“We are not criminals. We are not terrorists. We are here to fight for the Constitution.”
On February 20, a month after the insurrection at the United States Capitol, Joey Gibson addressed approximately 100 demonstrators who gathered peacefully outside the Vancouver office of Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler, who serves Washington state’s third congressional district. Patriot Prayer, a local right-wing militia group led by Gibson, had organized the rally to protest Representative Herrera Beutler’s vote to impeach Donald Trump for inciting the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6.
Although peace is atypical for Gibson’s events, the rest of the scene was familiar to me as a lifelong resident of Vancouver, Washington: United States and Trump flags both waving in the wind, a sea of red hats embroidered with a certain well-known slogan, lots of guns in holsters, and very few face masks. The Pacific Northwest has a reputation for liberal politics, and bigger cities like Portland and Seattle have seen violent, even fatal clashes between left- and right-wing protesters. But most of its suburbs and rural areas are, like Vancouver, deeply conservative.
Patriot Prayer gained national attention in August 2020 when member Aaron “Jay” Danielson was shot and killed by left-wing counter-demonstrator Michael Reinoehl at a pro-Trump rally in Portland. At his demonstration in February, Gibson told me that he started Patriot Prayer in 2016 as an anti-establishment group to address free speech issues through local organizing and activism. He claimed that the group is a “moderate Christian organization,” but data from MilitiaWatch and the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data (ACLED) project show that Patriot Prayer has worked closely with violent hate groups such as the Proud Boys—and has often incited violence itself.
Militias like Patriot Prayer form by mobilizing groups of armed citizens who use violence to promote their ideology. Across the nation, militias have been a reliable presence at recent protests disputing COVID-19 lockdown measures and at counter-protests against the Black Lives Matter movement. Since the presidential election in November, militia presence at right-wing demonstrations has increased from 11 to 20 percent, according to ACLED.
Banned from major social media platforms like Facebook, Gibson was hard to find. I finally tracked down his email the day before the rally at Representative Herrera Beutler’s office, and he agreed to speak to me if I came to the rally. When I arrived, he had forgotten who I was, but he agreed to a few questions before he heard his cue—a bagpipes performance—to head to the microphone and address the crowd.
“This is just the first step,” Gibson began. He encouraged the crowd to take action, saying that rallying and complaining would not be enough to get rid of Representative Herrera Beutler and that Patriot Prayer would need to “put in the work to make sure [they] get a true conservative, a true Republican in office.” Following her vote to impeach Trump, Gibson and his followers have declared the representative a “RINO:” Republican in Name Only.
Then, Gibson addressed what the crowd was waiting for: The events of January 6.
“Do you think that President Trump actually did anything wrong?”
“No!” responded the crowd.
“Do you think that Jaime actually cares about the siege on the Capitol?”
“No, she doesn’t care. She took it as an opportunity.”
Gibson claims that politicians knew about the threat to the Capitol and that they ordered police to let protesters in. He believes the attack was a spectacle created by establishment Democrats and Republicans alike to manufacture an excuse to go after President Trump during his last days in office. But it was not just about Trump, Gibson said: “It was an attack on every single one of us.”
Shortly after these remarks, Gibson acknowledged that many Patriot Prayer members stormed the Washington State Capitol in Olympia on January 6. Security footage shows Gibson himself entering Oregon’s Capitol building and facing off with police on December 21, 2020, after a door was opened to far-right protesters by State Representative Mike Nearman, who is now under criminal investigation. Like those behind the attacks on other state capitols leading up to or on January 6, the demonstrators demanded that legislators overturn the election of Joe Biden and ease COVID-19 restrictions. They also called for the arrest of Oregon Governor Kate Brown. There was another violent demonstration at the Capitol in Salem on January 6, but protesters did not make it inside the building. It is not clear if Gibson was present at this event, but another Patriot Prayer member, Chandler Pappas, was arrested for attacking police officers and has since been indicted with eight felonies.
To an outsider, Gibson and his followers may seem like outliers—a few amateur anarchists that were radicalized on Facebook and got into some street brawls. But residents of Washington, Oregon, and other states with active militias, like Georgia and Michigan, know that they are neither outliers, nor amateurs. Militias are organized, motivated, and especially skilled at recruiting and radicalizing family members, neighbors, coworkers, and social media users.
“This is so much bigger than Trump,” Gibson told his followers on February 20.
The militia movement in the United States started long before Trump took office, and it will persist under future administrations.
In fact, January 6 wasn’t even supposed to be the end of the demonstrations at the Capitol. According to Hampton Stall, who founded MilitiaWatch to monitor militia activity and the online platforms where right-wing groups plan their rallies, many groups were planning to storm the Capitol again in the days prior to the inauguration of Joe Biden, this time aiming to make it inside the Capitol with AR-15s.
In an interview with The Politic, Stall said that right-wing activists were planning in internet chat rooms to “[kick] off the next civil war,” but he acknowledged that it is difficult to determine what is actual planning and what comes from “keyboard warriors,” who make claims on the internet but do not follow through on their plans. If there was a legitimate, widespread plot for a second attack on the Capitol during the inauguration, it was successfully deterred by the presence of thousands of National Guard troops.
Stall believes that militia activity is in a lull now, but that 2020 was an “electric moment” for militias. Fences around government buildings will not hold them back for long.
Increased law enforcement presence may actually encourage right-wing demonstrators. ACLED and MilitiaWatch report that militia members often form “alliances” with law enforcement members. In 2019, they discovered hundreds of text messages between Gibson and Lieutenant Jeff Niiya of the Portland Police Bureau. In the messages, which span from 2017 to 2019, Niiya shared information about the location of left-wing demonstrations and how Gibson’s followers could avoid being arrested. In September 2019, Niiya was cleared of misconduct charges.
Despite this coordination, however, Gibson condemned police in Washington, D.C. and state capitals across the country in his speech on February 20 for “at the very least [standing] down to let people into the Capitol.” Gibson and other militia leaders, whose followers are often seen carrying the “thin blue line” flag to show solidarity with police officers, do not hesitate to criticize and even physically attack officers when they stand in their way.
Stall and other experts predict that a minority of militias will disband or shift their focus to peaceful activism, but radical ideals will become more deeply entrenched in the majority—and they will turn to violence more often.
Historically, right-wing militia activity has significantly increased when liberal policies pass or when members feel that such legislation may be passed soon.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, the militia movement in the United States as we know it today originated in 1993 as a response to gun regulations, including the Brady Bill, passing in Congress. It was at this time that the Three Percenter ideology emerged. Based on a false claim that only three percent of American citizens fought in the Revolutionary War, Three Percenters believe that the government is usurping power and aiming to strip Americans of their freedom.
From 2000 to 2008, the militia movement calmed, but it was revived in full force by the election of Barack Obama. In two years, the number of active militias in the United States increased by 300 percent, and Three Percenter ideology became pervasive among members. Militia members across the country feared that President Obama would take away their freedom, their property, and their guns. Since then, Three Percenters have targeted any politician, Democrat or Republican, whom they believe to be a member of the “establishment.”
Gibson’s speech outside Representative Hererra Beutler’s office suggested that Patriot Prayer would be focusing its efforts on getting more “true conservatives” into the Portland and Vancouver governments through local organizing. However, “local organizing” has often taken the form of violent demonstrations.
Gibson’s most notorious incident is the 60-person brawl he incited outside of Cider Riot, a Portland cider bar, on May 1, 2019. He claimed that the fight started after he was targeted while passing the bar, but an investigation revealed that Gibson and his followers planned the attack in advance with the intention of harming antifa members.
Patriot Prayer members have also been known to throw stun grenades and drive at high speed through crowds of demonstrators at left-wing protests. In 2017, Jeremy Christian killed two men on the Portland MAX Light Rail after yelling racist slurs at two young women. Gibson claimed that Christian had no affiliation with the group, but he had been seen several times at Patriot Prayer events.
A second speaker at the Patriot Prayer rally in February—who only gave his first name, Troy—followed Gibson’s remarks with a speech about the importance of community among “patriots.”
“We need to have underground lanes so that we can still be able to have commerce, eat, and travel, because they are limiting everything,” he charged. “We need to have some kind of patriot commerce that’s underground and I’m talking doctors, lawyers, pilots, bus drivers, and farmers. We have to get everybody together and we have to be prepared for the worst.”
But what is the “worst?” What do militias see as the ultimate threat to their existence? It is unclear what right-wing groups are preparing for that could set them on an even more extreme path.
With social media platforms banning militia leaders and removing posts that threaten violence, it’s hard to track what might be coming next, but a look into their past might provide clues.
Civilian militias played a vital role in defeating the British during the Revolutionary War and many militia members today take inspiration from them, believing that they, too, are fighting against a tyrannical government.
But Kelly Sampson, Senior Counsel for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said that the Second Amendment provides no constitutional basis for today’s militias in an interview with The Politic. The Second Amendment was meant to allow Americans the right to form a force similar to the National Guard in order to fight on behalf of the government as they did during the Revolutionary War, not fight against it. Sampson defines current militias as nothing more than “private groups of people organizing themselves around violence.” Regardless, members feel that the right to bear arms and form militias is integral to American society.
While the Second Amendment was the inspiration for modern militias, their dedication to gun ownership has evolved into something more.
“It doesn’t necessarily matter what is in the Constitution. Some people see [gun ownership] as essential to their identity, so when that starts to come under stress, not only are they questioning the legal ramifications, but it becomes a personal attack,” Stall said.
Stall believes that militias, and right-wing activists in general, view gun control as an existential threat—and one that is very much alive today. President Biden often cites the passage of an assault weapons ban in 1994 as a highlight of his Senate career. Now militias fear he will advocate for even more restrictive laws with the help of a Democratic congressional majority.
Prominent gun lobbying groups—especially more radical, “no compromise” organizations like the Gun Owners of America (GOA)—share this fear. The GOA, whose leadership is made up of many former National Rifle Association (NRA) members, believes that all Americans have a right to gun ownership, no matter what. They strongly oppose any type of gun control, including red flag laws, which would allow guns to be taken away from citizens with mental illness or other conditions that may make it dangerous for them to have a weapon. Even the NRA and Trump have supported red flag laws in the past, particularly after the Parkland shooting in 2017, though they quickly withdrew their support after pressure from the GOA and their supporters.
According to Sampson, gun rights lobbying groups like the GOA and NRA play a significant role in encouraging militia activity. Although they do not openly endorse militias, she says that “[their] rhetoric about the idea that the only way to have a functioning and free society is for people to be able to arm themselves, and that the use of violence or the threat of violence is what rules a state—rather than the rule of law—is dangerous.”
Lobbying groups and gun shops often capitalize off of the election of Democrats—as they did following Obama’s election in 2008—and mass shootings in order to instill fear about the threat of gun control legislation, encouraging people to purchase guns and ammunition before they become illegal.
Sampson and Stall both agree that if the Biden administration passes gun control legislation, a spike in gun purchases and militia activity is likely.
Gibson hopes that if federal gun control legislation is passed, local governments will pass ordinances to have sheriffs “arrest any federal agent [who] comes into their county to take guns.” In his mind, this would be a “beautiful thing,” but if such ordinances are not passed, militia members will defend their right to gun ownership themselves by any means necessary.
Sampson pointed out the alarming connection between gun rights lobbying groups, militias, and white supremacy. The NRA and the Patriot movement of the 1970s and ’80s—the anti-establishment precursor to today’s militia movement—were founded in direct response to legislation passed during the Civil Rights Era. She said that the mission of these groups, fighting against government tyranny, “may seem like a neutral and generally applicable [idea],” but it is really coding for something more specific. The anti-government ideals that inform militia activity today are explicitly rooted in resistance to racial integration.
White supremacy is not out of the ordinary in the Vancouver-Portland area. Confederate flags fly in front yards, and a memorial for Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, stands just off of Interstate 5 on private property. Some local churches have ties to white Christian nationalist ideology and their congregations strongly overlap with militia membership. Though Gibson has publicly disavowed white supremacy and racism, Patriot Prayer’s consistent targeting of Black Lives Matter demonstrations suggests otherwise.
Conspiracy theories that affirm and further radicalize anti-establishment beliefs also became more prevalent during Trump’s presidency. Most infamously, this included the rise of QAnon, which, in combination with incendiary messages and disinformation from Trump, inspired the insurrection on January 6.
By spreading false claims about high-ranking government officials—accusing them of practicing satanic rituals and stealing elections—QAnon has fueled the militia members’ anger toward the government and motivated them to take violent action in order to defend themselves from tyranny.
In 2016, QAnon might have been a fringe conspiracy, but it has evolved into a pervasive, commonly accepted prophecy no longer limited to Reddit fanatics who devote hours to scouring the internet for clues about the plans of the deep state. QAnon believers are young, old, wealthy, poor, urban, rural, educated, or uneducated. Most attendees at Gibson’s rally were white, middle aged, relatively affluent churchgoers with a high school diploma, at least. Some were students from my high school, where “Trump 2020” was spray painted over a sign on school property that showed solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Our mascot was a derogatory image of a Native American until September 2020.
Although many internet networks have begun cracking down on disinformation from homegrown conspiracy theorists and world leaders alike, militias and other right-wing groups seem to be able to find a new channel for sharing information as soon as the previous ones close.
The specifics of the next militia strike or what will set it off are unknown, but the history of right-wing militia groups in the United States makes it nearly certain that the strike will come soon enough.
Yet the digital age has made it challenging for researchers and civil rights groups to access the data they need to predict and prevent the next attack. Since Gibson and other key figures in the militia movement have been banned from social media sites, it has become increasingly difficult to track what militias’ next steps are. An additional challenge is that many groups, Patriot Prayer included, do not openly condone the use of violence, and they market their own rallies as peaceful, even as they reliably show up armed to other protests and perpetrate violence.
According to Stall, for the last three decades, “violent militia groups [have been] allowed to really fester. There hasn’t been legal interest in stopping their mobilization and there is no interest in looking at why these groups exist or why people join them.” As a result of this previous lack of interest, government agencies that now view right-wing militias as a threat are scrambling to catch up to the spread of disinformation and planning among groups.
For experts like Stall and Sampson, the severity of the attack on the U.S. Capitol was jarring, though not completely shocking. But most Americans, Capitol security forces included, were unprepared to see such violence.
In response to the attack on January 6, the Biden administration has prioritized deterring future attacks from right-wing militias. But being under the spotlight may only embolden violent extremists like Gibson, who view government intervention to stop hate and violence as tyrannical. They will feel a heightened sense of duty to protect what they see as the design of the Founding Fathers and their fundamental rights.
“Living a life of fear is not a plan from God,” said Gibson. “That is what the people at the top want us to think. They want us to be afraid to go out like this, to voice our opinions, but we will not be silent.”