Fresh off a disorderly rally in Portland, Joey Gibson and his far-right political group Patriot Prayer are on their way to Seattle. The group has a permit to bring their free speech and guns to City Hall Plaza next Saturday, August 18, with a rally they are calling "Liberty or Death - Rally Against Left Wing Violence."
Gibson, a Republican Senate candidate in Washington, has a track record of provoking intense counter-protests at his rallies. The far-right group Proud Boys are closely aligned with Gibson and extremists have been attracted to the Republican Senate candidate, including the white supremacist that allegedly killed two people in Portland last year. Nicholas Boling, the vice president of Seattle’s Proud Boys chapter, confirmed to The Stranger that his group will attend the August 18 rally.
While this past weekend’s rally in Portland fell short of being “the next Charlottesville” as the Southern Poverty Law Center warned, the city was still partially shut down by protests, cops fired rubber bullets into crowds, and at least one journalist was sent to the hospital with blood pouring from their head.
Gibson rarely brings more than 100 followers to his rallies—only seven people have currently given itemized donations to his Senate campaign—but he has a talent for drawing large counter-protests. The upcoming rally in Seattle is officially in opposition to I-1639, an initiative on the ballot in November that would expand background checks, storage requirements, and waiting periods for gun purchases if passed.
Tallman Trask, the spokesperson for the Alliance for Gun Responsibility, which is backing I-1639, said his group is intentionally not going to organize a counter-protest.
“We find it a lot more effective to go talk to voters than it is to host these purposefully ridiculous rallies like they do,” Trask said. "The kind of conversations that are going to be had a Patriot Prayer rally, or NRA rally, or Second Amendment Foundation rally, are the kinds of discussions that aren’t really productive for making real changes. Those conversations happen at phone banks and happen during canvassing and talking to voters who are undecided."
Matt Marshall, the organizer of the upcoming rally in Seattle and a member of the Washington chapter of the 3 Percenters, a far-right armed conservative group, said he expects a few hundred members of his group will attend the rally. He said some of the attendees will likely be armed.
“Since it is a gun initiative I’m sure some people will be exercising their second amendment rights,” Marshall said.
Politico identified the 3 Percenters as a part of a movement of armed militias that are friendly and supportive of white supremacists, something Marshall said was incorrect.
“You’re going to get very different stories if you Google us versus what we are about,” Marshall said. “We are more of a community outreach type of organization. We try to repair our communities, support homeless populations, work on veterans issues, but also if it came down to it we would be willing to defend our communities whatever threat came on.”
The Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer groups share this eagerness to respond to any threat of violence with violence of their own. The young men at these rallies often come armed with protective gear and helmets, ready for a battle.
And sometimes the counter-protesters give these young men the violence they seem to be looking for. There are plenty of videos on the internet of people violently engaging with the Proud Boys, and one of the most notable acts of violence this past weekend in Portland was when a journalist was struck by a glass bottle allegedly thrown by a counter protester.
There’s also evidence of the Proud Boys preemptively resorting to violence.
How do counter-protest organizers respond to threats of violence? To find out, I asked Seattle's State Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, a Democrat with experience successfully organizing farm workers and service workers in Oregon and Washington, often in the face of violence. Saldaña said it takes discipline to maintain nonviolence during conflicts.
“People should show up with their spirits calm and know how are we going to respond with a strong and powerful way that is resisting with nonviolence,” Saldaña said. “I think the other piece is to recognize that you can choose to be nonviolent but there is a reality that someone might come up and punch you. When that happens, as organizers, you need to be disciplined and prepared.”
Collin Jergens, a spokesperson for Fuse Washington, one of the largest progressive activist groups in the state, said engaging Patriot Prayer directly would likely be ineffective.
“There’s a natural desire to yell and fight back at these awful human beings saying awful things, but unfortunately that can amplify their hateful messages,” Jergens said in an e-mail. “Since many of their events are just 10 angry white men with guns, we try to avoid responding in ways that would create bigger events and draw more attention to their hateful messages.”
Saldaña suggested that an opposing event in a different part of town could be a more effective counter-protest.
“I think it shouldn’t just be ignored, but maybe putting our energy into what we do want. Instead of doing a counter-protest and responding, what if we spent that day building a movement trying to see what free speech and respect of humanity can look like?” Saldaña said. “You can’t stand up against hate with hate so if you are standing up full of rage and hate it’s a valid thing to have but as a movement, it doesn’t really move us forward.”
Instead of amplifying the message of single-payer health care, preserving the environment, or bringing affordable housing to our communities, the progressive counter-protests in Portland last weekend ensured that Gibson continues to get his face in the news.
We’ll see if Seattle does any better.