Steven Stroud is sitting across from me, opening a bag of Reese’s Pieces, in the visiting room of a prison in Oregon that has been his home for the past 12 years. He’s agreed to an interview but asks that the institution not be named.
In a past life, Stroud was a Nazi skinhead, making it his business to create a white homeland in the Pacific Northwest. Now he’s extending his hand to offer me, someone who would have been excluded from his white homeland, some candy.
Years ago, he renounced racism, he said, and has dedicated himself to working against hate. I’ve come to visit him to ask about Patriot Prayer, and how the movement led by Joey Gibson is seen through the eyes of a former Nazi.
“They’re nativist bigots,” he says. “But because they’re multiracial, they’re more popular than we ever were.”
Indeed, Gibson, who grew up in Camas, often notes that he’s part Japanese. And, one of the most prominent Patriot Prayer brawlers, Tusitala “Tiny” Toese, is from American Samoa.
“White supremacists that I’ve spoken to don’t know how to take Gibson, because his message is familiar, but his look isn’t,” Stroud says.
Though white supremacists have attended Patriot Prayer events, Gibson often has defended himself and his movement against claims that he’s aligned with white supremacists, in part, on the fact that he’s a person of color.
Stroud doesn’t buy it.
“Take the color out of your skin and look at the rhetoric,” he says. “Nazis would see this and say, ‘Those are good values.’ Almost identical beliefs in different packaging.”
I ask him what supremacist gangs think of Gibson.
“He’s not a player,” he tells me, curtly.
“But,” he quickly adds, “if I was still in command, I would look at him as useful.”
The neo-Nazi propaganda website Daily Stormer, has written at least 10 favorable articles about Patriot Prayer over the past few years. Below is an example from 2018, but understanding them requires a crash course in supremacist slang:
- “56 percent” refers to the alleged percentage of mixed-race Americans who view themselves as white.
- “88 percent” is a reference to “Heil Hitler.” H is the eighth letter of the alphabet, so 88 = HH = Heil Hitler.
- “Goblinos” is a derogatory term for mixed-race Americans.
- “Brown privilege” is a reference to the idea that people of color are unfairly favored by society and can get away with things their white peers could not. It is a common talking point among white supremacists.
- Daily Stormer, Aug. 4, 2018: “I couldn’t find one thumbnail of Patriot Prayer that isn’t 56 percent, but don’t be fooled-These are /our guys/. … I’m 88 percent certain that there are …white Aryan master race Nazis in shades and three-piece suits, whispering into their earpieces and coordinating everything. They have learned that it is only by fielding goblinos on the front line that they can weaponize brown privilege, which is the only plausible defense of their First Amendment rights in the current year.”
March 14, 2019: Undisclosed bar, Vancouver
Billy Wilson, the man charged with reckless driving after turning his truck into a crowd of leftist protesters in September 2017, (the charges were later dropped by prosecutors) sits by himself on a barstool. Across from me is Gibson, a few tequilas deep. Sitting at the table next to us are Russell Schultz and Steve Drury, sort-of lieutenants of Patriot Prayer.
Gibson invited me to join him and others at a Patriot Prayer-friendly bar in Vancouver. He’s asked me not to disclose its name out of concern activists will pressure the owner to ban him.
“I can’t go into most Portland bars for that reason,” Gibson told me earlier that day. We were walking away from a city council meeting in Ridgefield, where Gibson gave a speech on gun rights.
I’d met Gibson a year earlier and asked him if he would let me shadow him for a longer interview.
Gibson agreed, and allowed me to record portions of the evening for my notes. He invited me to the bar to see him and other Patriot Prayer members in their element.
“Jeremy Christian is not a racist,” Gibson says, apropos of nothing. I give him a blank look because the name doesn’t register.
“How long have you lived in Portland?” Gibson asks, suspicious that I don’t know the name.
I tell him it’s been a few years. He leans back and tells me to look it up. I do:
Jeremy Christian is accused of fatally stabbing two men and wounding a third onboard a MAX light-rail train on May 27, 2017.
Christian allegedly shouted hate speech at two teenage girls, one African American and one Somali, who wore a hijab. Three men, Ricky Best, Taliesin Namkai-Meche, and Micah Fletcher, rose to their defense.
Christian allegedly pulled out a knife and killed Best and Namkai-Meche. (His trial is currently underway in Portland.)
It was later reported that a month before the stabbings, in April 2017, Christian attended a Patriot Prayer event.
I look at Gibson.
“Nobody knew him,” Gibson says. “He showed up to one event and the media made it seem like he was a member of Patriot Prayer.”
“He was a Bernie supporter,” Gibson continues, noting that Christian’s social media trail suggested he supported dozens of conflicting causes, including democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, and was too scattered to have a real ideology.
Still, I’m confused why Gibson would volunteer, unprompted, to defend Jeremy Christian against charges of racism. I tell him he can’t be serious; the MAX stabbing was obviously racist.
But Gibson is adamant that Christian is not racist.
“They call me racist,” Gibson says, and then challenges me, with a glass of tequila in his hand, to name one racist thing that he’s ever said.
I let him continue.
He reminds me that he is not white and points to what he sees as an absurdity of mostly white antifascist activists calling him, a dark-skinned man, a racist.
I’ve heard this before. I keep turning over the phrase “Jeremy Christian is not a racist” in my mind and wonder what a person would have to do to meet Gibson’s standards of racism.
And I have a related question: Though Gibson has distanced himself from Christian, and video shows members of Patriot Prayer asking Christian to leave the April 2017 rally, why do white supremacists keep showing up at Patriot Prayer rallies?
“You’re not going to find too many white supremacist groups going out in public to rally,” says Brad Galloway, a former member of the Oregon-based neo-Nazi gang Volksfront who now works with groups like “Life After Hate” combating racism and hate. “Instead you’ll see them blend into these palatable groups, like Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer.”
Proud Boys is a gang started by Vice magazine co-founder Gavin McInnes. Members describe themselves as “Western Chauvinists” and have a history of violence. At one time, Proud Boys provided informal security at Patriot Prayer events and the two groups shared a few members, including Russell Schultz. According to Schultz, a falling out led Proud Boys to dissociate and pull out from all future Patriot Prayer events.
Groups like Patriot Prayer and Proud Boys “make a public display of American, Christian values,” says Galloway, who is based in Canada, where he was once a leader in the skinhead movements in Toronto and Vancouver. “These events attract neo-Nazis, skinheads, militia groups, the hard-core guys that show up. It’s like a convention center for white supremacists.”
Stroud, the former skinhead I interviewed in an Oregon prison, agreed, saying that Patriot Prayer rallies offer a relatively safe environment for people whose views are not welcome in a place like Portland.
“How do you find like-minded people when your views aren’t popular?” Stroud says. “It’s not like having other hobbies, where you can talk about it at work. So where do you go?”
June 1, 2019: ‘The Lars Larson Show,’ with guest Joey Gibson. Portland.
Larson: “I appreciate what you’re doing for this reason. For the most part, conservatives are not confrontational. The left, liberals tend to be confrontational. I could give you a thousand examples where leftist have taken to the streets of Seattle, Portland, Eugene, other cities, Spokane. They’ve caused riots, they’ve confronted the police, they’ve physically assaulted people, they’ve damaged property, they’ve set fire, they’ve done all those things and, yet, conservatives just don’t tend to roll that way. And so, to some extent, that tends to work against us.
“When the left wants to make a ruckus and get some coverage for their issue, they just go out and do it. Conservatives tend not to. But I think you’ve found a way to do this, and do it within the law, and within what I would consider proper behavior, pure civil disobedience where you show up and people begin to blow a gasket, because, as you say, they know who you are and they know what you stand for.”
Patriot Prayer events have played out with a similar plot line for years:
- Gibson announces a rally in a liberal city.
- Anti-fascist activists show up.
- Gibson wanders into their ranks in the expectation that one of them will attack him.
- They do.
- He streams video of it online, garnering sympathy and donations from the audience at home.
I ask Gibson whether invoking violent reactions against him is part of his plan, and we talk specifically about an Aug. 4, 2018, rally where he walked across police lines to immerse himself in the antifa crowd. Antifa stands for “anti-fascist.” Some members wear all black clothing and mask their faces at protests.
You walked across to the other side, I say.
“August Fourth? That wasn’t a beating because I got out,” Gibson says.
I ask: When you went over to the other side, ostensibly the intention was to talk, right?
What was the intention of going to the other side?
“The intention was to go to the other side,” he says, “to allow them to do whatever they wanted to do to me, without fighting back.”
So, you wanted them to attack you? To show: Look, this is who these people are?
“To say I wanted them to attack isn’t true,” Gibson says. “I wanted to give them the opportunity to do what they wanted. For them to not attack me, that’s not a loss, that’s a win. We’re gonna go over there, let them do what they want to do, get it on film, let the world see the truth. The fact that I walked over there, that they didn’t stab me, they didn’t do things I expected them to do, that’s a win. For everybody.”
Daily Stormer, Aug. 18, 2019: “Patriot Prayer really does do a good job of showing legendary Liberal/Leftist tolerance in action to the masses. … I’d say that they unironically have a much better media strategy than any alt-right organizers. … At least Joey Gibson understands that Americans don’t like to see women and old men and Christians getting beaten up by fat college kids. … It may suck for the individuals who take a ride … to Portland only to get maced and set upon with hammers, but it does make for solid anti-Lefty propaganda.”
Russell Schultz, one of the Patriot Prayer lieutenants, explains why the group needs a foil.
“If it wasn’t for antifa, nobody would know who we are,” he says.
“Yeah,” Gibson agrees, “antifa made me.”
Schultz ponders what would have happened if antifa had stayed home from the rallies.
“Nobody would pay attention to us,” he says. “In liberal Portland we would be a couple of crazies, nutcases carrying a flag. We wouldn’t have a platform. We’d have been like four or five guys waving flags over an overpass. They’re the ones that made us famous,” Schultz says.
Schultz explains how he encouraged the strategy to bring outsiders to provide muscle at rallies, and later came to regret the whole idea.
“We knew we couldn’t go into Portland without (antifa) opposing us,” Schultz says. “We needed to bring people in who would defend people aggressively. I begged him (Gibson) to do this, he didn’t want to do it.”
The idea, he says, was that antifa people would start a fight, but the Patriot Prayer supporters would respond with “such an overwhelming force that once the punching started, these guys could finish the job. And that’s what they did.”
Schultz then tells me about the problems with “bringing people in.”
“We can’t do a rally in downtown Portland and have all these weird people (with us) just because they want to fight,” Schultz says. “They aren’t Trump people, they aren’t Democrats, they just show up because they want to fight.”
The kind of people he’s referring to?
“We had people like Identity Evropa, whoever those guys are. And all these other groups I’ve never heard of,” Schultz says.
“Yeah, these, uh, I don’t know if they’re white supremacists, but they’re white identitarian groups,” Schultz says, using the term Identity Evropa uses to describe itself.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which lists Identity Evropa as a “designated white nationalist hate group,” notes that “Identity Evropa members insist they’re not racist, but ‘Identitarians’ who are interested in preserving Western culture.”
The Anti-Defamation League characterizes Evropa as “a white supremacist group that is focused on the preservation of ‘white American identity’ and promoting white European culture.”
I ask Schultz what it means to be an “identitarian.”
“I’m not one of those people that thinks we need to preserve white people,” he says, answering a question I didn’t ask. “Because by the time white people are no longer on the planet, I’m gonna be dust and bones. …”
May 2019: Undisclosed prison. Oregon.
Steven Stroud says he can see why Gibson has drawn such a following.
“He’s well-spoken,” Stroud says. “Intelligent. A good old-fashioned biblical boy. Old ladies like my mother see him on the news and think, ‘Why are these masked thugs throwing bottles at him?’
“To people like my mom, he’s a good old-fashioned church boy,” Stroud says. “But he’s preaching the same ideas we were. It’s just a different face.”