It has been decades since Laguna Beach saw a crowd and police presence like the one surrounding an America First! rally at Main Beach on Sunday.
Thousands of people crammed onto the park at the corner of South Coast Highway and Broadway to oppose a demonstration to honor victims of crimes allegedly committed by immigrants living illegally in the United States. About 20 America First! supporters showed up.
By 5 p.m., 90 minutes before the America First! demonstration was officially to start, protesters, including members of the Democratic Socialists of America — Orange County, had arrived at the beach chanting phrases such as “no more deportation” and “white supremacists have to go.”
Others carried signs that said “Immigrants help make America great” and “Dump Trump.”
“There are more of us with a moral conscience than those without,” said part-time Newport Beach resident Joni Nichols.
“I was on the fence about coming today,” Nichols said. “In the end, my conscience said that I couldn’t not go.
“I came here as a presence,” she said. “There are more of us with light and love than hate.”
Laguna Beach police and officers from multiple other law enforcement agencies, including the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, stood watch on the boardwalk, on horseback and on foot, and kept the two groups apart.
Laguna Beach police arrested two people as of 9 p.m. Sunday, according to Sgt. Jim Cota. Details about the arrests were not immediately available.
Cota estimated 2,500 people were at Main Beach.
Allegations that America First!, organized by Johnny Benitez, is racist and white supremacist have filled social media channels in the past week.
America First! held prior demonstrations in Laguna Beach without incident, including a July 30 event, Cota said last week.
About 100 people gathered on that date, with supporters calling for a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, according to a YouTube video of the demonstration.
Benitez denied allegations that he is a racist and white supremacist in a YouTube video labeled as a press release for Sunday’s event.
“We stand against the demonization of white people as the perpetrators of all evil in the world,” Benitez said. “I disavow the use of racial epithets. Our idea is not to oppress anyone for any reason. The idea that this is a racist event is crazy.”
On Sunday, Santa Ana resident Eric Sewell, 27, said stronger immigration policies are needed.
“There is a bias toward whites and heteros,” Sewell said.
He added that more work needs to be done to get current immigrants to assimilate before more are let into the country. “Integrate on what we have here. People who live here don’t speak English their whole lives.”
Sunday’s event followed a counter-demonstration Saturday in Laguna, also at Main Beach, in which 300 people gathered to promote unity while denouncing racism.
Police said Saturday’s demonstration did not caus any problems.
Several groups, including Indivisible OC 48 and Indivisible OC 46, organized Saturday’s event after learning of the America First! demonstration.
The groups are chapters of Indivisible OC, an organization that urges its congressional representatives to resist President Trump and his administration through inclusion, tolerance and fairness, according to the Indivisible website.
Sunday’s event was unrivaled in terms of the amount of people and law enforcement presence, Cota said.
“Not since the 1993 fire,” he said. “This was incredible.”