Mahilet Mesfin stood front-and-center at a barricade, one of many spanning the University of Washington’s Red Square last Saturday. The 18-year-old protester and UW student felt she had to be there.
The UW College Republicans (UWCR) had invited Joey Gibson, conservative speaker and leader of Patriot Prayer, to campus for a Freedom Rally to further the argument surrounding free speech on campus. While some feel speech involving white supremacy or promoting racist views should be banned as hate speech, others, including the UWCR, feel that allowing such expression is essential to the idea of free speech. In part, this is why the UWCR invited ex-Breitbart editor and right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos to campus in January 2017, an event that sparked violence and a shooting. This time around, the UWCR attempted to address the same idea with the lesser known, and less controversial, Patriot Prayer. For the Freedom Rally, organizers said they wanted to invite others, even opposition, to take the mic. Patriot Prayer has ceded the mic and stage to opposition in the past. Due to safety concerns, though, it didn’t quite play out that way on Saturday.
Standing on the opposition’s frontline, Mesfin said she felt that the words and actions of the UWCR, Patriot Prayer, and their attendees were coming from a place of hatred that is based in fear. “That fear destroys us. I have that fear, too, being honest. But I’m able to take that and see it in a more positive manner, see the good in people.”
Despite the ideologies and sentiments of the very people Mesfin came to protest, she believes they can be reached. “They have reasons why they’re on that side,” she said. “It’s just not the best reasons. I don’t think they’re wrong so much as they’re lost.”
Patriot Prayer and the UWCR say that they are just people fed up with political and governmental corruption, a shared feeling among most political ideologies. UWCR President Chevy Swanson and Gibson say that they are willing to listen to their opposition and find common ground, setting themselves apart from the neo-Nazi groups to which local anti-fascists connect them. But while Gibson has given the mic to his opposition in the past, it is unclear if he listens to what they’re saying when he does. At Patriot Prayer’s Westlake event last year, immediately after giving the mic to an Indigenous protester who spoke about America existing on stolen Native land, Gibson retorted, “Did Native Americans not attack each other over land before?”
When digging deeper, it’s difficult to find facts backing up UWCR and Patriot Prayer’s claims of openness.
White supremacist Greg Johnson, the Editor in Chief of Counter-Currents Publishing—a website and book publisher promoting a white ethnostate—attended Patriot Prayer’s last public Seattle event in April 2017. Johnson, who has spoken at public invite-only white nationalist conferences, including an event called the Northwest Forum, claims that whites are a superior race and also contends that elite whites should preside over lesser ones, advocating for sterilization. Through Counter-Currents, Johnson hosts neo-Nazis, including the founder of Identity Evropa, Nathan Damigo.
James Allsup, YouTube commentator and former Washington State University College Republicans president, was one of the Freedom Rally attendees. Allsup resigned from his presidential role at WSU after being identified at the Charlottesville’s KKK-and-Nazi-symbol-filled Unite the Right rally last year.
The Proud Boys, a men’s club declaring chauvinism and a return to 19th century gender roles, also attended the Freedom Rally on Saturday. They were also present at the previous Patriot Prayer event, joined by men in Kevlar with guns. The Cascade Legion was on hand too. The group calls Black Lives Matter and antifa “left-wing terrorist organizations” and declares “pussies need not apply” on its website.
When asking Swanson about the Proud Boys, he said he didn’t know they would show up until the University of Washington Police Department (UWPD) alerted the UWCR Thursday. Swanson added that he did not know much about the Proud Boys besides “they wear yellow.”
“I haven’t heard anything I would be concerned about,” he said of the Proud Boys and the Cascade Legion. When asked about certain attending parties’ stances on white supremacy and genocide, Swanson replied, “It’s a free speech event, as long as it’s protected speech and they’re talking about it, it’s fine.”
When pressed about the Cascade Legion’s desire for a white ethnostate and asked if he or anyone in the UWCR holds similar sentiments, Swanson replied, “I mean, I don’t know. I haven’t exactly read up on it.”
UW administration and UWPD are tentatively handling what they say and do about UWCR events because of a recent lawsuit put forward by the UWCR regarding security and equipment fees. UW estimated the Freedom Rally would cost the UWCR $17,000. The bill for last year’s Yiannopoulos event came to more than $70,000 between the UWPD and the Seattle Police Department, with UWCR paying $9,121 for police and equipment.
UW spokesperson Victor Balta said the criteria to determine the security fees student groups pay for their events—a new 2017 policy created after the UWCR hosted Yiannopoulos—involves an analysis of violence and threats to public safety, the number of attendees at previous events for the sponsoring group, the date, the time and the location.
UWCR’s lawyer, William Becker, argues against these fees. He works for Freedom X, an L.A.-based nonprofit and law firm. The Freedom X website presents fighting “intellectual McCarthyism” and “Creeping Sharia” as its campaign topics. Outside of the UWCR, Becker also represents four people involved in the clash during Yiannopoulos’ 2017 visit to the University of California Berkeley where two were kicked unconscious. He also sent an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court backing a Colorado bakery that wouldn’t make a cake for a gay wedding.
Before the rally, UW President Ana Mari Cauce released statements that all other campus events Saturday would be cancelled or postponed as a result of the Freedom Rally. Among the impacted events: Young, Gifted, and Black (an event that celebrates black high school students with high merits); the Everybody Every Body Fashion Show (an annual UW student government event celebrating body positivity); and the CulturalFest Performance Showcase put on by the Foundation for International Understanding Through Students. While the university worked with the organizations and did not force them to cancel the events, many criticized the UW for maintaining the UWCR’s event, as its risk of violence led these non-violent events focused on marginalized people to err on the side of caution and not meet.
Both Becker, Gibson and the UWCRs—and as of late, even UW President Ana Mari Cauce—routinely attribute violence to protesters, namely anti-fascists, even though the shooter at the last big UWCR event fell on the extreme right political spectrum. Furthermore, Becker, Gibson, and the UWCR have said that they believe that anyone coming to their events expecting conflict deserve to get hurt, and should possibly expect worse because of Washington’s conceal and carry laws.
In an effort to mitigate the perceived threats stemming from the continued Freedom Rally, UW’s Red Square was sectioned off by UWPD gates. One section held the UWCR and Patriot Prayer. This section was consistently monitored by UWPD, acting as gatekeepers for who could enter and exit. Another section blocked off the entire front of Kane Hall and remained intentionally empty. A third section created a gap between expected protesters and the other two sections. While police kept protesters out of the empty and UWCR-occupied sections, Freedom Rally attendees were not kept separate from protesters.
“Anyone has clearance [to attend] as long as Patriot Prayer lets them in and we don’t have reason to believe they’ll be violent,” Swanson said. The entire purpose of the Freedom Rally, Swanson explained, was for protesters and attendees to say anything and everything they wanted and listen to each other. But because of the safety risks and UWPD’s setup, this was not possible.
Three men walking alongside the Cascade Legion group donned American flag masks and wore American flags as capes. “We love America and free speech,” one said. Another who wanted to be called “Trump” said, “We want to protect our people and our culture.” When asked what American culture is, he said, “It’s originally from the white Europeans who colonized here.” Another said he felt people who are “illegal” shouldn’t get to be in America and that people need to be vetted. When they tried to enter Red Square for the Freedom Rally, UWPD denied their entrance because they wore masks.
It is these connections and sentiments from Freedom Rally attendees that make antifa member “Tod Bobson” feel differently than fellow protester Mesfin.
“Patriot Prayer is undeniably a fascist sympathizer,” Bobson said. He supplemented his reasoning by pointing to a Patriot Prayer event that resulted in stabbings. Bobson went on to call Gibson’s politics “very radicalized and disgusting” and stressed that antifa are “not just violent to be violent.”
Some brawls broke out between Proud Boys and protesters, namely between a Proud Boy and a man later self-identified as Jamal X. This led to an SPD officer dousing much of the surrounding crowd in pepper spray. One woman, who allegedly defended Jamal’s opinions and pushed a barricade, was tackled to the ground by SPD. Her partner said the police grabbed and dragged her by her ankles after the pepper-spraying.
A core Patriot Prayer member Tusitala Toese was hit by a glitterbomb and punched two protesters. Eva Ingram reacted to being punched in the face by holding her Two Spirit feather above Toese’s head and praying for him. In total, the Seattle Police Department and the UW Police Department arrested five people. Toese was not arrested.
Kyle Broussard, a UW student who many on campus deem a neo-Nazi, was the one who originally proposed the Freedom Rally idea. He approached the UWCR about inviting Patriot Prayer. Broussard explained to Seattle Weekly during an interview at the Freedom Rally that he believes shunning and silencing any particular side, no matter their ideals, leads to extremism. While explaining this, protester John Bennett—who abruptly placed himself in front of right-wing attendees throughout the day—interrupted to say, “Yeah, because it was Nazis having free speech that stopped World War II and genocide.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story mentioned that Swanson had talked to Johnson. It was meant to state Swanson had spoken with the head of the Cascade Legion.