Roughly three dozen Trump supporters showed up to Westlake Center on Sunday for a rally organized by Patriot Prayer, the right-wing group led by a Vancouver, Washington man named Joey Gibson.
The event followed a day of violence in Charlottesville, Virginia that left three people dead, including two state troopers who lost their lives in a helicopter crash and a 32-year-old woman who was fatally hit by a white supremacist driver.
In Seattle on Sunday, hundreds of counter-protesters, some motivated to come out after yesterday’s violence, encircled the Westlake demonstration. They drowned out speeches by Gibson and other pro-Trump supporters with boos and chants. One counter-protester repeatedly blared an air horn.
Inside the circle, right-wing demonstrators dressed for battle, wearing helmets and elbow pads. Others donned Make America Great Again hats. One man’s t-shirt read: “Danger: Cis-gendered white male. How else may I offend you?” The rally-goers, mostly men, came with groups called the Proud Boys and the Cascade Legion, who are unified by their support for President Trump, belief that “free speech” is under attack and displays of toxic masculinity.
Although small scuffles broke out, the event remained largely peaceful. Seattle Police deployed pepper spray and “blast bombs” at counter-protesters marching towards Westlake from Denny Park. Officers made three arrests during the day.
When Gibson took the stage, he denounced the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacist violence in Charlottesville. Several pro-Trump supporters took the mic after him, calling for free speech at this downtown rally permitted by the City of Seattle. Gibson also invited counter-protesters to address the crowd, though their speeches were met with jeers from the pro-Trump crowd.
When a woman standing on stage condemned the “white supremacist terrorism” in Charlottesville, a man wearing a t-shirt with the X-Men character Wolverine shouted, “You’re wrong! Go to a different rally.” He declined to speak with The Stranger.
A man who identified himself as Bill carried a sign that read “Ed Murray Sucks” on one side and “Rapist” on the other side. He said he came out to support “freedom of speech and more pro-American rhetoric.”
When asked whether he believes his freedom of speech is under threat, he said it would depend on if antifa (anti-fascists) protestors attempted to break up the demonstration.
When asked if he calls himself a white nationalist, Bill said, “I have nationalistic ideas, but I’m not a racist. I’m a nationalist in the sense that I’m not opposed to restricting immigration. I’m for state’s rights.”
Another group of counter protesters, numbering in the hundreds, gathered at Denny Park around 1 p.m. intending to march to Westlake. They wound their way through South Lake Union and downtown Seattle, encountering Seattle Police in riot gear along the way. Law enforcement officials blocked the paths of protesters marching south down Fourth Avenue and Fifth Avenue.
The protesters inched closer to the Patriot Prayer rally at Westlake Park along Third Avenue. SPD officers quickly blocked off the intersection. Some protesters led chants directed at the police, including "Who do you protect? Who do you serve?" and "Cops and Klan, hand in hand!" At various points, protesters sprayed police officers with silly string and threw firecrackers at their feet.
A scuffle eventually broke out between some of the SPD officers and protesters. Police officers sprayed pepper spray into the crowd, hitting several protesters in the face.
Anthony Gazotti told the Stranger he was trying to prevent protesters from spraying silly string at the police when he was "maced right in the face."
"I haven't seen anything like this since Standing Rock," he said, referring to the demonstrations against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota last summer.
Unable to get through the police line to Westlake Park, counter-protestors began marching back to Denny Park. Some protesters broke off from the march and attempted to go back to Westlake via Fifth Avenue and Sixth Avenue, but were immediately blocked by SPD officers who formed a bike barricade.
Throughout the march, protesters, some of who donned Antifascist Action or "antifa" flags as capes called for protesters to go back to "meet the Nazis at Westlake."
Once back at Denny Park, many counter-protestors broke off from the march. Without instructions for what to do next, some protesters walked back to Westlake Park in small groups. There, SPD officers in riot gear created a police line between protesters and rally participants wearing "Make America Great Again" hats. Protesters then began chanting "Black lives matter!" and "Charleena Lyles! Say her name!" at the officers.
At around 5 p.m., the pro-Trump supporters left and the crowd fizzled out.
King County Executive Dow Constantine denounced the Westlake rally as a gathering of “white supremacists and fascists.” Constantine said in a statement, “We fought a Civil War against slavery, and you lost. We fought a World War against fascism, and you lost. Today, we stand united against the hateful rhetoric you have brought to our community. And you will lose again.”
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray has not publicly commented on the Patriot Prayer rally, but has denounced the "racist and hateful messages of protestors in Charlottesville."
This isn’t the first time Patriot Prayer and affiliated groups have made a showing in the Puget Sound region. They helped organize a March Against Sharia in early June and demonstrated at Evergreen State College amid tension on campus later that month.
When Trump supporters gathered at Westlake Center on May Day, Stranger reporter Heidi Groover witnessed a scene similar to the events that took place today. Right-wingers argued with black-clad protesters for a couple hours while police watched. Then everyone went home. “The whole thing felt like a self-fulfilling prophecy, each side showing up because they heard the other would be there,” Groover wrote at the time.
The same dynamic was at play today. It’s hard to imagine Gibson’s rally lasting as long as it did without the gaggle of spectators and counter-protesters showing up. By denouncing the torch-wielding neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville, Gibson distanced his group from the flagrant racism terrorizing parts of America while maintaining a space for people who wants to deport millions of undocumented immigrants and bar Muslims from entering the country.
Sané Nobles said as much when she addressed the crowd, urging counter-protestors to stop accepting the mic from Gibson because it gives him “ammunition” to show that Patriot Prayer tolerates all opinions. “This is all just manipulation,” she said. “Fuck these guys.”