The paradox of Patriot Prayer
Can a group with a ‘diverse’ membership still be called ‘fascist’?
A week ago in Portland, a rally hosted by Joey Gibson and his group Patriot Prayer devolved into a yet another bloody brawl between the group’s supporters and antifascist counter-protestors.
Over the next few days, the conflict continued on Twitter, where interactions between the belligerents followed a well-established script.
Patriot Prayer members and allied Proud Boys hurled alt-right slurs like “low-T cuck” and “commie soyboy” at antifascists, who fired back by branding Gibson & Co. “Nazis” and “white supremacists.”
The typical counter to this particular accusation is for Patriot Prayer boosters to whip out a photo of Gibson kissing a black baby or performing some other glib gesture to show he’s not a racist.
Someone might point to Gibson’s Japanese ancestry or mention Tusitala “Tiny” Toese, Joey’s angry Samoan sidekick, who regularly leaves rallies in the back of a cop car.
As one of the few non-white members of the group’s inner circle, Tiny is often tasked with addressing the issue of racism directly. In one of his testimonials, he tells the apocryphal story of his first time hanging with Joey and his friends — how he was nervous about riding in a “car full of white dudes” until they stopped and changed a flat tire for an “old Latino man.”
When congresswoman Nancy Pelosi called Joey a “white supremacist” last year, he fell back on the same spiel: “I’m Japanese. We have three black speakers, a couple Hispanic, an atheist, a transsexual. We’re extremely diverse.”
Under the Big Top
Gibson strives to depict Patriot Prayer as a big tent, and it is.
It’s a canvas draped over a grotesque circus whose cast of characters regularly features Nazis, white nationalists, skinheads, neo-Confederates and a melange of other miscellaneous bigots.
Despite Joey’s repeated insistence that they are not invited, members of neo-Nazi groups like Identity Evropa and the Daily Stormer Book Clubs still turn out to his rallies on a regular basis.
Past speakers have included alt-right clown Tim “Baked Alaska” Gionet, a headliner at Unite the Right. Then there’s Jeremy Christian, who was spotted throwing up Nazi salutes at a Patriot Prayer rally just months before he stabbed two people to death in an Islamophobic attack on the MAX train.
The bad press from the murders made Gibson increasingly protective of the group’s reputation. The PSU Vanguard records an interaction between Gibson and a young man who showed up at a rally a month later sporting boots, braces, Swastika tattoos and a T-shirt for the white power band Skrewdriver, i.e. the standard skinhead uniform.
The paper’s account gives the impression that Gibson’s main priority was Patriot Prayer’s image.
According to the Vanguard, when the skinhead offered his support, Gibson told him, “If you supported us, you wouldn’t be here, because you give us a bad name.”
The skinhead was a half-Hispanic man named Raul Gonzalez, which raises the question: Had he not advertised his ideology so conspicuously, would Gibson have reacted the same way?
Or would he be touting Gonzalez as another example of Patriot Prayer’s diversity?
Exceptions or the rule?
By using non-white supporters as a shield against charges of racism, Joey is engaging in a perverse farce of exactly the type of identity politics conservatives love to rail against — the fetishization of representation.
But he can’t have it both ways.
He can’t say that the white supremacists who comprise a significant chunk of his supporters don’t represent what Patriot Prayer is about, while simultaneously pointing to a handful of nonwhite speakers like Bay Area rapper Work Dirty as proof of the group’s inclusivity.
If the participation of black speakers is a statement about what Patriot Prayer is, then so too is hosting people like Baked Alaska, who once live-streamed himself “ironically” getting people to say a neo-Nazi slogan at one of Joey’s rallies.
The inclusion of nonwhite speakers in Gibson’s events doesn’t get him off the hook any more than the existence of all-black Confederate regiments in the Civil War negates the fundamental racist character of the Confederacy.
Even if we accept the premise that guilt by association shouldn’t apply, neither should innocence.
This especially true considering that—aside from a desire for free publicity—the common feature shared by most of Patriot Prayer’s non-white members and supporters is a willingness to work closely with Neo-Nazis and white supremacists.
Even Tiny Toese, the posterboy for Patriot Prayer’s diversity has shown himself to be comfortable rubbing elbows with the worst elements of the alt-right.
Ultimately, it’s not really a matter of who shows up to Patriot Prayer events but why.
Cult of action
Joey uses his group’s supposed diversity as a convenient way to dodge an inconvenient question: What is it about Patriot Prayer that keeps attracting white supremacists and fascists?
Even if the group’s politics aren’t explicitly racial, Patriot Prayer has many common denominators with the extreme right — nationalism, nativism, anti-communism and Islamophobia. The truth is that the group has far more in common with the average white supremacist than it does with the average person of color.
Racism is often a big part of fascism but it’s not the only part.
Patriot Prayer is a prime example of the “cult of action for action’s sake” that Italian writer Umberto Eco described in his 1995 essay “Ur-Fascism”
Eco, who grew up during the rule of Mussolini, said fascists believe action is beautiful in itself and that it should be carried out with little or no contemplation because “thinking is emasculation.”
When Patriot Prayer holds a rally, it rarely has a purpose beyond being “patriotic” or “supporting free speech.” He obviously puts little thought into the titles, giving them ridiculous Orwellian names like “Peaceful Vancouver Freedom March” or most recently, the “Portland Freedom and Courage Rally”
Joey hosts these events with a regularity unrivaled by most activist groups organizing around actual, legitimate causes: two in the month of June alone and another scheduled in early August.
Regardless of whether Gibson himself says or does anything racist, he’s still that guy who shows up in a town and turns it into Thunderdome, providing a venue for various racists and other reactionary thugs to play out their violent fantasies — whether it’s Proud Boys looking to earn their “4th degree” or an aspiring Hammerskin hoping to impress his friends by beating immigrants with a stick.
There was nothing racist per se about Gibson’s messaging in the run-up to last week’s demo, but if one wants to avoid the label “fascist,” a good start would be to avoid saying things like “The streets of Portland will be CLEANSED!!!”
The T-shirts above were being sold to fund the travel expenses of Neo-Confederate Andrew Duncomb so he could attend last week’s rally.
Duncomb took part in Unite the Right, which should make him persona non grata to someone trying to distance themselves from fascism, so why was Joey so desperate to get him there?
It could have something to do with the fact that Duncomb, who calls himself “Black Rebel,” is African-American.
A member of both the Proud Boys and the Oklahoma Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), Duncomb is a regular fixture at protests against the removal of Confederate statues.
The movement brings together white nationalist hardliners like the League of the South (LoS) and groups like SCV, whom the league derides as “Rainbow Confederates.” Needless to say, Duncomb’s participation has been a source of friction.
There’s no love lost between Duncomb and the more radical elements of the already radical Neo-Confederate movement. LoS member Shaun Winkler once chastised SCV for allowing Duncomb as a member, calling him their “pet monkey” and “farm equipment.”
But that hasn’t stopped white nationalist groups like the Council of Conservative Citizens from capitalizing on his involvement in such actions as the defense of the P.G.T. Beauregard statue in New Orleans. On their website they wrote:
Several protestors confronted the Confederate group with taunts like, “F___ you, nazi!” and “Your monument is coming down!” Several bottles and other small implements were thrown at the demonstrators including Andrew Duncomb, a black Confederate supporter.
Gibson offers to fascists the same service pizza joints provide Mafiosos.
But instead of mixing dirty money with a clean income stream, Joey launders toxic fascist ideology by mingling it with harmless “patriotism.”
Neo-Nazis and white nationalists have always been marginalized, but not long ago they were tolerated by social media companies.
Then came Charlottesville, and groups like Traditionalist Workers Party found themselves ejected from Facebook, Twitter and other popular sites that have become essential for any political organization trying to grow itself in the internet era.
More importantly, they encountered pushback from city governments and locals in the process of acquiring permits to march, something a civic nationalist “pro-freedom” group like Patriot Prayer has had little problem with.
A section of Vanguard America — the group that James Alex Fields marched with at Unite the Right — responded to its image problem by wrapping itself in the flag and rebranding as “Patriot Front.” SPLC reports that the goal was to blend more easily with militias and the more socially acceptable parts of the far-right — in other words, groups like Patriot Prayer.
Gibson provides these groups access to public spaces they might not have otherwise as well as some camouflage and deniability.
White nationalists use his events as venues to safely recruit for their organizations because they know attending a “freedom rally” featuring a “diverse” set of speakers doesn’t carry the same social stigma as being spotted at a Nazi rally among some torch-carrying goons chanting “Jews will not replace us.”
Patriot Prayer has thus far dodged a hate group label from the SPLC because its politics are so ill defined that they defy easy classification.
But to say that Joey and his companions sit the fence between the “alt-lite” and the alt-right would be inaccurate because it implies a clear, impermeable boundary.
At the end of the day, the participation of racial minorities in Patriot Prayer is a particularly weak refutation of charges that the group is racist or fascist, given that the few non-white supporters it does manage to attract — like Gonzalez and Duncomb — are often drawn to it for the same reasons as white supremacists.
They come to battle “communists,” protest “Sharia law” or rail against “illegals.”
The impact of representation in an organization is limited if the nature of the organization itself is fundamentally reactionary. For instance, a police force doesn’t cease to be an instrument of racial oppression just because it has black patrolmen.
Likewise no amount of D-list rappers or black Confederates flown in from the other side of the country will change what Patriot Prayer is at its core.