Far-right rally on UW campus one year after near-fatality draws hardcore true believers and counter-protesters in ever-shrinking numbers.
SEATTLE – Joey Gibson and his Patriot Prayer organization demonstrated Saturday that they are still capable of drawing attention from both the media and police officials for their far-right “free speech” events such as the one sponsored by the local chapter of College Republicans at the University of Washington campus.
The bigger question, however, was whether they remain capable of attracting any actual followers.
Saturday’s rally at UW’s Red Square followed the trend of recent Gibson-led events: Only a small gathering of about 50 people actually showed up in his support. Among them, despite his protestations to the contrary, were a number of devoted white nationalists.
The rally also drew fewer protesters than previous Patriot Prayer events, where counter-protesters have consistently outnumbered by rally-goers by more than two-to-one ratios, and in the past have numbered close to a thousand. This time around, only around 200 counter-protesters arrived to voice their opposition.
Gibson’s hulking right-hand man at these events, Tusitala “Tiny” Toese, noticed. “Is that it?” he sneered loudly at the counter-protesters as they approached.
Police barriers kept both sides completely separated, though members of the right-wing Patriot Prayer contingent – including one led by Toese, as well as a second cluster of flag-wearing alt-right activists – kept wandering outside the barriers protecting them and into the middle of the crowd of counterprotesters. Eventually, a number of fights broke out, and five people were arrested.
Patriot Prayer, led by Gibson, began organizing the so-called “free speech” rallies at cities along the West Coast last year, beginning with events in Portland, then Seattle, Olympia, and Berkeley variously. All of these events were designed to protest “far left violence” and the threat it ostensibly poses to the free-speech rights of conservatives; nearly all of them attracted contingents of white nationalists, skinheads, and “Patriot” militiamen, many of them armed.
The “Patriots” were invited to the UW campus by the local College Republicans, whose president, Chevy Swanson, is an ardent Trump supporter. At the group’s last major event, an appearance by far-right provocateur Milo Yiannapoulos on Jan. 20, 2017, a member of the large contingent of alt-right supporters outside shot and severely wound a man who had been acting as a peacekeeper during the running violence occurring in the crowd that night. The shooter and her husband are currently awaiting trial in that case.
In part because of that violence, UW officials demanded a $17,000 bond for security costs for Saturday’s event. The Young Republicans chapter filed a lawsuit against the university, claiming the bond was an onerous imposition on their free-speech rights; on Friday before the rally, a federal judge blocked UW from imposing the fee.
At the rally, Swanson spoke to the crowd and complained about the attempted fee. “They’re forcing us to pay for their violence,” he said, pointing at the crowd of counter-protesters.
Gibson also spoke to the small crowd of supporters, along with Toese and a number of others who wanted to have a word on behalf of “free speech.” Gibson urged the crowd to “take back Washington from Seattle. Ninety percent of the state is conservative, but they have lost their faith. They have lost their faith, they have lost their hope, they have stopped voting, they have stopped running for office, they have stopped being activists. I have seen it. I know several Patriots who are leaving Washington state, because they have lost their faith. …
“We gotta take back this state, otherwise, you won’t even be allowed to own a gun!” he warned.
Gibson and his organization claim primarily to be focused on promoting the “Patriot”/militia movement agenda, and the bulk of the speeches at his events have tended in that direction, with a distinctly Islamophobic flavor. However, his events have been plagued from the start as magnets for a wide range of far-right extremism: At one of the very first Patriot Prayer rallies, a young man named Jeremy Christian joined the crowd and was eventually asked to leave for being too extreme in his racism; three weeks later, Christian allegedly stabbed two men to death on a Portland MAX commuter train after they tried to defend two minority women from Christian’s verbal threats.
Since then, there has been a steady drumbeat of white nationalists from such organizations as Traditionalist Workers Party, Identity Evropa, and True Cascadia showing up at Patriot Prayer events, and often playing leading roles in the ensuing violence at those rallies. At one point, following the events involving an alt-right protest in Charlottesville, VA, Gibson vocally denounced white supremacists from a stage in downtown Seattle.
Nonetheless, white nationalists continued to circulate around his event even on Saturday, though not making their presence openly announced. A number of “Proud Boys” – a movement connected originally with the alt-right and a number of white nationalists, but whose leaders have been claiming they are not racist – circulated in the crowd with their signature black polo shirts and “Make America Great Again” ballcaps.
Christopher Buck Robertson, a defender of white nationalism who has written for the alt-right publication Counter Currents, was present in the crowd. Robertson was promoting his far-right “Cascade Legion” to reporters and fellow rally-goers, and was flanked by a number of his lieutenants and footsoldiers.
Members of the “Cascade Legion” also made their way out to the crowd of counter-protesters, where they appeared to be hoping for violence, though relatively few fights wound up breaking out; most of those arrested were counter-protesters. An attached group of alt-right “defenders” donned American-flag face masks, and some carried flags on their shoulders that eventually got stripped away by the crowd.
Nonetheless, at the end of the day, despite all the mutual menacing, there was little violence, and the crowd, such as it was, eventually dispersed as Gibson and his cohort packed up and headed home to Portland.