With protesters and counter-protesters facing off in tense confrontations across the country this weekend in the wake of the deadly clash in Charlottesville, Va., activists in Orange County wanted to try something different.
An “America First!” rally against illegal immigration was scheduled for Sunday evening. Counter-protesters, including the city’s mayor, staged their own protest but scheduled it a day earlier.
“As we’re constantly reminded to act and not react, we’re also reminded not to serve the racists’ purpose and provide them with a platform to spread their hatred,” organizers of the Saturday event wrote on Facebook.
To the several hundred protesters who showed up Saturday, Laguna Beach Mayor Toni Iseman said: “Tell your friends that being here today means you won’t be dancing with the bad guys tomorrow.”
“They want a fight; we’re not going to engage,” Iseman said.
Still, hundreds of counter-protesters showed up anyway at the “America First!” rally Sunday evening. A police spokesman estimated the crowd of protesters and counter-protesters grew to about 2,500 — only a few dozen in that crowd were there for the “America First!” rally, billed as a vigil for victims of crimes committed by immigrants in the U.S. illegally.
The protests remained largely peaceful, if tense and loud, for much of the evening. As of 8:30 p.m., police had made two arrests; one counter-protester was arrested after shoving a Trump supporter, another for disturbing the peace with a knife. It was not immediately clear which side the person with a knife was protesting.
Shortly before 9:30 p.m., as the protests wound down, police escorted the “America First!” group out of the area. Police declared the event an unlawful assembly and ordered the crowd to disperse.
Crowds started gathering hours before the planned protest. The modest cluster of anti-immigration demonstrators met in a circle on the beach, separated by the boardwalk and a phalanx of police officers in riot gear and on horseback from hundreds of counter-protesters chanting and drumming from the other side. Some yelled insults between the officers’ legs.
Waving signs that read “Curb your Nazism,” protesters on one side shouted, “Immigrants welcome here” and “Hey hey, ho ho, white supremacy’s got to go.”
“It’s ridiculous. I don’t understand this. They’re the ones with all the hate,” said Jesse Hernandez, who was attending the “America First!” rally. “It’s just a vigil of patriots that recognize what illegal immigration has done to some Americans.”
One of his fellow “America First!” protesters yelled, “We’re not Nazis!” and said what upsets him the most is that people don’t understand the difference between people like him and extremists. “There are no Nazis here,” he said, shaking his head.
About 200 officers from Laguna Beach, Anaheim, Newport Beach and Irvine were at the rally to try to ensure that the protests would not erupt in violence. Orange County sheriff’s deputies on horseback were also separating the crowds.
Laguna Beach police spokesman Jim Cota said authorities strategized to spread protesters along the length of the beach rather than have them build toward the waterfront.
“As long as everyone follows the rules, they can execute their 1st Amendment right,” he said. “We’re just not going to tolerate violence.”
The organizer behind the anti-immigration event, a man identifying himself as Johnny Benitez, has held similar gatherings in Laguna Beach since May.
On Sunday, Benitez, a Colombian immigrant, calmly debated the need for affirmative action with a woman who accused him of hateful speech. He said people of color are most negatively affected by immigration.
Benitez told a Noticias Telemundo reporter in Spanish that coming into the United States illegally is a crime, and that labor by immigrants here illegally was responsible for low wages.
After the clash in Charlottesville, which left one woman dead when a driver plowed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters at a white nationalist rally, the Laguna Beach event became the focal point of self-proclaimed “anti-fascist” protesters in Orange County.
Similar protests and counter-protests took place across the country over the weekend, including in New Orleans and Dallas. The largest demonstration occurred in Boston, where about 50 far-right activists organized a “free speech” rally and were outnumbered by tens of thousands of counter-protesters.
Twenty-seven people were arrested in Boston, mostly for disorderly conduct, but no injuries were reported.
The Laguna Beach protests came after a weekend in which prominent leaders spoke out in Los Angeles against racism and violence.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, appearing at the Islamic Center of Southern California, said Heather Heyer, the protester killed in Charlottesville when a man drove a car into a crowd demonstrating against white supremacists, was powerful because she was nonviolent.
“If she had had a stick or a gun and cursing, she would have been dismissible. There is power in nonviolence,” he said. “There’s power in suffering and sacrificing for righteous reasons. There’s power in putting your life on the line for more life. Eye and an eye and tooth for tooth is not wisdom.”
Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez, in his weekend sermons, raised alarm about a “new kind of racism and nationalism … rooted in fear.”
Gomez said some of the fear is about “what is happening in our society,” referring to the racial tensions that have divided the country following the white supremacy rally in Charlottesville.
“Our country has become so angry and bitter, so divided — in so many different areas,” he said. “There is no place in the Church — and there is no place in American society — for racism and prejudice against people based on their race or nationality.”
He also noted that the national debate over immigration reform has been marked by “a lot of racism and nativism… even among Catholics.”
“This is all wrong and it needs to stop!” Gomez said. “Our task is to bring people together, to build bridges and open doors and make friendships among all the diverse racial and ethnic groups and nationalities in our country.”
Times staff writers Brittny Mejia, Doug Smith and Carlos Lozano contributed to this report.
9:45 p.m.: This article has been updated throughout with additional details and comments about the rally and counter-protesters.
7:35 p.m.: This article has been updated with additional details about interactions between different groups at the rally.
6:50 p.m.: This article has been updated with additional details about police and the rally organizer.
This article was originally published at 6:10 p.m.