On Wednesday, under faultless skies, a sea breeze lightly kissed my face as I stood on the fabled Huntington Beach Pier, watching young surfers below carving waves and doing flips.
They were practicing for next week’s World Junior Surfing Championship.
I was trying to figure out why President Trump says so many moronic things about California.
Tuesday at the White House, he told a group of California officials that our state has so much water we “don’t know what to do with it.”
Last week in Arizona, he said immigrants here illegally have taken over a city council in California.
Saturday in Nevada, he said Californians are “rioting” because they don’t want to live in so-called sanctuary cities.
And when pressed the next day by a reporter, he doubled down.
“Many places in California want to get out of sanctuary cities,” he said.
“But that’s not rioting,” the reporter replied.
“Yeah, it is rioting in some cases,” Trump said.
Riots, of course, are not unheard of in our fair state.
But rioting against the concept of a sanctuary city?
Could he possibly be talking about the town of Los Alamitos, population 11,600, a landlocked suburb on the northwest edge of Orange County?
In March, Los Alamitos became the first California city to pass an ordinance declaring it would not follow California’s new sanctuary law, which says that police should not cooperate with federal immigration authorities unless an immigrant has committed a serious crime.
Or was he referring to much larger Huntington Beach, whose 200,000 residents are mostly white, mostly Republican and mostly not happy with California’s recent decision to call itself a sanctuary state?
Huntington Beach did something novel; instead of passing an ordinance, it sued the state of California, alleging its constitutional right to spend money on law enforcement the way it sees fit was infringed by the state law.
Last month, a judge agreed with the city. Which means that Huntington Beach is probably the only city in the state that can legally flout the California sanctuary law right now. The state is expected to appeal.
In both Los Alamitos and Huntington Beach, last spring’s anti-sanctuary votes were preceded by impassioned discussion for and against sanctuary city protections. There were placards, chants and yelling. In Los Alamitos, police broke up a few minor skirmishes.
But the only riots I’ve heard of around here took place five years ago, when a bunch of young men — mostly white — spent a couple of hours fighting, breaking windows and knocking over portable toilets during the U.S. Open of Surfing, which draws hundreds of thousands of spectators to Huntington Beach each summer.
Or last spring, when members of the white supremacist group Rise Above Movement came to the Bolsa Chica area of Huntington Beach for a “Make America Great Again” march and beat up reporters as local law enforcement, shamefully, failed to intervene. The organizers of that march went on to cause trouble in Berkeley, San Bernardino and Charlottesville, Va. This week, several of them, including one from Huntington Beach, were arrested on federal rioting charges.
Maybe that’s what the president was talking about.
The efforts in Orange County towns like Huntington Beach and Los Alamitos may have the effect of reinforcing the region’s reputation for hostility to Latino immigrants, but they are peaceful and legal.
If you talk to Michael Gates, the city attorney for Huntington Beach, he will tell you he doesn’t object to the California Values Act because it protects some immigrants who have committed crimes. He says he objects because it is invasive.
“Frankly, the state Legislature in California is getting very aggressive and are trying to micromanage our city resources,” he told me when I visited him at his City Hall office Wednesday morning. “Under the California Constitution, that’s illegal.”
“For the state to try to reach down here from Sacramento and tell our Police Department what it can and cannot do, and tell us how we can and cannot spend our resources, that’s just too much. Frankly, it’s an unprecedented invasion into local authority.”
Maybe, but I do think it’s disingenuous to say that the fight has nothing to do with immigration policy, just principle. I think it has to do with both. And I think that Huntington Beach has found a way to outsmart the state, at least for now.
“My advice to our City Council was to go on the offense,” Gates said. “We can’t be sued for suing.”
Los Alamitos, by contrast, is being sued by the American Civil Liberties Union and several nonprofits who contend it cannot exempt itself from California’s sanctuary law.
Unlike Huntington Beach, which has half a dozen lawyers on staff, Los Alamitos has no in-house counsel and has had to hire attorneys to defend itself in court. This will be a terrible expense for such a small town. In fact, Los Alamitos Mayor Troy Edgar started an online fundraiser on GoFundMe to help with the city’s legal fees, which he estimates could be as high as $100,000.
He also sent letters to Trump and U.S. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions to let them know about the town’s anti-sanctuary ordinance and to ask for support.
I’m not sure either of them did much for the GoFundMe effort; it’s only garnered $30,000 over the last seven months. But Edgar has been invited to Washington three times to meet with administration officials, including Trump, Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. In Los Alamitos, Edgar said, he feels like he’s “operating behind enemy lines.”
“Here I am as mayor of a super-small city and we are trying to do something that is much bigger than us,” Edgar told me from Washington, where he attended Tuesday’s White House meeting.
I asked him what he thought the president meant by “rioting” in California.
“Well, when I hear that I think about last March when this whole thing was at a flashpoint,” he said. “There were 200 to 300 people at every City Council meeting. It was raucous. I had to be walked out to my car with two SWAT team members.”
Maybe, Edgar suggested, Trump meant “rebellion.”
“A lot of us are really frustrated with the direction of this state,” Edgar said.