’s location. It was clear that the University of Washington Police Department (UWPD) had collaborated closely with the right-wingers to ensure that the counterprotesters could not accomplish their immediate goal of letting event attendees know that Gibson’s hateful ideology was unwelcome. “I’m very thankful that we’re able to partner with the College Republicans and Joey Gibson,” said UWPD Chief John Vinson in the aftermath.

This is hardly surprising, since many police tend to align naturally with the outlook of the far right.

In this case, anti-fascist organizers were especially wary, as messages had recently surfaced between Joey Gibson and a police lieutenant in Portland, where Patriot Prayer is based. The texts revealed a level of friendliness and collaboration that, even among mainstream commentators, raised suspicion of police bias against anti-fascist and leftist protesters, especially at Patriot Prayer and Proud Boys events.

When the protesters circled the barricaded event location, trying again to get in view of the entrance that the attendees would use, police closely followed them. Reaching the intended location for the new picket line, police appeared in every pathway surrounding it.

The protesters felt that it was a corral, with armed officers on every side and few avenues for escape. Despite not having come into contact with many far-right instigators or any event attendees — just a few provocateurs there for cell phone footage of themselves yelling into protesters faces — being there would have been very unsafe if a group like the Washington Three Percenters had shown up.

So the protesters returned to the main police barricade and added a new chant to the rotation: “Cops and Klan go hand in hand.” One protester’s sign — “Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Murder” — took on renewed importance.

WITH THE police so effectively isolating the protest, one participant wondered, “What the hell are we doing here?” They were aware of the necessity of loudly opposing racism, anti-immigrant bigotry and fascism — we know ignoring it doesn’t work — but what was the point of this particular action? Why, in fact, was Joey Gibson even speaking at an event on this campus?

Like many far-right groups, Patriot Prayer had a strategy of recruitment and membership centered on public confrontation. The group gets exciting, sometimes violent, footage from rallies and appeals to the far-right types who want to put on riot gear and beat up leftists.

Last year, their rally at UW was joined by the Proud Boys, who specialize in that type of provocation and violence. However, as Joey Gibson has tried to distance himself from the Proud Boys and anti-fascist actions over the last year have been successful, the right wingers are apparently finding it hard to attract people to their events.

It seems they can no longer draw the numbers necessary for that type of confrontational publicity. Perhaps the only way they could have any kind of event is with a massive police presence, as seen here.

Since they probably don’t want to look like tiny bands of neo-Nazis surrounded by police regiments, they are demonstrating a new tactic, which shows their desperation for relevance: holding indoor speaking events and completely avoiding confrontation with the protesters they know will be there.

The reactionaries can comfortably echo their bigotry to each other behind closed doors. Meanwhile, this tack toward apparently self-imposed obscurity has one upside. By ceding any control they might have had over the public perception of their rallies, they seem to be hoping people will react negatively to protesters who don’t appear to be protesting any particular threat.

Whether anyone will actually arrive at that conclusion remains to be seen, but the fact that it’s a possibility is telling, and organizers will need to take it into account.

The apparent lack of any meaningful far-right presence at the action masked the real threat of violence posed by the apparitions of last year’s far-right protesters. The potential for racist, sexist, Islamophobic and anti-immigrant violence remains, and groups like Patriot Prayer are exacerbating those trends. Even at that action, the possibility of far-right violence was there.

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