A protest in Seattle. Photograph: Jason Wilson
Off campus, Washington state laws allow open-carry. Gibson has been drawn to armed protest. A day before his arrest at UW he led around 40 people, many carrying guns, in a march and rally in downtown Seattle. Speakers with handguns or rifles addressed a small crowd in McGraw Square, at the heart of a busy shopping district.
At the other side of the square, about 10 members of an armed leftist group, the Puget Sound John Brown Gun Club, stood watching for what their spokesman called a “known white supremacist element”. They carried AR-15s and sidearms.
Gibson sees such standoffs as proof of the wisdom of open-carry, which he said “has helped to keep the violence down”.
“If someone’s violent towards you you have a right to shoot them, legally,” he said. “It’s deterred the violence. It keeps people polite.”
Movement leader to political candidate?
Historically, the leading Republican has made the Senate runoff. For several months after he announced his campaign, Gibson was the frontrunner. On the last filing date, an “establishment” candidate, Susan Hutchison, pitched herself into the race.
Washington is seen as a Democratic state, but that impression conceals a deep divide between urban and rural, west and east, characteristic of west coast states. Money, power and population are centred on Seattle, which is often resented by rural conservatives in the state’s eastern half. Gibson’s rhetoric has always been stridently critical of the liberal cities. In Seattle, he said the city “despises patriots” and “will spit in your face for loving the constitution”.
Mark Smith teaches political science at the University of Washington. He doubts that can be a winning message. “Statewide elections are generally won in the Seattle suburbs,” he said, adding that populist anti-Seattle messaging has not tended to resonate there. He also wondered if Gibson could make the transition from “a movement leader to a political candidate”.
Gibson is focused on the primary, which he said was “not about how many Democrats are in King county, it’s about how many Republicans are prepared to vote for me over Susan Hutchison”.
Rank-and-file Republicans have been “respectful”, he said, adding: “They’ve definitely warmed up to me. I’ve been invited to speak at so many Republican events. It’s been better than I expected, that’s for sure. I think a lot of Republicans are beginning to see the benefit of having me involved in the party, because it brings in a whole new crowd.”
At the Seattle rally, Gibson disavowed white supremacy and spoke with customary intensity on the libertarian message of “freedom” he has promoted for more than a year. As is his habit, he wore black jeans, boots, and a cap with a Christian fish emblem on it. His T-shirt read: “John 3:16”.
Speaking about the second amendment, he said: “When you’re in a war, you have to arm yourself.” What made him distinct from other Republicans, he said, was “two things: the message about freedom, and being genuine, and not playing by the rules. The way I dress, the way I act, everything I say. My speeches aren’t written out. I speak directly from the heart.”
The UW incident and the Seattle rally bore other hallmarks of Gibson’s contradictory brand of politics. Time and again, he has used confrontational methods to advocate for rightwing values in bastions of liberalism, then claimed not to understand how people might find such actions menacing. He has insisted his purpose is to defend the values of “freedom” and “love”, but his rallies and marches have been coordinated with the street-fighting wing of the alt-right movement and have drawn in white supremacists.
In July and August last year, rallies on the Portland waterfront degenerated into running brawls between Gibson’s supporters and counter-protesters. On 11 September in Vancouver, Washington, just a month after Heather Heyer was killed by a white supremacist driver in Charlottesville, Virginia, a pickup truck reversed at speed towards counter-protesters.
A man who attended a Portland rally in April last year, meanwhile, stands accused of murder. Jeremy Christian turned up at Gibson’s “free speech” rally in Montavilla Park and was filmed giving Hitler salutes and talking with members of Identity Europa, a white supremacist group. Gibson says he threw Christian out. A month later, police say, Christian stabbed three men who intervened when he was racially abusing two young women on a train. Ricky Best and Talleisin Namkai-Meche were killed.
A week later, on 4 June last year, Gibson pressed ahead with a rally in downtown Portland. Attendees included neo-fascists, militia leaders and rightwing online celebrities. The event also featured a speech by the chair of the local Republican party and drew the biggest counter-protests in recent Portland history. One counter-protest was broken up with gas and a police charge. Scores of people were detained.
Gibson’s critics have long argued that though he might publicly disavow white supremacy or fascism, his “free speech” events open up space for people who do embrace such ideas.
This Sunday, Gibson plans to return to the site of the 4 June rally. The ostensible purpose is to say goodbye to Toese, who is returning to Samoa. Counter-protesters are mobilizing. In a call to supporters on its website, the Rose City Antifa group said Gibson was “a magnet for violent white supremacists and bigots” and stated that it would “not allow racists and fascists to parade through Portland’s streets”.
Washington Republicans have stayed silent about Gibson’s candidacy and the state party did not respond to a request for comment. Gibson has, however, attracted one nationally famous face: political consultant and former Trump adviser Roger Stone.
Last March, after a visit to Oregon for a conservative conference where he was pictured with members of the Proud Boys, Stone conducted an extended, glowing interview with Gibson on the War Room, the show he hosts for the Infowars website run by the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
Stone did not respond to a request for comment. Asked if he counted Stone as a supporter, Gibson said: “No comment on our relationship, but I’ll tell you this: Roger Stone is going around the country looking for people who will stand up and fight for freedom.”