Yesterday, Patriot Prayer held a rally at Red Square on the University of Washington campus, at the invitation of the College Republicans group, and I spent the afternoon there taking pictures and soaking up the sights and sounds.
I arrived just before 1:00, and at first I tried to get into the square from the north entrance. But a UWPD security guard stopped me and asked “which group are you with?” Call me idealistic, but I bristle at the notion that a person can stop me walking down a public street in America and demand to know my loyalties. So I said “I’m just me, a group of one. Am I not free to walk into a public square?”
He explained that the police (both UWPD and Seattle PD) were guarding a fenced-off area where the Patriot Prayer gathering was to take place, and pointed out two women from the College Republicans group who were checking people at the only entrance into the space:
“It’s their event,” he explained, “so it’s up to them whether you can go in. I’m just telling you that they’ll ask you that question, and there’s only one answer that will get you in, and if you start arguing with them you’ll probably get arrested by those cops down there.”
I liked that guy, especially when he muttered “honestly, I just wish I could be home watching TV right now.” Seemed a good kid. I didn’t feel like pretending to be a Republican just to get into their event, so I wandered around to the other side of Red Square, where protestors could walk up to another fence, with a DMZ full of cops in between the two groups:
There were maybe a couple hundred protestors there at first, and then a group came up from the southeast corner of the square, chanting “racists are not welcome here”:
Eventually there were around 1000 protestors outside the fences, and between 50 and 100 people at the event inside the police barrier. There was quite a bit of yelling back and forth, as usual at these events. Masked Antifa types were screaming at cops for “protecting racists,” clearly very frustrated that their much larger mob couldn’t get at the small peaceful assembly inside the fence. For example, a woman was screaming at this guy “does your Mom know you protect racists?”
The overall vibe, from my perspective, was that one group (inside the fences) was peacefully promoting a hateful ideology, while the other group was hatefully promoting their allegedly peaceful agenda.
I feel compelled to point out this guy, because he was a prominent voice of sanity and maturity outside the fence:
But other than a few wise souls like him, the crowd outside the fence had a menacing mob-like feel to it.
Patriot Prayer organizers Joey Gibson and Tiny Toese eventually showed up, and they gave speeches to a few dozen people. I couldn’t see them because they were back in a corner of the square, away from the barriers, but I could hear them leading a prayer and singing the national anthem. Here’s Tiny (left) checking out the protestors a bit later:
Around 2:00, I left to feed my parking meter. And I missed some excitement – Tiny and a few others wandered out into the crowd while I was gone, and the first two arrests took place when Antifa types tried to attack them.
The thing to understand about Tiny and Joey is that these guys are professional trolls, and they’re very good at it. They’re not cowardly online trolls, hiding in Mom’s basement behind the anonymity of the internet, but rather real-life trolls, willing to take a beating or get pepper-sprayed if it helps their cause. Their cause, and their support for racists, is thoroughly disgusting, but they have the courage and discipline to wander into a crowd and bring out the worst behavior on the other side, so that they can use that behavior to drive further support for their cause. For a great example of how they operate, check out this video from last summer in Berkeley.
When I got back to the square, the Patriot Prayer people were starting to disperse, with police protection, and some of the protestors were getting very frustrated at their inability to attack them. Here are a few photos of the back-and-forth over the next hour or so:
After a couple more arrests of protestors, the crowd thinned out and the event ended with a whimper.
Cashing in on the win
I got online this morning at 7AM and did a search for “Patriot Prayer” to see what kind of coverage the protests were getting on Twitter, and as expected there were a huge number of hits. The following is a simple cursory examination of how Patriot Prayer and their allies are amplifying the news of yesterday’s protests. (If you’re interested in a more comprehensive look at this sort of Twitter campaign, here’s a post from last year.)
I noticed that one particular Fox News article (“College Republicans’ Patriot Prayer rally disrupted by counter-protesters“) seems to be getting a lot of tweets, so I focused on only accounts that retweeted that specific Fox News article between 6AM and 7AM PST this morning. The actual coverage and reaction to the event is much larger, this is just a randomly selected subset of the activity.
First, let’s look at accounts that appear to be real people. Here are 10 randomly selected accounts that tweeted the link to the Fox News article early this morning:
Each of those accounts has over 10,000 followers, and they’re all quite active, mostly retweeting things in support of Donald Trump. There were hundreds of these, perhaps thousands by now, and each of those tweets is getting retweeted by followers (for example), so the total reach of this story before 7AM PST was in the millions.
In addition to those accounts, the same Fox News story is being very actively tweeted this morning by accounts that appear to be bots. For example, here are 10 Twitter accounts that tweeted links to the Fox News article, and they all have handles that end in 8-digit random numbers, which is a well-known tactic used by Russian bot farms that generate large numbers of fake Twitter accounts:
Most of the tweets are exact copies of the same text, but not retweets. In other words, they are intended to look like individual decisions to tweet independently about the same topic. For example, here’s the tweet from “Mitzi Wagner” (and note the timestamp, which is intended to convey that Mitzi lives in the Central time zone – this tweet was at 6:07AM PST):
This sort of large-scale tweeting of a news story creates the impression that a large number of people agree with the article or want it to be seen by others. So the message being sent to millions of people this morning via Twitter is that Americans are concerned about the violent disruption of a peaceful and righteous-sounding gathering by a large mob of angry people.
Some of the tweets, presumably those from actual human beings, include additional comments. Here’s a typical example:
Now that’s a bit of a stretch, to say they were attacked for praying in public, but I totally agree with the sentiment “these morons don’t even know what they are opposing/attacking.” It’s really rather rich, to see entitled young white people wearing face masks, threatening photographers, and complaining about the police not letting them beat people up, all in the name of “fighting fascism.”
I also found it ridiculous to hear people yelling about Heather Heyer’s tragic death in Charlottesville. Yes, Patriot Prayer and their friends include many white supremacists who are politically aligned with the asshole who plowed his car into a crowd in Charlottesville last summer. But Patriot Prayer didn’t kill Heather Heyer, and showing up at a Patriot Prayer rally and screaming about Charlottesville is about is insightful – and effective – as showing up at a Bernie Sanders rally and screaming about the Portland train attack. To state the obvious, neither of those events give anyone a right to violently attack others.
When you’re hiding the truth, you’re losing
I’ve been photographing protest events for many years, and one thing that’s changed a lot in the last 12 months is the rise of Antifa and the presence of masked persons looking to cause violence at many protest events. I got run off the street by them in Berkeley last summer, and that’s why I now carry a smaller camera. At the UW yesterday, I witnessed a shrill young woman confronting a photographer for taking a crowd photo – in a public square – that included her masked face without asking her permission. “That’s a good way to get your camera broken,” she screamed, and many photographers have learned that lesson the hard way in the last year.
But in my experience the Patriot Prayer people, and Trump supporters more generally, are quite accepting of photographers. I first observed this at the Trump Rally in Everett two years ago, and I’ve seen it many times since. For example, yesterday I walked over into the Patriot Prayer group to snap some pictures, and nobody paid any attention to me. (That’s how I got the closeup of the MAGA guys with flag bandanas in the header image above).
Later yesterday afternoon, out on University Avenue, the Patriot Prayer people were in a small parking lot by their vehicles, while a mob of angry protestors yelled at them from across the street and police kept the groups apart. Apparently somebody had maced a couple of the Patriot Prayer guys, and I walked into their group and snapped a few photos while they were recovering from the attack:
Taking a closeup of a moment like that involving Antifa kids is a good way to get attacked, but the Trump supporters never seem to mind.
I’m not sure how to end this, so I’ll just include an exchanged yelled back and forth across University Avenue over the heads of cops shortly after that photo, between a screaming bandana-wearing Antifa guy (BWAG) in front of Café Solstice and a laughing bearded racist Proud Boy (BRPB) across the street in the parking lot:
BWAG: “I have a photographic memory! I see your license plate! B-1-…”
BRPB: (giggling) “Oh my god, he’s memorizing my plate.” (his friends laugh)
BWAG: “You’re pretty tough hiding behind all those cops!”
BRPB: “Yeah, all these cops are here because you’re totally unhinged, that’s why they’re here!” (more laughter)
I assume both of them went home feeling they “won” yesterday.