New information and photos were added to this article Monday, Aug. 21.
Hundreds of demonstrators, reacting to the eruption of violence in Virginia last weekend, swarmed into Laguna Beach on Sunday to stand in solidarity against racism, vastly outnumbering the anti-immigration group known as America First that initially organized the rally.
Police made three arrests during the nearly six hours of protesting, though demonstrations were largely peaceful. Tensions did rise as distinctive boisterous groups using megaphones surged through the Main Beach park.
The demonstration – which police say numbered 2,500 at its peak — came eight days after a woman died when a car was driven through the Charlottesville crowd amid a clash between white nationalists and counterprotesters.
Law enforcement officials took precautions to avoid a similar incident, lining the park with water-filled traffic barriers the night before. At least 250 officers from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, California Highway Patrol, Irvine, Huntington Beach, Westminster, Anaheim, Newport Beach, Tustin, Santa Ana, UCI, Seal Beach, Fullerton, Fountain Valley, Orange, Costa Mesa, Garden Grove, and San Diego Sheriff and Police Departments responded to the protests.
A dozen of those officers were on horseback and many more wore riot gear with clubs and face shields. They proved a visible if jarring presence along the boardwalk.
Officers avoided facing off with demonstrators, but their strategic planning was clearly evident as they fluidly regrouped, using their bodies to partition off dueling factions and create a buffer that headed off confrontation by isolating the groups within the park.
Using megaphones, organizers led a contingent of 40 to 50 people with red and black
flags and the banner of the Socialist Democrats. Many wore bandanas over their faces, chanting slogans equating police to the Ku Klux Klan.
Behind a row of officers on horseback, police with batons, face shields and belts of tear gas, stood in the protesters path, preventing them from crossing into the north end of the park. There, Johnny Benitez, organizer of the anti-immigration America First rally, said he had heard from many of the group’s supporters, who feared for their safety. At a previous rally in Laguna on July 30, “kids played in the sand with glowsticks,” he said.
He expressed disappointment that the rally attracted anti-fascist demonstrators and
Lance Brown Eyes, from Standing Rock, S.D., who shouted over Benitez with a megaphone. “I want as much dialogue as possible,” Benitez said.
American First supporter Jordan Davis, of San Francisco, self-described himself as half black and Jewish. “This is not a neo Nazi rally,” he said.
He said the group opposes immigrants who seek benefits granted citizens and foreign policy that benefits others. “We need to work on our own needs before others,” said Davis, who estimated that 150 supporters were present though the Indy counted no more than 30.
Despite a plea by Mayor Toni Iseman to avoid Sunday’s rally to avoid confrontation, many residents and many outside the area disregarded the warning. An earlier counterdemonstration the day before drew about 300 people and largely avoided political speech. Speakers hewed to a similar message that expressed support for unity and diversity.
Tzung-lin Fu, an immigration lawyer in South Pasadena, said she and her family came
to Laguna Beach purposefully to demonstrate their disdain for what occurred in Charlotteville. Counterprotests, she said, “means people care; you’re not going to wear us down.”
Civil rights attorneys Richard Spix and Elizabeth Martin, of Huntington Beach, had a similar air. “We wanted to make sure they were over-powered and protected.”
In an echo of civil rights marches from 50 years ago, several ministers linked arms and marched along the boardwalk chanting slogans and singing spirituals, such as “We Shall Overcome.” Organizer Miguel Hernandez said spiritual leaders from Orange, San Diego and Los Angeles counties responded to his call. Police blocked their path as well.
Midway through the rally, a group of local drummers, including Chris Prelitz and Billy Fried, injected a different sort of psychic energy. They pounded out beats that drew protestors to dance rather than shout.
“Having the appropriate personnel and resources to properly address a rally of this size is what made it successful,” Laguna Beach Police Chief Laura Farinella said in a statement. “As always, it is always the mission of our police department to allow for freedom of expression afforded through the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, as long as it is done in a peaceful and lawful manner.”
Local Jill Doran said, “I came because I was worried there would be more people showing up with racist views.” She felt compelled to represent the spirit of inclusiveness that she believes is the majority view in town.
Marikyo Adams, also of Laguna Beach, said she had predicted few America First supporters would show up. “I still wanted to come down,” she said. “I’m so thankful things went peacefully.”
“How can you come to a place that is so progressive? It’s to be provocative,” said Joy Bawa, of Los Angeles, recruited by her friend, Adams, to attend.
Shonna Gottschlich, of Sebastopol, and her daughter, draped in a towel, stopped at the beach while in town home shopping. “We are the epitome of what they are protesting,” she said of her blended family. “I didn’t think it was going to be a real thing.”
Andrew Tonkovich, of Modjeska Canyon, carried a large peace sign, but watched the demonstration from the opposite side of the street. “The physics of 2,000 of us prevents any provocation,” he said, adding his surprise and gratitude that the demonstration drew people from throughout the region.
“I’m for coming here every Sunday for peace and justice,” he said.
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