Since 2017, far-right groups have flocked to notoriously liberal Portland to march, yell, and engage in violent clashes with left-wing activists. Most of these demonstrations were planned by Patriot Prayer, a small coalition of Trump-supporting provocateurs based in Vancouver, Washington.
Ben has marched alongside Patriot Prayer for nearly every major Portland demonstration—events with such vague names as “Rally for Trump and Freedom,” "Freedom March," and "Trump Free Speech Rally."
What the far-right group didn't know was that Ben was a spy.
However, in a matter of weeks, Ben’s long-hidden identity will be made public, meaning his days of being undercover with the group have come to an end. Video footage shot by this left-of-center Democrat will soon be used in court against longtime members of Patriot Prayer—including its leader, Joey Gibson.
Ben—not his real name, as he wishes to remain anonymous a little longer—is a tall, thirtysomething man with a reddish-blond beard and pale skin. He’s easy to spot in a crowd. It doesn’t hurt that he always wears the same shirt to rallies: a red tee emblazoned with the Marvel Comics antihero Deadpool.
A self-described “everyday anti-fascist,” Ben’s two years of quietly documenting the inner workings of the local far-right have come to a close. But his experience offers an unprecedented peek into how Portland’s alt-right agitators function.
Ben’s interest in local activism began in 2011, after a four-year stint with the US Navy ended during the height of the recession. While he didn’t consider himself a staunch liberal at the time, Ben grew frustrated with the feds’ response to the financial crisis and began participating in Occupy Portland rallies. While earning a psychology degree at Washington State University, Ben joined the Young Democrats of Clark County and began canvassing for local Democrats running for school boards or city council seats.
It was only after Donald Trump’s election that Ben began hearing about Patriot Prayer’s increasingly contentious events. Wanting to witness the Vancouver group’s tactics firsthand, Ben decided to attend—and document—a Patriot Prayer rally in downtown Portland on June 4, 2017.
It was a mess. Patriot Prayer was joined by three left-wing protest groups and a pack of heavily armored police officers. Police used pepper spray on several anti-fascist (commonly shortened to “antifa”) protesters, arrested 14 participants, and ended up detaining more than a hundred attendees—including several journalists—when the crowds didn’t disperse.
Ben managed to avoid the police, and instead documented protesters on the periphery of the clashing rallies. That’s when he encountered four people affiliated with Patriot Prayer beating up a left-wing protester on a sidewalk.
“I was shocked by the violence,” Ben says. “I remember thinking, ‘Patriot Prayer is only going to get more violent. And no one is going to stop them.’”
Ben, who calls veterans the “original” anti-fascists, says his time in the Navy inspired him to take action.
“When I joined the military, I made an oath to defend the constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” says Ben. “There’s no expiration date on that oath. I want to live my ideals.”
So Ben decided to fight back. But instead of joining local anti-fascist groups, Ben set his sights on weakening Patriot Prayer from the inside.
The idea: Get far-right activists on camera—to help others identify them—and act as an “early warning system” by leaking Patriot Prayer’s plans to counter-protesters in real time.
Fortunately, Ben knew it wouldn’t be too difficult to infiltrate the right-wing group.
“I’m a big, beardy white guy from Vancouver—I blend in,” says Ben. "I was cashing in on my privilege.”
Ben began joining Patriot Prayer at major demonstrations, using his phone to capture anti-liberal diatribes, impromptu strategizing, and intermittent violence. He found that blending in was even easier than he expected.
“They never asked me any serious questions—like who I was with or why I was filming,” says Ben. “There was no vetting. They’re just not very curious people. I think part of it is fearing that a new person might be associated with right wing groups more extreme than they are.”
Past Patriot Prayer rallies have attracted members of white nationalist organizations like Identity Europa, misogynist alt-right clubs like the Proud Boys, and anti-government militia groups like the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters.
Ben says there are only about 15 core members of Patriot Prayer. It’s the group’s partnerships with other far-right organizations that boost their numbers during major protests.
“It doesn’t matter if you have different beliefs,” Ben says. “The only thing that matters to them is that you hate the left.”
Ben says he mostly “acts like himself” during protests—cracking jokes, fist-bumping protesters, and even subtly promoting liberal ideas with MAGA-hat-wearing members. The only lie he tells is that he’s a conservative.
He spends most of his time befriending people he calls “true believers,” or members who have nothing to gain from their involvement in Patriot Prayer. He contrasts these followers with people like Gibson or fellow Patriot Prayer organizer Haley Adams—two people who use their polished social media platforms to collect online donations from fans.
“I’ve intentionally avoided grifters like Joey and Haley because they are sharper about interacting with strangers like me,” says Ben.
Another person he includes in the “grifter” category: Andy Ngo, a conservative writer who’s built a Twitter persona around filming fights between antifa and right-wing extremists (that, and trying to convince people that hate crime allegations raised by LGBTQ+ Portlanders are simply “hoaxes”).
Ngo tags along with Patriot Prayer during demonstrations, hoping to catch footage of an altercation. Ben says Ngo doesn’t film Patriot Prayer protesters discussing strategies or motives. He only turns his camera on when members of antifa enter the scene.
“There’s an understanding,” he says, “that Patriot Prayer protects him and he protects them.”
On May 1, 2019 Ben joined Patriot Prayer in Portland, where the group intended to confront antifa activists who were protesting US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) policies. When Patriot Prayer’s attempt to provoke the protesters fizzled, the majority of the group retreated to an I-84 overpass by the Lloyd Center to wave American flags at passersby. Gibson remained at the ICE protest.
“’I’m mostly here so that I can text people in case any of the fash [shorthand for fascists] attempt to go to where the counter-protesters are,” Ben told his Facebook Live viewers that afternoon from the overpass. “And I’m getting who’s present so I can pass that information on to other people.”
Ben livestreams all far-right protests he attends on Facebook, allowing the public to follow along and ask questions. Occasionally he steps away from the crowd to let his viewers in on his secret: That he’s an anti-fascist embedded with the opposition. Knowing his friends are following his livestream gives Ben an extra boost of confidence—he knows they’ll be quick to act if anything goes awry.
“I tell them to call the police if I ever start singing the National Anthem,” says Ben. “Fortunately, that hasn’t happened yet.”
After his livestream ends, Ben’s video can only be viewed by his Facebook friends. Ben says he sometimes sends his films to anti-fascist groups, like Rose City Antifa, who use them to identify local members of the far-right.
Ben spent most of May 1 filming what he considered “the most uneventful” May Day gathering he’d ever seen. But then he heard about the Cider Riot plan.
“You guys want to go to Cider Riot, because Joey [Gibson]’s going,” says a man carrying a “Don’t Tread On Me” flag by the I-84 overpass, captured on Ben’s livestream. “We should back him up.”
Gibson had apparently learned that members of antifa were planning on meeting up at the NE Couch cidery after the day’s protests wrapped up. He told his followers to meet him them there at 6 p.m.
After stepping away from the far-right flag-wavers to relay this information to his livestream followers, Ben temporarily stopped filming. When he switches the stream back on, he’s walking through NE Portland neighborhoods with the far-right protesters and Ngo, the conservative writer. They’re headed toward Cider Riot.
Ben says that he paused his livestream to call Cider Riot and warn the staff about Patriot Prayer’s planned visit.
For the next 20 minutes, Ben films as the group loiters a few blocks away from Cider Riot, waiting for Gibson to show up.
As the group waits, they discuss their weaponry. A few men try to guess which way the wind's blowing to avoid getting "spray" in their eyes, presumably when they use it against members of antifa. Another man holds a thick wooden dowel, and practices swinging it like a baseball bat. A woman carries a red brick in her hand. Some don goggles, helmets, and tactical gloves.
"Who's texting Joey?" Someone asks when the group seems to be without a game plan. Another man says, “Tell Joey and them to hurry the fuck up.”
Ben captures someone telling a person on speakerphone, "There's going to be a huge fight," and gives them directions to Cider Riot.
Ngo doesn’t film any of the conversations, and smiles when the group cracks jokes.
“He overheard everything,” Ben recalls, “and said nothing.”
As soon as Gibson appears with Adams, the group walks the remaining blocks to Cider Riot. People sitting on the cidery’s patio, many of them dressed in all black (a tactic called “black bloc,” used by some anti-fascists), appear prepared. What happened next was May Day’s headline-maker: A massive street brawl instigated by members of Patriot Prayer, featuring oddly structured fist fights in a haze of pepper spray and name-calling.
“This is so fucking weird,” Ben tells his livestream followers as he films the fights, pausing to wipe pepper spray from around his eyes. Officers with the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) didn’t arrive on the scene for an hour.
Ben says the Cider Riot fight was the first time he directly intervened in action taken by Patriot Prayer.
“It’s time to leave, guys,” Ben is heard yelling at the group after one man—later identified as Ian Kramer—used a baton to knock a woman out cold. “Calm your shit!” His video ends after the group is chased down the street by shouting people dressed in black bloc.
Since this May Day clash, Patriot Prayer and its supporters have uploaded edited clips of the fight to social media, trying to prove that their unprovoked attack was actually an act of self defense. Gibson claimed it was an impromptu visit. Meanwhile, Cider Riot filed a lawsuit against Gibson and six other Patriot Prayer members for acting negligently and trespassing on private property.
People on all sides called for arrests. None came.
It was Ben’s video that helped Portland Police Bureau confidently secure arrest warrants against Gibson and five other members of Patriot Prayer who followed him to Cider Riot that afternoon. On August 22, a Multnomah County grand jury indicted Gibson and five other members of Patriot Prayer on felony charges for inciting a riot. Several of the men face multiple charges, including assault and unlawful use of a weapon.
While Ben’s video of the clash is a useful piece of evidence, it’s his footage of the group planning the alleged riot that might put the suspects behind bars. This clip has also been included in a new motion filed in Cider Riot’s civil case against Patriot Prayer as evidence that Gibson had orchestrated the attack.
Ben says it didn’t hit him while he was filming that he might have captured criminal evidence. It was only when Cider Riot filed their lawsuit against Patriot Prayer on May 3 that Ben decided to send his footage to the cidery’s legal team. Weeks later, Ben got a call from PPB detective looking for that same footage. Ben handed the video over, and cautiously agreed to be a witness.
“I think police are a weapon that can point at you or you can point to someone else,” says Ben. “Either way, someone is going to get cut. I’d rather it not be me.”
Ben isn’t concerned about facing any legal charges himself, since he’s on film discouraging the group from following through with their attack. But he is worried about what will happen when his true identity is inevitably made public through the legal system—both in the civil and criminal cases.
“I have a good safety net of friends and community members looking out for me,” he says. “But it’s definitely unnerving.”
He’s also a little bittersweet about leaving his DIY undercover work behind.
“My ability to gather intelligence on this terrorist group has ended,” says Ben. “Unless I wear a really good disguise, I won’t be able to go unseen in this group anymore.”
However, he suspects he’s not the only closeted lefty who’s joined local far-right groups in hopes of undermining their work. He hopes his story inspired others to follow suit.
“I think every person should try to infiltrate these groups, if they’re in the position to do so,” he says. “This is what patriotism looks like.”