Sept 1 (Reuters) - The fatal shooting of a Patriot Prayer supporter at protests in Portland, Oregon this weekend has cast a national spotlight on a small but vocal group of conservative activists that emerged after President Donald Trump’s 2016 election.
The victim, 39-year-old Aaron Danielson, was partaking in a pro-Trump counter-demonstration to the anti-racism protests that have persisted in the Oregon city for more than three months, his associate said.
Photos show Danielson wearing a hat with the Patriot Prayer insignia at the time. Portland police are still investigating the shooting.
Since 2016, Patriot Prayer has hosted dozens of pro-gun, pro-Trump rallies in the Pacific Northwest and attendees have repeatedly clashed with left-wing groups in the Portland area. In August, the group’s supporters have staged counter-rallies which have sometimes turned violent.
Supporters have echoed Trump’s characterization of Portland protesters as “radical anarchists.” Trump has rebuked the sometimes-violent anti-racism protests in cities run byDemocrats, making “law and order” one of his central campaign themes ahead of the Nov. 3 election.
Patriot Prayer, founded by right-wing activist Joey Gibson, says it is on a non-violent mission to prevent the United States from becoming a “Godless, socialist” country, but its opponents accuse it of provoking clashes.
The group’s rallies have been attended by the Proud Boys and other anti-government extremist groups with records of violence, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
On Sunday, Oregon Governor Kate Brown denounced PatriotPrayer supporters as instigators of the violence.
“The right-wing group Patriot Prayer and self-proclaimed militia members drove into downtown Portland last night, armed and looking for a fight,” Brown said in a statement. “I will not allow Patriot Prayer and armed white supremacists to bring more bloodshed to our streets.”
Gibson denies that the group espouses violence, white supremacy or xenophobia. On local radio this week, he described the shooting victim, Danielson, as a “very gentle, very courageous” person.
Gibson faces felony riot charges stemming from a 2019 clash with left-wing activists outside a pub in Portland to which he has pleaded not guilty. He did not return Reuters’ request for comment.
In court papers related to the 2019 charges, Gibson said he was inspired to start Patriot Prayer after Trump’s election in 2016 because of “the rise of violent, thuggish gangs operating in the City of Portland, Oregon, which attack fundamental American values and support a Godless socialist or communist regime, the establishment of which would threaten America’s future.”
He has become known for online videos showing him crossing police lines to talk to left-wing protesters who sometimes spit on him or hit him as he does little to defend himself. Critics say he provokes the encounters by baiting opponents, but Gibson uses the videos to show the “spiritual evil” he is fighting, comparing his tactics to those of civil rights leader MartinLuther King.
Patriot Prayer has some 3,000 members in a private Facebook group and more than 34,000 followers on a public Facebook page.
“It’s basically him and a Facebook account holding rallies in favor of patriotism and prayer. He’s been the subject of a truly astonishing slander campaign,” said Gibson’s lawyer, James Buchal, in a telephone interview.
In a Facebook message, supporter William Baumgardner described the group this way: “We are just folks from all walks of life who love our country and the Bill of Rights.”
(Reporting by Gabriella Borter and Andrew Hay; Editing by LisaShumaker)