After a day of clashes between supporters of President Donald Trump and counterprotesters as well as Black Lives Matter demonstrators in Portland, Oregon, on Saturday, one person was shot and killed. Reports immediately noted that the man who was killed was wearing a hat that featured the Patriot Prayer logo. On Sunday, Joey Gibson, the founder of Patriot Prayer, confirmed the man was a supporter of the group. Gibson shared a GoFundMe page for the family of the man who was shot, identified on the site as Aaron “Jay” Danielson. But what exactly is Patriot Prayer? The name of the far-right group might sound familiar because it has made headlines over the past few years, but it is far less well-known than other right-wing groups like the Proud Boys that have found a renaissance during the Trump era.
Gibson is at the heart of Patriot Prayer, a group that is often described as being from Portland, Oregon, although it is actually from Vancouver, Washington. There is no easy way to define the group, although many have referred to it as an “alt lite” group, a term often used to describe right-wing activists who reject white supremacist ideology. Gibson is often accompanied by members of the Proud Boys, and he has pledged his allegiance to the group and has spoken very positively of it in the past. He clearly has larger ambitions beyond activism and even launched a primary bid to win a seat in the U.S. Senate representing Washington state but was roundly defeated, receiving less than 3 percent of the vote in 2018.
Gibson vehemently rejects the white supremacist label that many are quick to attach to his group. “Fuck white supremacists! Fuck neo-Nazis!” Gibson said at an August 2017 rally he organized in Seattle. “I have no use for that kind of thinking. It’s wrong.” Patriot Prayer says it rejects white supremacists, but it doesn’t seem to really care much about who joins their ranks, a feature that helped someone infiltrate the group for years. Even though Gibson insists his group is not racist, the truth is he attracts many who are openly racist, and white supremacists have praised the group. “White supremacists that I’ve spoken to don’t know how to take Gibson, because his message is familiar, but his look isn’t,” Steven Stroud, a former Nazi skinhead, told journalist Sergio Olmos in a prison interview. Olmos devoted several months to investigating Patriot Prayer and then published a series of articles about it in the Portland Tribune and the Columbian.
Gibson often pushes back against the white supremacist label by pointing out that he’s part Japanese and that speakers at his events are from a variety of backgrounds. “I’m Japanese,” he told a local Fox affiliate ahead of a planned rally in San Francisco in August 2017. “We have three black speakers, a couple Hispanic, an atheist, a transsexual. We’re extremely diverse. It’s really irresponsible for the leaders to call me a white supremacist. It’s completely unfounded.” Gibson paints himself as a freedom fighter and someone who is working in enemy territory. “We got so many people who are working their butts off in the West Coast to stand up for free speech in some of the darkest, most intolerant cities in the United States of America,” Gibson said in a September 2017 rally in D.C. held to support Trump. “There’s so much going on in this country right now we gotta wake up. … Too many of us are sleeping.”
Patriot Prayer often has enjoyed a close relationship with the police even though it is clear that since its early days, law enforcement officers knew white supremacist groups attended its events, according to Olmos. Patriot Prayer was very briefly a corporation that was founded in February 2019 but was voluntarily dissolved a few months later on Sept. 18, 2019. Now there is no way to talk about Patriot Prayer without focusing on Gibson, the man who seems to run everything. The group’s website, for example, is a subsection of Gibson’s personal site, Gibsonforfreedom.com. And now Gibson asks for donations to be sent to him personally. Gibson does much of his activism off Facebook and has become infamous for provocative actions that almost seem to court violence. Olmos summarized the way Patriot Prayer events usually go:
• Gibson announces a rally in a liberal city.
• Anti-fascist activists show up.
• Gibson wanders into their ranks in the expectation that one of them will attack him.
• They do.
• He streams video of it online, garnering sympathy and donations from the audience at home.
Gibson insists his goal isn’t necessarily to get a beating for the cameras. “To say I wanted them to attack isn’t true,” Gibson said. “I wanted to give them the opportunity to do what they wanted.” Despite the provocative nature of his protesting style, there is ample evidence that law enforcement has often cooperated with Gibson and his allies despite a seemingly obvious penchant for weapons. In 2019, there were reports of hundreds of text messages between Portland police and Gibson that showed how the two coordinated to police protests. Some of the texts went as far as to suggest that Portland police were helping Gibson and other Patriot Prayer supporters avoid arrest. A video from a 2018 protest also seemed to suggest there was a deal between Portland law enforcement and Gibson to prevent his supporters from getting arrested while others did not receive that same kind of treatment. An internal investigation later concluded there was no wrongdoing by the law enforcement officer who exchanged friendly messages with Gibson. The man who was shot in Portland Saturday night had a “Thin Blue Line” patch on his shorts.
The group had planned a boat event in Vancouver for Sunday afternoon. “Bring your boat with American Flags and come celebrate freedom on the Columbia River!” reads an announcement on Gibson’s website. Gibson said in a Facebook post he would not attend the event after the shooting but encouraged others to attend. “I know that Jay would love to look down from heaven and see tons of American flags on the Columbia river today. I will not be attending but I hope all of you enjoy yourselves out there,” he wrote. “Fly them high for Jay.”
In one of his many interviews for his series on Patriot Prayer, Olmos talked to a convicted felon who briefly joined Gibson’s group but decided to leave. “None of it is real. It’s all WWE, man,” he said.