As the insults flew and the protest reached a boil, Joseph Turner couldn't help but smile.
The 29-year-old head of the upstart Save Our State organization had come to Baldwin Park to pick a fight over illegal immigration. He had led a band of like-minded souls into the heart of the city to protest public art they deemed "seditious and anti-American." Part of a monument at the Metrolink station is inscribed "It was better before they came," interpreted by some as a barb at whites who displaced California's Mexican residents in the 19th century.
They got all of the fight they could handle. Hundreds of counter-protesters in the predominantly Latino city rose up to meet them, chanting "Go home, racists!" As news crews captured the clash, police in riot gear called for reinforcements.
The group's protests had drawn fire before, but nothing like what erupted last month in the working-class community.
"I couldn't have scripted it better," said Turner, a former stock trader who runs the anti-illegal immigration group from his Ventura home.
"My goal is to continually keep this issue in the forefront of the American consciousness," he added. "What makes our organization different is that we are not afraid to confront anybody about our beliefs."
Critics call those beliefs racist and divisive, dismissing Save Our State as yet another "vigilante group" jumping on the anti-illegal immigration bandwagon.
"Save Our State is not saving anything. They are just creating more hate and division," said Antonio Bernabe, coordinator of the day-labor program for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. "They don't want to look for solutions. They just want to make noise."
But with little to show for years of complaining about illegal immigration, Turner believes he has hit upon a solution that will work. He calls it "aggressive activism."
It's not about writing letters or calling elected officials. Rather, the technique focuses on high-profile events that touch a nerve, make politicians sweat and bring the media running. Indeed, a second protest — and counter-protest — in Baldwin Park on Saturday also received media coverage.
"I call it a street-fighter mentality," said Turner, a stay-at-home dad and Little League coach. "Too often our side has been reactive. I need to get rid of apathy and create activism."
Turner's brand of activism was shaped in part by a childhood of welfare dependency and transience while growing up in some of the Inland Empire's grittiest neighborhoods. Turner believes those poverty-stricken places were made worse by waves of illegal immigrants — just as he believes other communities across California are withering under the weight of that influx.
Turner graduated in 1995 from Riverside's North High School, where he made local headlines for a speech supporting Proposition 187, the 1994 initiative that sought to deny many public benefits to undocumented immigrants.
He earned a business degree in 2000 from USC and worked for a time as an equities trader in Chicago before returning to California and settling in Ventura in 2003 with his wife and two children.
With time on his hands and an ear on talk radio, Turner was spurred to action last year by controversy stemming from U.S. Border Patrol sweeps in the Inland Empire and by an on-air campaign on KFI-AM (640) to oust Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas) for what critics claimed was a lax record on illegal immigration.
In working on those issues, Turner said he met plenty of others fed up with illegal immigration and ready to do something about it.
"I realized how fragile the momentum was and I didn't want to let that die," said Turner, who launched Save Our State in July and counts hundreds from various ethnicities as members. "I wanted to do something. I just knew I had to get involved in some capacity."
Save Our State has been protesting long and hard since incorporating last summer.
Members descended on Redondo Beach and picketed Home Depot stores for what they view as policies that encourage day workers to congregate at those sites. They've attended rallies backing last summer's Border Patrol crackdown and joined protests over billboards for a Spanish-language TV news station that labeled "Los Angeles, CA" as "Los Angeles, Mexico."
"Because the problem is getting worse and worse, people are getting angry," said Save Our State member Chris Spellman, 34, an Alhambra resident of Mexican descent. He said his presence counters claims that the group is racist.
"I think our primary focus is raising awareness to the rest of California and hopefully, eventually, the rest of the country," he said. "It's starting to spin out of control, and if someone doesn't right the ship now, it's going to be too late."
The group maintains a website where protests are promoted and strategies devised. The site, which has nearly 600 registered users, is visited by the opposition, often resulting in heated exchanges on its message boards. A link labeled the "Hall of Shame" features Latino leaders viewed by the group as soft on illegal immigration.
San Bernardino education consultant Gil Navarro is one of them, targeted because of his activism on behalf of Latino immigrants and his role as associate president of the Inland Empire chapter of the Mexican American Political Assn. He said he pays little attention to groups such as Save Our State.
"It's a sad reflection on the United States of America that you have these individuals so devoted to creating emotional hysteria behind hating immigrants, specifically Latinos," Navarro said. "We consider these individuals un-American. They'd probably prefer to overthrow the government for their cause."
Turner said he isn't looking for anything that radical. But he said he is tired of politicians promising to clamp down on illegal immigration, then doing nothing about it. And he said he is increasingly alarmed by what he views as attempts by activists to launch "La Reconquista," a theory that holds that militants of Mexican descent are plotting to take back California and other parts of the Southwest.
He sees illegal immigration as a means to that end, providing a population base that activists could exploit to achieve their takeover plans.
Turner said it angers him "when they say this land was stolen and it's going to go back to Mexico," Turner said. "You know what? You're going to have to take me out first."
Despite his youthful appearance, there is an air of confidence — even bravado — about Turner. He said he is willing to debate his opponents any time on the illegal immigration issue. And he is confident that he can push others off their couches and expand Save Our State into a nationwide movement.
"People who feel the way we do on this issue are hungering for someone who is going to take charge," Turner said. "What I'm trying to do is send up a flag, to tell people, 'I know you're angry and I know you want to get involved, and here's a way to do it.' "
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As a student at North High School in Riverside, Joseph Turner wrote editorials for the campus newspaper and spent a summer clerking for Republican Rep. Ken Calvert. His opinion pieces often were politically conservative, and he said many of them never got published.
Putting his business degree from USC to work, Turner organized a protest of a Home Depot store in Rancho Cucamonga, calling for supporters to buy lots of small-ticket items — 7-cent washers and 8-cent screws — to clog the check stands and hurt the company's bottom line. "You've got to be creative," Turner said. "It's one part activist, one part guerrilla tactician."
Turner once lived in Baldwin Park, the scene of Save Our State's most heated protest to date. "That's why I thought it was funny that everyone [the counter-protesters] was calling me an outsider," he said.
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