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After violent KKK brawl, marchers in Anaheim try to 'fight fire with love and compassion'

The chants rang out, rhythmic and impassioned, as more than 200 people marched Monday night from a public park in Anaheim that was the site of a bloody brawl over the weekend between Ku Klux Klan members and protesters.

“This is what democracy looks like. This is what peace looks like. This is what Anaheim looks like,” said the marchers as they walked from Pearson Park to City Hall, clutching posters and holding hands.

Their goal, participants said, was to restore a sense of tolerance to the city and condemn the melee that occurred Saturday at the park, which left three people injured with stab wounds.

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“I looked at the violent images and I thought, how could this be happening?” Michael Matsuda, superintendent of the Anaheim Union High School District, said as he stood in the crowd among gardeners, grandmothers, elected officials and religious leaders.

“I knew right away this is not who we are. Young people need to be safe. Older people need to be safe. So we are here, joining hands."

Violence erupted about noon Saturday at the park between anti-KKK demonstrators and members of the white supremacist group who had planned to hold a rally there.

Twelve people were arrested, but the five KKK members taken into custody were later released after investigators determined they were acting in self-defense, Anaheim police Sgt. Daron Wyatt said.

Images of the clash and its bloody aftermath quickly made headlines across the nation, and the Police Department was criticized for its lack of visibility at such a high-profile event.

The KKK's choice to rally in Anaheim pointed up the group's historic ties to the city, now globally known as the site of Disneyland. Klansmen were once the dominant political force, occupying four of five City Council seats before a recall effort led to their ouster in 1924. A KKK rally there once drew 20,000 people.

Looking at the calm surrounding Pearson Park, where youngsters dove into a pool to finish laps in the early evening light on Monday, former state Sen. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) said he couldn't ignore how strangers marred the reputation of his hometown, Orange County’s largest city.

"We must show everyone not to fight fire with fire. Fight fire with love and compassion,” he said.

After a news conference at the park, the crowd marched toward the steps of City Hall, where they held a candlelight vigil.

The crowd cheered when Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait climbed to the podium to thank everyone for making "a loud statement" with their presence. The KKK members, he said, "have a right to their views and beliefs, but that doesn't mean they're welcomed here."

Ann Nguyen, the vice president of the Interfaith Council for the cities of Garden Grove, Westminster and Stanton, said the violence called for people to be “vigilant in our peacemaking.”

"We don't accept violence. It doesn't matter who started it. We need to work on listening and learning from each other,” Nguyen said.

While the event drew activists who have been participating in peace marches for generations, it also attracted the fresh energy of the young.

Priscilla Hernandez and Sarah Rubalcaba, seniors at Katella High School, cheered the older speakers' messages while waving a sign condemning the KKK. The classmates made the poster using Photoshop after experiencing "so much disappointment at the violence that is never the answer," Sarah said.

"Honestly, the people committing such acts could have handled it with much more class,” she said. “They could have used the teachings of Martin Luther King to solve the situation.”

Supporters praised Anaheim, citing Tait’s initiative to foster a “City of Kindness.” Others noted the city’s readiness to begin holding district elections that will allow more proportional representation of ethnic communities. The city's population is more than 50% Latino.

As the national political rhetoric focuses on fear and suspicion -- with policy proposals including a wall to separate Mexico and the U.S. -- some at the march said their attention is on unity.

"We need to obviously tear down more walls that divide us, but the more important thing is to use our voting power to fight intolerance," said Mirvette Judeh Maaytak, a board member of the Arab American Caucus. "What this country is based on is freedom, and day by day, we are free to work to eliminate hate."

For breaking news in Orange County, follow @newsterrier.

Times staff writer Matt Hamilton contributed to this report.

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