After controversial America First! demonstrations over the weekend, Laguna Beach reflects

After controversial America First! demonstrations over the weekend, Laguna Beach reflects
Two men debate one another during a demonstration Sunday at Laguna's Main Beach organized by America First!. Thousands arrived to protest the group's anti-immigration policies, among other issues. (Photo by Spencer Grant)

Laguna Beach could exhale and catch its collective breath Monday, a day after thousands engulfed Main Beach park for a memorable political and social demonstration.

The city could take down the K-rails, clean up the trash and return Main Beach to its rightful state as a place to walk, play volleyball or frolic in the ocean.


Beachgoers could still do those activities Sunday afternoon and evening, but they had company as more than 250 officers from multiple law enforcement agencies, many clothed in riot gear, stood nearby on the boardwalk and along walkways to maintain peace between demonstrators with opposing viewpoints.

On Sunday, about 2,500 people crammed onto the park at the corner of South Coast Highway and Broadway Street, a majority of whom opposed a demonstration to honor victims of crimes allegedly committed by immigrants living illegally in the United States.


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," in reference to President Trump, who wants to reduce the number of legal immigrants allowed yearly into the United States, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported earlier this month.

Laguna Beach police began planning weeks ago for the event, and had five agencies on board at the start, Sgt. Jim Cota said Monday.

As the crowd grew Sunday, police called in more help, from Costa Mesa, Newport Beach, Fountain Valley, Huntington Beach, the Orange County Sheriff's Department and San Diego County Sheriff's Department, according to a news release.

More than 250 officers from multiple police agencies kept demonstrators at bay. Three people were arrested, including one man on suspicion of possessing a knife.
More than 250 officers from multiple police agencies kept demonstrators at bay. Three people were arrested, including one man on suspicion of possessing a knife. (Photo by Spencer Grant)

"We knew we would have a lot of people," Cota said. "We were concerned."

Three people were arrested, all of whom live outside of Orange County, police said.

Laguna police arrested Harlan Pankau, 38, from San Diego County's Jamul/Dulzura subregion, on suspicion of possession of a knife, police said, adding he was later cited and released. Police also arrested Reseda resident Dominique Johnson, 23, on suspicion of battery, according to police.

The Orange County Sheriff's Department arrested La Mirada resident Samuel Gonzales, 40, on suspicion of resisting arrest, Cota said. He was taken to Orange County Jail where he was cited and released.

Cota said everyone had left the beach by 11 p.m.

Mayor Pro Tem Kelly Boyd complimented the police agencies for keeping Sunday's event civil.

"[Laguna Police Chief Laura Farinella] and her staff did a phenomenal job," Boyd said in a phone interview Monday. "It could not have run any smoother. I'm proud of the way the city handled it."

Laguna lifeguards, firefighters and public works staff members also assisted during Sunday's event, the news release said.

America First!, organized by Johnny Benitez, 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, an Orange County resident who declined to identify his city of residence during an interview last week, spent most of the late afternoon and early evening Sunday answering questions, many of which centered on his immigration stance.

Benitez wants a moratorium on immigration, and claimed last week that job pay scales are lower because of employers hiring workers from outside of the United States, the Daily Pilot reported.

"There is a devaluing of American wages," Benitez told a handful of listeners on Sunday. "The elites want to bring them [immigrants] here so they can exploit them."

Several groups, including Indivisible OC 48 and Indivisible OC 46, organized Saturday's event, dubbed a unity rally denouncing racism, 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.

Joni Nichols, a part-time Newport Beach resident, has lived in five countries and attended demonstrations on Saturday and Sunday at Main Beach.

"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."

At one point Sunday, Laguna resident Stu Jones asked a man wearing a camouflage vest to explain his attire.

"They like to throw rocks," the man told Jones. "What side are you on?"

"The side of humanity," Jones said. "What has happened to my town?"

Jones had earlier dropped off his daughter at the Pageant of the Masters and wanted to listen to some of the dialogue on the beach.

"It's what I thought, a lot of talking and not much listening," Jones said.

Moving ahead, Boyd said the community and country need to do some reflection.

"There is so much unrest in the country overall," Boyd said. "People's attitudes are not healthy. We need to come together not only as a community but as a country."

Police said Saturday's demonstration did not cause any problems.

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."

Daily Pilot reporter Hannah Fry contributed to this article.

Twitter: @AldertonBryce