Updated with new information Sept. 13
The organizer of the America First rally that drew 2,500 demonstrators to Laguna Beach last month has abandoned plans for another protest later this month because his family has received death threats, according to the city’s police chief.
Police Chief Laura Farinella said a tally of costs for last month’s America First rally exceeds $40,000 for Laguna Beach alone, much of it overtime pay for the sworn and civilian staff of 130 people deployed by the city’s police department on Sunday, Aug. 20.
That figure falls far short of the actual public costs, which drew on resources from 17 agencies and involved nearly 300 officers to maintain the peace among opposing factions. Law enforcement agencies assist each other without cost in emergencies under mutual aid agreements.
Johnny Benitez, of Lake Forest, who organized last month’s demonstration by the anti-illegal immigration group America First, informed local police last week he had cancelled another rally in Laguna Beach set for Sept. 24.
Benitez, who has since taken down the American First Facebook page and disconnected his phone, told Farinella that he and his family had received death threats since last month because his efforts have become associated with white supremacists. He could not be reached for comment, but in an interview last month denied any alliance with white supremacist organizations.
The backlash that erupted after a bystander was run down in Charlottesville, Va., where white supremacists protested the removal of a Confederate monument, provided an accelerant to the America First rally and prompted a forceful presence by law enforcement and a counter “unity rally” the day before. Ultimately, counterdemonstrators, many of them loud and antagonizing, by far outnumbered America First supporters at Main Beach. Lines of police officers, including a dozen on horseback, physically isolated the groups one from another to suppress direct clashes. Police made four arrests, including one for a hate crime, during the nearly six-hour protest.
In anticipation of the now cancelled rally and as a result of information gleaned from demonstrations, the City Council enacted new prohibitions Tuesday, Sept. 12, involving public assemblies, including banning signs or flags hoisted on sticks or poles and carrying of other household items, such as cans of soda, capable of being used as a weapon. The law, which takes affect immediately, now also forbids the carrying of balloons, or other containers, that could contain bio-hazards such as urine or feces.
Surveillance video from last month’s demonstration revealed potential weapons among the crowd: demonstrators’ held signs with nails protruding from sticks capped by an easy to remove cork, Farinella told council members. Others carried daggers, pepper spray, chains and metal pipes, the staff report says.
Until such restrictions about public assemblies are formally adopted, officers could not forbid the presence of potential weapons unless they were used, Farinella said.
With the new restrictions, officers will have the authority to tell demonstrators to leave sticks or cans in their vehicles or abandon them before joining a demonstration. “We ask for compliance first and then take steps as necessary,” she said, which includes arrest.
Resident Dave Oakley questioned the proposed regulation, describing the action as moving toward a “police state.” Forbidding cans of soda, for example, “is a slippery slope to defining everything as a weapon,” said Oakley, who identified himself as a member of the Socialist Democrats of America, an anti-fascist group present at last month’s rally to oppose America First supporters.
He said that organization also cancelled its planned counterdemonstration in Laguna Beach on Sept. 24.
Another resident, Ed Steinfeld, also commented on the regulation, describing it as misdirected. Instead, he called for an ordinance to restrict demonstrations by hate groups.
Council members unanimously approved the urgency ordinance. In explaining his support for the measure, Rob Zur Schmiede described his dismay to the reply of an officer about pre-emptively confiscating a baseball bat if carried by a demonstrator. Without seeing threatening behavior, the officer could not seize the bat, Zur Schmiede said.
Steve Dicterow described the regulations as “reasonable” and preferred to “err on the side of safety when it’s not inhibiting free speech.”
In an earlier interview, Farinella expressed surprise that Benetiz had pulled the plug on what would have been the organization’s fifth rally in Laguna Beach. “He’s done what he can,” Farinella said, to inform supporters of the cancellation. Nevertheless, “I have to prepare regardless,” she said, though she doesn’t anticipate needing to match the resources deployed on Aug. 20.
“We will monitor to the last second in case he’s playing with us,” said Sgt. Jim Cota.
Aside from personnel overtime costs, Farinella said indirect costs to the city for policing the demonstration included renting parking lots for incoming law enforcement agency vehicles, supplying food and water for the supplemental officers and lining the beach front with traffic barriers.
Even so, Farinella said the cost isn’t enough to outstrip the department’s budget, which builds in a reservoir of overtime pay for other extraordinary events, including July 4, Memorial Day and Labor Day holidays and storm events.
While police consciously try to avoid disrupting the town and its day-trippers with law enforcement activity, Farinella thinks in hindsight she might have closed the Main Beach volleyball courts, blocked the boardwalk and cleared the beach.