by Dylan Gascon
At first glance, it would seem as if nothing was amiss in the seaside town of Laguna Beach.
Visitors casually left their cars at the $10 a day parking lot to take a trolley shuttle toward the town, passing the local arts festival that happens at this time of year. Posters decorated the theater, advertising A Night with Janis Joplin on the outer walls of the building, enticing people to come and see. There was traffic in the streets and the trolleys lurched forward toward Main Beach. But the closer they got, the more apparent it was something more was going on.
At Main Beach the crowds had already gathered early, even though the event didn’t officially start until 6:30 p.m. Counter protesters arrived on the scene in droves. Many carried signs, some sung chants, while on some green nearby others danced to the rhythm of bongo drums. The police made their presence known, with officers posted in nearby parking lots and a nearby gas station, while horse mounted officers got ready to ride into the crowd to separate the two sides. There was a fire alive in the air that lit everything up, almost rivaling the illumination of the sun.
Officers were dressed in riot gear and armed with batons or non-lethal shotguns loaded with beanbags and zip ties on their sides. And at the center of everything in far fewer numbers, were the right-wingers themselves, organized by a group called AmericaFirst!
Holding an event in Laguna Beach is nothing new for AmericaFirst! The group has held three events, all of them occurring without incident. The man behind the AmericaFirst! rally is Johnny Benítez, who in a YouTube video has stated of he and his group: “We oppose immigration from anywhere in the world.”
On Sunday, the group was scheduled to have an “Electric Vigil for the Victims of Illegals and Refugees”, with members of the group wearing rainbow colored gear, reminiscent of decorative pieces’ people at music festivals wear.
Although Benítez asserts he and his group aren’t racist, didn’t condone violence at the event, and even called the event “family friendly”, police weren’t taking any chances after last week’s event’s in Charlottesville, Virginia.
On Aug. 11, in the quiet town of Charlottesville, what started as a peaceful protest turned violent over the removal of a statue of confederate general Robert E. Lee. White nationalists came to protest the statue’s removal, while they were met with counter protesters, some of them being masked ANTIFA (anti-fascist) members.
The day ended in tragedy, with the death of one and injury of 19 others at the hands of a right-wing extremist drove his car into a crowd. Two police officers would also lose their lives at the rally when their helicopter crashed while attempting to give assistance to other officers.
Since that day, conservative groups have planned protests across the country, even in states like California, which is known for its liberal tendencies. There were three protest rallies planned in southern California this past weekend; one in front of Google headquarters in Venice, protesting the firing of James DeMoore, one in Huntington Beach, which was to be a book burning of leftist literature, and a third in Laguna Beach, being the vigil spearheaded by AmericaFirst!
Of the three events, the only one not cancelled was the latter of the three.
“I’m from here, and it’s sad to see events like this happening,” said Jody, a counter protester who came with a couple friends holding signs. She was one of about 2,500 counter protesters who came out against the small band of conservative supporters. According to AmericaFirst!’s Facebook event page, only 125 people showed up to support the vigil.
On Saturday, the day before the AmericaFirst! vigil, left wing groups Indivisible OC46 and Indivisible OC48 organized a counter rally that was comprised of around 350 people who were demonstrating against the AmericaFirst! Rally. These groups did this to avoid confrontation with AmericaFirst! But even so that didn’t stop people from attending the rally on Sunday.
Although they are criticized for being “racist” or “fascist”, AmericaFirst! doesn’t consider themselves anything of the sort. As they like to point out, not only is Benitez originally from Columbia, but they also have members of different ethnic groups as well, including Latinos and a few African Americans and Asians.
“I’ve never had any issues with them,” said a right-wing supporter named Hanzel, a Filipino who showed up in support of the vigil. Yet that didn’t stop the appearance of a few neo-Nazis from showing up to support the conservative cause; they are a presence that has been known to stalk events such as this. “I hate when they come out.” Hanzel said.
As the sun fell into the horizon and clouds began to obscure the darkening sky, the police made a clear division from the area where the vigil was to take place, keeping the counter protesters at bay.
Around the outskirts of the vigil were scattered members of AmericaFirst! and the Proud Boys, members of a right-wing group created by ex-Vice media founder Gavin McInnes, all engaged in heated debates/shouting matches by virtually everyone around them. Although grossly outnumbered, none of them backed down from their views.
By the end of the night, police had arrested three people and one 12-old boy claimed he had gotten pepper sprayed. At one point, horse mounted officers had to disperse counter protesters who began to crowd into the street who were blocking traffic. The SWAT team was called in, issuing via loudspeaker that if people didn’t disperse, they would be arrested. Eventually everything would calm down, returning the night to silence. Yet both sides knew this was far from over.
“Love will always win” Jody said as she and the crowds dissipated into the night.
By the end of the night, police had arrested three people, and one 12-year-old boy claimed he had gotten pepper sprayed.