Lessons from a Laguna Beach counterprotest

August 29, 2017

James Bergthold, a member of the Orange County chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, reports on the important lessons that emerged from building a recent counterprotest against the far right.

A CROWD of 2,500 counterprotesters gathered in Laguna Beach, California, on August 20 in response to the far-right America First! "Electric Vigil for the Victims of Illegals and Refugees" rally--a recurring event created and hosted by Johnny Benitez, an alt-right figure and alleged neo-Nazi and white supremacist based in Southern California.

Planned in just six days by the Orange County chapter of Democratic Socialists of America (OC DSA), Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the Socialist Party USA (SPUSA), the antiracist counterprotest managed to dwarf the 20 far-right rally-goers by a margin of 125 to one.

Benitez was associated with the Orange County chapter of the far-right Proud Boys before reportedly being kicked out over internal politics. The America First! event was billed as a non-violent, non-racist rally supporting the "victims of illegal immigrants," but reporting from the OC Weekly shows that Benitez's claims of donating money to local charities for crime victims are false, and no effort was made on his part to contact or work with these actual organizations.

Anti-racists demonstrate in Laguna Beach, California
Anti-racists demonstrate in Laguna Beach, California

The OC DSA chapter became aware of the August 20 America First! event almost a week before it happened, and scrambled to organize a counterprotest. A division of responsibilities was crucial to our success, as was bringing in support from other chapters and organizations. This quickly became the largest event we had ever organized. A multi-organizational group was formed, pooling our resources and contacts to quickly cobble our event together.

We worked very hard to make the event as inclusive as possible, focusing on the anti-fascist nature of the counterprotest, while not compromising on our own values. This made many more liberal-minded people willing to attend, and was a large factor in the size of our rally. Organizing a broad base for this event meant taking time to patiently explain our process to those who were hesitant about our contact with the Laguna Beach Police Department, which we did to check whether a permit was needed (we found that it wasn't).

OUR EVENT began an hour before the America First! event was scheduled to start, and our organizers showed up an hour before that. When we arrived, there were already about 15 people waving American flags and holding pro-Trump banners, as well as about 100 counterprotesters.

We set up about 100 feet from the white supremacists, and counterprotesters began pouring in. Soon, the far-right rally-goers moved farther down the beach. They maintained about 20 people throughout, peaking at around 40.

Police in riot gear were there the entire time, and as the event grew more showed up, including mounted police. According to local media, approximately 200 police were there that day, lining the beach and separating the two sides. They stayed largely uninvolved while the OC DSA was there, aside from pushing our side into the smallest possible area they could and blocking 200 marchers and clergy from local churches from joining us for about half an hour.

As the day went on, small groups of known, violent white supremacists tried to loop around the cops and walk through our side, only to be driven out by large numbers of anarchists, Antifa, communists and socialists. Several scuffles broke out, but nothing prolonged or extreme.

After the sun went down, with somewhere around 600 protesters left on our side, someone used pepper spray, sparking a brief skirmish where more people indiscriminately used pepper spray of their own. At least one right-winger was hit with it, and around 10 left-wing protesters were affected as well. People quickly rallied around those affected, using liquid antacid and water to flush eyes and faces.

Shortly after that, we determined that the only people left were there for a fight, and the cops had pushed people off the beach and restricted us to just the sidewalk, placing barricades known as "K-rails" on the other side of us. Our chapter spread the word that we were leaving, inviting any who wanted an escort back to their cars to join us. The walk back to the cars was uneventful, and everyone was accounted for before we left.

Having safety in mind in the wake of the attack on left-wing protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, one very useful preparation we took on was having a number of street medics and emergency medical technicians that volunteered to provide medical support. We had several health issues that were poorly handled by the authorities, and our people were able to help those in need while the cops not only did little to help, but then spent time "securing the area" before escorting the paramedics into the crowd while wearing body armor. Later in the night, after the crowd had died down, the medics were invaluable when pepper spray was used.

Our event was hugely successful. Leading the charge on this event has led to many interviews and articles written about our chapter, spots on local news channels, radio interviews and guest spots on podcasts, with a lot of praise for the inclusive atmosphere and overall lack of violence. All involved are proud of our work, and greatly encouraged by our success.

We received some complaints after the event about anti-police chants at the rally, as well as for a lack of participation in violent protest. But we have also been thanked by many, and more are interested in our chapter, and more still were at least briefly exposed to leftist activists. We built many excellent connections with local groups that we would not have had without an event like this to bring us together.

I DRAW several conclusions from this rally and the events leading up to it. First, organizing the event around anti-fascism rather than leftist politics was instrumental in drawing the numbers we had. Many people attended who would not have come to a DSA event, or anything more explicitly leftist.

Second, outnumbering the far right as greatly as we did, we were able to deny them a platform and show both them and the local community that through solidarity and unity, we were stronger than the fascists, and what they stood for was unacceptable and not welcome in Orange County.

Third, we were able to make the event much more open and safe with basic, simple safety precautions, like on-site medical responders, escorting people who needed/wanted it back to their cars and making sure people didn't leave alone, and having marshals at the event to de-escalate anything that did come up.

Finally, presenting a united front to the fascists, bringing together a coalition of leftists and liberals--and even several Republicans who just hate Nazis--is the only way to realistically fight the rise of the alt-right and neo-Nazis in the long term.

With Trump in office and the economic crisis ongoing, we won't see fascism dissolve on its own; there are powerful forces that are driving people to the far right and only by building the left can we counter them. The united front is the way that left organizations like DSA and the International Socialist Organization, amongst others, can reach the broadest layers of people, bring them into struggle, and thereby expose them to the class politics that orient our own perspectives and make the case for a social alternative. This way we don't just beat fascism in the streets, but can defeat it for good.

Samantha Clarke and John Monroe contributed to this article.

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