The protests outside Donald Trump’s rally in Costa Mesa on Thursday night pose political questions for both demonstration organizers and the presidential candidate as the California primary nears.
Hundreds of demonstrators filled the streets outside the Orange County amphitheater where Trump held a rally Thursday night, stomping on cars, hurling rocks at motorists and forcefully declaring their opposition to the Republican presidential candidate. At least 17 were arrested.
The scene dramatically called attention to complaints by Latino activists about Trump's rhetoric on immigration. But it could also help Trump shore up support in his conservative base.
Onstage inside the OC Fair and Event Center, Trump had surrounded himself with people carrying images of family members killed by immigrants who were in the country illegally.
When Trump vowed to make Mexico pay for a wall along its border with the United States, thousands of supporters erupted in cheers.
“We’re going to stop drugs from coming in,” Trump told them. “The drugs are poisoning our youth and a lot of other people.”
While the billionaire businessman has faced protests elsewhere, California could prove to be potent ground for opponents because of its large Latino population and Trump’s negative comments about immigrants.
Several days earlier, pro- and anti-Trump protesters clashed outside Anaheim City Hall, where the council considered a resolution condemning Trump.
Activists predict that Trump would continue to evoke angry protests in California, while the presence of the Mexican flag could cause confusion among those observing from afar.
David B. Villanueva, 23, of Chicanos Unidos in Santa Ana, a group that was part of the anti-Trump demonstrations Thursday, said the presence of the Mexican flag at rallies and other gatherings is often misunderstood.
While many may see it as un-American, the Mexican flag is actually used to express diversity within the United States, especially in California, where many are of Mexican heritage, the activist said.
“Protesters chose to bring out the Mexican flag to demonstrate their culture and not their nationality,” Villanueva said. “In this election year, I find the fact that people are waving Mexican flags more important than people waving American flags because of the diversity within our own American culture.”
Villanueva said the disorder and rioting seen Thursday night was a result of the last-minute nature of the news about Trump’s arrival, which didn’t give civil rights leaders much time to organize the community.
Southern California’s Latino community has a long history of street protests, dating back to the famous Chicano Moratorium march against the Vietnam War in 1970.
A decade ago, roughly half a million immigrants and their supporters took to the streets of Los Angeles decrying federal bills that would criminalize providing food or medical services to immigrants in the country illegally and build a wall along the Southern border of the U.S.
A USC/Times poll found that 77% of Latinos in California have a negative view of Trump. Yet among Republicans, Trump is ahead in that poll and several others.
Trump faced protests at other events in California several months ago, but nothing of the size of the Costa Mesa event.
Traffic came to a halt as protesters walked in the roadway, some waving American and Mexican flags. Protesters smashed a window on at least one police cruiser, punctured the tires of a police sport utility vehicle and at one point, tried to flip a police car.
Video footage showed some demonstrators hurling debris at a passing pickup truck. One group carried benches and blocked the entrance to the 55 Freeway along Newport Boulevard, with some tossing rocks at motorists near the on-ramp.
The protests followed Trump up the coast Friday to Burlingame, south of San Francisco, where he was greeted by activists attempting to disrupt his scheduled address to the California Republican Party convention.
All Burlingame police officers available for duty were ordered to patrol the area in case the protests grew out of control, authorities said.
Protests heated up before the Republican front-runner’s noon address, with some activists linking arms to block roadways while others held signs that read "Stop Trump" and dangled Trump piñatas. Many waved Mexican flags and draped them around their shoulders.
It’s hard to predict how such protests will affect the GOP race.
Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Whittier), chairwoman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said there was "no doubt" that Trump’s candidacy had made the Latino community "a target for hateful rhetoric, and in some cases physical violence."
But destroying public property, she said, plays "into the very hands of people like Donald Trump."
Some conservatives pointed with outrage to the use of the Mexican flag during the Costa Mesa protest.
Observers said that during the anti-Proposition 187 rallies of 1994, the flying of the Mexican flag may have increased support for the initiative, which would have denied public services to immigrants here illegally. It was passed by voters but overturned by the courts.
Protesters carrying Mexican flags during the 2006 protests also sparked debate, though as those protests continued, there were fewer Mexican flags and more American flags. That happened in part because Spanish-language DJs who promoted the demonstration during their radio shows urged participants to carry American flags to show their patriotism.
“If we want to live here, we want to demonstrate that we love this country and we love the American flag,” DJ Eddie “El Piolin” Sotelo said at the time.
Although Orange County was once a white, conservative bastion, its demographics have changed in recent decades. It's still reliably Republican, but GOP registration has declined significantly. The county’s population has diversified, with an influx of Asian and Latino residents slowly diminishing the political clout of white voters.
"This is the anger people have against Trump," said Jose Cruz, 21, as he pointed to the protesters running in the middle of the street.
Luis Serrano, an organizer with California Immigration Youth Justice Alliance, said young Latino activists would keep attacking Trump’s rhetoric and actions.
“We’re going to keep showing up and standing against the actions and the hate Donald Trump is creating. We are going to continue to just show up in numbers and stand together against hate,” he said.
“I think it’s going to get worse if he gets the nomination and is the front-runner. I think it’s going to escalate.”
Staff writers Michael Finnegan and Matt Pearce contributed to this report.