LAGUNA BEACH -- Most Sundays Laguna Beach is a prime spot for sunning and relaxing. But this past weekend it became the latest flashpoint in an escalating war of words and activism over the politics of race, identity and immigration.
About two dozen demonstrators arrived early in the afternoon draped in American flags for a vigil they said was meant to honor people killed or harmed by immigrants who came to the country illegally.
It was the fourth such right-wing rally this summer. But in the wake of the violent eruption in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug. 12, counterprotesters showed up in droves to spread a message of unity for all races and creeds.
An estimated 2,500 people converged on the quiet Orange County beach town.
The Rev. Kent Doss from Tapestry, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Mission Viejo, was one of the organizers of the counterdemonstration. He said he was part of a civil rights initiative called “Showing Up for Love and Justice."
He said he initially feared the protests could be dehumanizing and devolve into violence, but instead he found them mostly a celebration “of love and compassion.”
For days before, there were debates and disagreements over how to respond to the America First! event. Some people raised safety concerns after the violence that had erupted in Charlottesville. A young woman, Heather Heyer, was killed when a car allegedly driven by a white supremacist plowed into a group of demonstrators.
On Saturday about 300 people held a rally they called a unity event and hung brightly colored ribbons on lampposts and trees. They urged people not to confront America First!
But many people felt compelled to show up anyway Sunday to protest the rally against illegal immigration, which began in the late afternoon and lasted until after 9 p.m.
“Ignoring bullies doesn’t work and ignoring racism in our country has not worked for hundreds of years,” said Doss. “So when it shows up I feel like it's my responsibility as a faith leader to show up.”
Doss added that, as a gay man who had at times felt unsafe in conservative parts of the country, “I have a strong commitment to show up when marginalized groups of people feel unsafe in any situation because of their identity.”
Several participants in the America First! event blamed the media for unfairly characterizing them as white supremacists or neo-Nazis.
“That’s a bunch of baloney,” said Robert Smith. He described himself as “an old-fashioned conservative Christian,” and said he was there for two reasons: free speech and his opposition to illegal immigration.
“We’d welcome immigrants with open arms but they’ve just got to come here legally.”
Johnny Benitez, the organizer of the rally, said he is neither a white supremacist nor a neo-Nazi and that he opposes the use of racial epithets.
Benitez confirmed that his legal name is Juan Cadavid, as reported by the Orange County Weekly, but said he's using his mother's maiden name and an anglicized version of his first name.
"I think people of all races have the right to advocate for their identity groups," he said. "I would not like to see this country become a white minority."
He said the public attention generated by the standoff on Sunday could be beneficial.
Amid a heavy police presence that largely kept the two sides apart, there were some isolated skirmishes in which demonstrators on both sides were pepper-sprayed. Police made three arrests.
“There is some value in the violence in how much attention it draws,” Benitez said, adding that he would prefer to have debates and discussion.
Nevertheless, he said he's planning another vigil in Laguna Beach for next month.
KCRW reporter Jenny Hamel contributed to this story.