Column

Nothing learned, nothing gained with hate rallies

During the controversial America First! rally in Laguna Beach on Sunday, it wasn’t the vulgar signs that got me.

It wasn’t the masked out-of-towners, the testosterone or the blood lust.

All of that felt somewhat commonplace now in this age of political showmanship.

No, what got me as a Laguna resident was the line of police in full tactical gear on the boardwalk blocking people from the beach.

In a moment that was both absurd and visceral, I wondered if the police got permission from the Coastal Commission to prevent public beach access.

As ludicrous as that sounds, I felt an undeniable sense of propriety, localism and unfairness.

In that instant, I suddenly donned a virtual chamber of commerce hat and cried: “What are you doing to my town?”

The rally was a hateful punch to the gut. What made it worse, of course, was the reality that Laguna was being used.

It’s probably the same feeling that every liberal town across the country is now experiencing. With more rallies scheduled for Berkeley and San Francisco, get used to it.

Pick a city with a brand. Pick a fight. Get on the news.

It’s a formula to guarantee helicopters and horses, chanting mobs and pepper spray, drones and eager videographers.

But when rabid politics hits home, it becomes real — and not in a good way.

There is no discussion, no compromise, no Sunday morning intellectualism.

This is blunt force drama.

The only discussion that happens is when two sides play up to the cameras and try to outwit each other using Debate 101 ploys. And if anyone finds himself trapped, he simply changes the subject.

Make no mistake, this wasn’t about influencing opinions or voters. This wasn’t about truth or moral clarity. It was simply to draw lines in the sand of Laguna.

There were lines everywhere: Faces had angry lines. T-shirts had funny lines. Posters had pithy, absolute lines. And the police had hard lines.

Now they are all gone until next time.

The only tangible outcome is the cost. It’s still unclear who is going to pay for what, but in the end it is always the taxpayers.

Apparently, there’s already talk of statewide legislation to evaluate whether any new laws are needed to curb this kind of rally impact, including violence.

According to George Skelton, political reporter for the L.A. Times, the Legislature will hold hearings within the next month to make recommendations. Senate leader Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) has asked the Joint Legislative Committee on Emergency Management and the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety committees to conduct hearings.

In the meantime, groups from the ACLU to law enforcement are making statements that point to one logical, obvious conclusion: These rallies are problematic and test the limits of free speech.

The California ACLU chapter, in a rare break from the national organization, issued a recent statement clarifying its position on the rallies.

“There are troubling events planned in our state in the coming weeks,” the group said. “For those who are wondering where we stand — the ACLU of California fully supports the freedom of speech and expression, as well as the freedom to peacefully assemble. … (But) the First Amendment does not protect people who incite or engage in violence.

“If white supremacists march into our towns armed to the teeth and with the intent to harm people, they are not engaging in activity protected by the United States Constitution. The First Amendment should never be used as a shield or sword to justify violence.”

The challenge here is that it’s usually not so obvious when people are “armed to the teeth.” Law enforcement knows this all too well, which is why they are always equipped from the outset for the worst-case scenario.

So all of that strategy now is locked and loaded. It’s tactical. It’s operational. We’ve entered a military state as if it’s a given.

And on Sunday, it was this line in the sand, the police line arcing across Main Beach like some impenetrable military wall, that made me realize it’s not going to work.

Something will break this formula because it can’t be sustained. People care too much about their towns and their wallets. They may not like their immediate neighbor very much but they love their Main Street.

Eventually, people will just get fed up and shut this whole thing down — at least until the next generation.

As I was walking around Sunday through the various encampments, I came across a little girl lying on the grass drawing on some paper with crayons.

She was probably about 6 years old making a political sign, imitating her parents.

I didn’t read what she was writing.

I didn’t have to.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at hansen.dave@gmail.com.

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