By JACLYN SNOW
Alt-right rallies sprang up all over the United States last weekend, following on the tail of the terror that occurred in Charlottesville last weekend. I attended one on August 20th in Laguna Beach, California. California is known as a very liberal state, however a study conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center recently revealed that California is home to 79 hate organizations, more than any other state in the country. Laguna Beach (and surrounding Orange Country) is considered a somewhat conservative area of California, so counter-protesters from the big cities of Los Angeles and San Diego traveled some distance to the event. Prior to the event, counter-protestors worked together to organize first aid stations, medics, peacekeepers, and establish lines of communication with the police. They strategized how to limit access by filling up parking lots nearest the event hours before it began, and many took measures in case of emergency such as writing a contact numbers on arms, wearing goggles, gas masks, and other protective gear in anticipation of violence. Although the “America First!” vigil for “victims of illegal immigrants” was scheduled on Sunday, many counter-protestors demonstrated on Saturday to protest the rally preemptively. The “America First!” anti-immigation rally was the fifth this year organized by alt-right activist Johnny Benitez (formerly known as Juan Cadavid, an immigrant from Columbia). He arrived early and could be seen wandering around, engaging with the media throughout the length of the event. According to the Los Angeles Times, Jim Cotax (spokesperson for the Laguna Beach Police Department) estimated that 2,500 people attended the event. There were approximately 200 police officers from four counties, 50 alt-right people rallying, and the rest were all protestors.
Looking at the scene from across the street, its clearly visible that the “America First!” side was sparsely populated (first picture below), while the counter-protestors side was packed to capacity (second picture below)
The event was set to start at 6:00pm, so I arrived at 4:30. As I walked alone from my car to the protest area, I felt quickly on edge as a boisterous family of six followed closely behind me, laughing about the “stupidity of the liberal agenda.” We stopped at a street corner, waiting for the signal to change, when a well-dressed older white couple asked the family of six whether there was “some sort of event happening in Laguna Beach today.” One man in the group told them that they were holding a vigil “to mourn the individuals who have fallen victim to the violence of illegal immigrants,” claiming to have a list in his back pocket of such victims who he knew personally. The well-dressed older couple responded “oh, really, that is such a shame. Our prayers are with you. Keep fighting the good fight!” I made it down to the beach and was surprised by the absolute dichotomy of such a protest at this location. Oblivious beach-goers played volleyball, built sand castles, and frolicked in the waves while the rally and protest heated up a mere hundred feet away from the water (in the second photo below, you’ll see the protest behind the volleyball nets on the right).
As I walked through the throng of counter-protestors in the direction of the “America First!” area, it became clear that the police had not yet created a divide between the two groups. Several alt-right activists wandered into the counter-protest area, and quickly found themselves surrounded by media and angry protestors, leading to heated verbal altercations. The climax was at a narrow section of boardwalk separating the two sides of the protest but not yet sufficiently guarded by police. I was jostled in the front lines of a crowd surrounding a man wearing a black cowboy hat and board shorts emblazoned with the U.S. flag who claimed to be an organizer of the “America First!” rally. He argued for the alt-right while shouting down an actual nazi for giving their movement a bad image, as you can see in the clip I filmed below. Directly prior to the beginning of this film, the nazi was proudly showing off his tattoos, which include a swastika on his neck, S.S. bolts on his cheek, and several other fascist symbols. The nazi argued that he had every right to be there as an American, and announced to the crowd “my skin may be white, but my eyes are brown- to the bone!” However, he appeared intimidated as he put on his “I Love Hate” shirt mid-argument and looked to his friends, a young man and woman, to back him up. An indigenous rights protestor with a megaphone started shouting at the nazi, and at that moment the police stepped in to divide the crowd, followed by a row of officers on horse-back. I found myself on the wrong side of the cavalry, so I immediately jumped off the boardwalk into the sand and climbed back up to the other side.
Further away from the police line, I saw that the family of six whom I had encountered earlier had stopped for a photo-op with the ocean as a backdrop on the side of the counter-protest, and they were quickly surrounded by angry individuals as you can see in the video below. The police and peacekeepers stepped in shortly after I stopped filming to escort the family back to their “vigil” area.
Anti-fascist protesters marched and stood up to the police line, shouting chants.
Representatives of different religious movements showed up and banded together to march while singing protest lyrics to the tune of “Let it Shine.”
As the event continued, counter-protesters turned their platform into a party complete with drum circles, dancing, party hats, and cake. It was clear that the alt-right was massively outnumbered, and the anti-fascists had a reason to celebrate.
By 10:00pm, the event was declared an unlawful gathering and was dispersed by the police. Alt-right attendees were offered police escorts back to their vehicles, while counter-protesters were encouraged to walk back to their cars in groups. Only three arrests were made, and no acts of physical violence occurred.
The two photographs above are from the “America First!” side of the rally. All the photographs below are from the counter-protest.