Downtown Laguna Beach looks like many small coastal cities in Southern California, with rows of attractive, hyper-bourgeois shops and restaurants clustered together along miles of beach. It is, depending on your outlook, either a beautiful or terrifying place. Perhaps both.
At six o'clock on Sunday, many of the local businesses had already shuttered for the day. This was unusual, but was not unexpected: The "America First!" rally, billing itself as an "Electric Vigil for the Victims of Illegals and Refugees," had come to town and, along with the corresponding counter-protest, had made national headlines all week. Most storeowners probably wanted to avoid the headaches.
Though California is seen nationally as a bastion of left-wing values, there are indeed large far- and alt-right factions in the state; one report found California had the largest number of hate groups in the whole United States, and those numbers seem to be growing. Overall, hate crimes in California were up 14.2 percent in the state's nine biggest cities in 2016, according to one recent study.
Hard counts for the Laguna protests are tough to come by (though Sergeant Jim Cota, public information officer for the Laguna Beach Police, told me there were about 2,500 total people present at Sunday's protests). Going by an eyeball tally, it would be safe to say the "America First!" rally saw about 50 anti-immigration protestors descend on Laguna's Main Beach. Many of them carried American flags; some wore gear with images of swastikas.
The counter-protest saw a much more significant turnout. Thousands came to speak against what they called an anti-immigration march. One woman carried a poster that boldly declared, "ALWAYS ANTIFASCIST." Another woman, depicting a faceless solider with a swastika armband, read, "WE BEAT 'EM BEFORE WE WILL BEAT 'EM AGAIN."
Pacific Standard spoke with several protestors and counter-protestors. Their remarks are presented below; any factual inaccuracies are noted within the quotes.
Johnny Benitez, 28, "America First!" Organizer
"I organized this because right now in every industry in this country the plight of the working man is that they don't get better wages, they get bad working conditions because we have so many illegals and cheap labor being brought into the country. [The evidence for this claim is mixed.] Those same policies have real circumstances.… The amount of victims is in the thousands. ... We actually don't have an accurate statistic. I can come up with different cases, for example the Boston bombers were illegal immigrants. [This claim is false.] ... When we talk about conservative Christians, no one jumps on that. No one is like, 'Oh God, this person hates Christians, and wants to oppress them.' … We do have a racist code protective of Jews. You can't say anything about Jews at all, even when you're talking about specific groups. [This claim is false.] People always take that as blatant anti-Semitism. ... I started out libertarian, and then the right wing didn't engage in Occupy, and then I gravitated right through more political reading: [Friedrich] Hayek, Murray Rothbard, Milton Friedman, and these are people I'd never bothered to read because they'd been so demonized by the left."
Ed Baker, 54, "America First!" Attendee
"Illegal aliens are killing Americans. [While anecdotes exist, as a larger statement this claim is false, or exaggerated at best.] These people [the counter-protestors], they're not stupid. They know they can come here and twist what the media's gonna report, call us KKK and white supremacists and what have you. They have the press on their side. All they [the counter-protestors] chant is [calling us] KKK and white supremacists. This is not about race, this is about illegal aliens. I'll be standing next to a black guy, I'm a white guy, here's a brown guy, and they're all calling us racists. It's not about white lives matter or black lives matter. All lives matter, period."
Hugo Alonzo, 28, "America First!" Attendee
"I would love people to be able to walk out with a 'Make America Great Again' hat or an American flag, and not get threatened or hurt.… I was on the other side a little bit because I was lost trying to find the rally. You see a lot of people with the covered masks. It was just a matter of minutes, just being outnumbered 30 to one. But I do feel safe. The officers are doing an awesome job keeping the parties separate. It's just a matter of hoping we can all go home that way as well.… They [the counter-protestors] are misrepresenting what America stands for: being a nation of laws. This rally is being anti-illegal immigration, and that's the law."
Beverly, 56, "America First!" Attendee
"What's sad about Charlottesville is there was a small faction of white supremacists there. But the majority of the people who were there were not there as white supremacists. We're not white supremacists. It's sad because the media spins it. They don't tell the true story, and it causes this. A lot of these people [counter-protestors] are paid agitators.… There's assumptions that it's George Soros [paying them]. They have ads in Craigslist, and they bus these people in. [This claim is unproven.] And in the ad it says 'peaceful,' and in parenthesis, 'that's optional.' George Soros has sworn to take down America." [This claim is false.]
Andrew, 27, "America First!" Attendee
"I know what President [Donald] Trump is saying, and I think he's consistent. [This claim is false.] These people think that we're against immigrants, and we're not. We're against immigrants who come into this country illegally and murder people and cause crimes. [While anecdotes exist, as a larger statement this claim is false, or exaggerated at best.] ... We are not against people who want to come into our country and become United States citizens. Great people in the world, for example David Feherty, the professional golf commentator [originally from Northern Ireland]. He had to learn some of the United States' history, and he did. ... It takes one person to kill one person. If we let 1,000 people in that don't believe in the United States at all, they don't have any morals … they could eat their own babies. I know that's a little out there, but they have no morals."
Barton, 32, "America First!" Counter-Protestor, Member of Democratic Socialists of America
"I would ask that they reconsider how they look at the world and do not spread hate on this street and put other people's lives at risk. I would encourage them to look inward and think about what a human right is. … This has been enabled by the president, people like David Duke and Richard Spencer. Members of the alt-right feel empowered. [Trump] has blamed both sides this past week, so we need to show that we have the strength in numbers. Every time we have come out, we have destroyed them."
Alex, 21, Counter-Protestor
"We're here for the left. If you don't stand up for what you believe in, who else is going to? ... I work here [in Laguna Beach] and see [white supremacy] constantly. I hear the conversations. ... Earlier, when we first got here, someone came in with a swastika T-shirt—into the left—and a stick. They [counter-protestors] pushed him out ... I don't feel like they [the police] are doing anything at all. They're neutral. They're standing."
Max, 17, Counter-Protestor
"I believe that the views of these people that are protesting are immoral. I feel like it's my duty as a citizen and as the future of this country to voice my opinion and to send a message to these people that hate is not something we should embrace. Love should be the universal ideal. ... I understand that [they say] they're not 'white supremacists,' but the message that they're trying to portray is in line with racism."
Kira, 22, Counter-Protestor
"[The police] are on the side of the people supporting Trump. [While anecdotes exist, as a larger statement the evidence for this claim is mixed.] They think, if they support them, they're going to keep getting all the benefits. ... I'm standing up for immigrants, I'm standing up for black lives, I'm standing up for trans lives, I'm standing up for everyone who's being oppressed by this current office. I'm standing here to fight white supremacy and systematic racism. ... I think Nazis and white supremacists feel safe to come out and express their values now that they have a president who reflects those safe values."
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.