Amid a small crowd on Main Beach last Sunday protesting the violence that occurred a day earlier in Charlottsville, Va., Margaret Houffelaar stands out.
Hers isn’t the loudest voice. Nor does she wield the largest sign. But the 91-year-old Laguna Woods resident represents another type of heavy lifting, bearing the weight of history.
As a teen, she lived through the Nazi occupation of her native Holland where her father was jailed without trial. He later died in the Dachau concentration camp in Germany.
Though she’s joined a dozen political rallies since last November – marches for women, climate change and town hall meetings — Houffelaar will boycott the back-to-back political rallies planned this weekend in Laguna Beach out of a sense of trepidation.
“I’m scared there will be violence again,” she said, referring to Charlottesville, where a woman died in a melee and protestors used Nazi slogans and salutes. “It would hurt me too much to hear these people; I’ve seen too much of that,” Houffelaar said.
In the wake of the violence that erupted in Virginia, Laguna’s mayor issued a plea to residents to avoid a rally planned by anti-immigration supporters on Main Beach at 6 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 20. Some local progressive groups have organized a counter protest on the morning of Saturday, Aug. 19, deliberately mobilizing their demonstration 24 hours earlier to avoid confrontation. Other splinter protests intend a face off against the conservative demonstrators on Sunday anyway, while two local groups plan Sunday demonstrations, but far from Main Beach.
While America First! has held five other protests in Laguna without incident since March, Mayor Toni Iseman believes the sixth will be different. “This is not about border control,” Iseman said. “They’ve been inspired by what happened in Virginia,” she said.
Iseman expressed confidence in the precautions taken by the Laguna Beach police to manage the situation, though she declined to provide specifics.
“If they can’t pick a fight, they won’t come back,” predicted Iseman, who has heard from a few citizens pressuring her to halt Sunday’s demonstration. “Legally we cannot, but we can hold them to a standard of behavior of non-violence,” she said.
Some residents also asked for intervention from Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican from Costa Mesa, whose district includes Laguna Beach. The congressman is out of the area celebrating his 20th wedding anniversary, said district director Kathleen Staunton on Wednesday, Aug. 16. “He’s totally unaware of this,” she said.
America First! organizer Johnny Benitez, 29, of Lake Forest, agrees with Iseman that the national backlash over the Virginia rally will influence the demonstration planned eight days later, though he doesn’t anticipate violence. “There’s not enough outrage,” he said.
“It’s supposed to be a patriotic event. But now people won’t bring their kids and their dogs,” said Benitez. “We don’t have people with swastikas,” he said.
Benitez, a native of Colombia who works as a massage therapist, uses his mother’s maiden name for political activism. His real name is Juan Cadavid.
America First! is not a formal entity, but no more than a Facebook page that has about 800 followers, he said. The first rally in March drew 16 people. The most recent one on July 30 drew 150, he said.
Those involved in the most recent America First! rally waved U.S. flags and held a banner that read, “No more victims. Secure our borders,” as seen in a Youtube video. Others in the video described their support for the Trump administration’s immigration policies, including the president’s proposal for a border wall with Mexico.
Protests are held in Laguna Beach, Benitez said, because it is home to wealthy donors who backed Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, but live in gated communities where they don’t see the impact of immigration policies. He cited graffiti, non-English speakers and criminal behavior.
“It’s not racial; it’s about preserving opportunities for citizens,” said Benitez, who said he rejects the ideology of white supremacy but supports white identity politics.
Sara Lowell, of Laguna Beach, among the organizers of one counter-demonstration, described Benitez’ rhetoric as racist and anti-Semitic. “To call themselves anything else is disingenuous,” said Lowell, who expects to draw supporters from four Orange County groups to a counter-demonstration at 10 a.m. Saturday. They include Together We Will, OC Racial Justice Collaborative and Indivisible OC 48 and 46, she said.
“We want nothing to do with America First! We will never organize an event that puts our members at risk,” she said.
Artist and political activist Karly Berube, 20, of Aliso Viejo, created a Facebook page to spur interest in a counter-protest on Sunday, also at Main Beach. Her aim “is to show them that white supremacy is not welcome here.” A Facebook post by the Democratic Socialists of America say they intend to participate on Sunday as well.
Berube pointed out that America First uses the Identitarian logo, defined by Wickipedia as a white nationalist movement that advocates the preservation of national identity and a return to “traditional western values.”
Meanwhile, Rev. Kent Doss plans a vigil and march from 2 to 6 p.m. Sunday at the Congregational Church, 340 St. Ann’s Dr., a response to “the planned presence of white supremacists.”
“We come together in support of our immigrant and refugee siblings, and in solidarity with our black, Jewish, and Muslim siblings,” Doss said in a statement.
The Laguna Beach Democratic Club voted to co-sponsor a counter-demonstration march Sunday at 6 p.m. that sets out from City Hall and heads to Main Beach, club spokeswoman Jahn Levitt said. “We will not permit their hatred to go unchallenged.”
Police Sgt. Jim Cota said Benitez informed police about the rally well in advance, but has not asked for police protection. “We routinely monitor any event, rally, demonstration or protest whether planned or unplanned,” he said in a statement.
For Houffelaar, a retired dressmaker, the coming weekend protests strike a dissonant chord that resonates from her girlhood. A supporter of animal rights and environmental protection, she lacked the motivation to get involved in political activism beyond casting her ballot up until last November. “It was not necessary,” she said. Now, though, she says, “I want to resist. I suffer because other people suffer.”
And besides, rebellion is in her DNA. She’s a descendent of Huguenots, who fled France due to religious persecution in the 17th century.
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