Right-wing rally in Laguna Beach draws small crowd with verbal sparring but no violence
As group member Bassad Pesci holds the bullhorn, Onward America organizer Johnny Benitez thanks police for their presence and restraint during the group’s rally Sunday night at Main Beach in Laguna Beach.(Photo by Spencer Grant)
A dissenting spectator shines a flashlight in the face of Onward America member Bassad Pesci during the right-wing group’s demonstration Sunday night in Laguna Beach.(Photo by Spencer Grant )
Onward America leader Johnny Benitez said Sunday night’s demonstration in Laguna Beach was intended to call new attention to previous attacks on American installments in Benghazi, Libya, and an Army helicopter in Afghanistan.
(Photo by Spencer Grant)
Counter-protesters hold signs during a demonstration by the group Onward America on Sunday night in Laguna Beach.(Photo by Spencer Grant)
Laguna Beach police confine demonstrators Sunday night to a specific area of Main Beach at South Coast Highway and Broadway.(Photo by Spencer Grant)
Onward America member Bassad Pesci speaks during the group’s rally Sunday night at Main Beach in Laguna Beach. He said claims that the group is pro-Nazi and pro-Ku Klux Klan are a “technique of the left to shift the pendulum of truth to put us on the defensive.”
(Photo by Spencer Grant)
Laguna Beach police change shifts as they cross South Coast Highway while patrolling a rally Sunday night by the group Onward America.(Photo by Spencer Grant)
A right-wing demonstration in Laguna Beach aimed at calling new attention to previous attacks on American installments in Benghazi, Libya, and an Army helicopter in Afghanistan ended Sunday night without violence or arrests.
Shortly after 8 p.m., officers in riot gear walked rally organizer Johnny Benitez from the sand at Main Beach to a car parked behind a gas station on the other side of South Coast Highway.
“Let them be the dogs,” said Benitez, leader of the group Onward America. “It’s because of Kyle Chapman,” a well-known conservative organizer involved in the spring unrest in Berkeley who showed up in Laguna.
Laguna police Capt. Jason Kravetz said police and Benitez mutually decided to end the demonstration after arguments intensified among participants and counter-protesters.
“If people are put in a perilous situation, our goal is to get them out of it,” Kravetz said.
Law enforcement from 11 agencies, including Irvine, Seal Beach and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, stood watch along the boardwalk and sidewalks.
Protective barriers lined South and North Coast Highway from Ocean Avenue to a point near the lifeguard headquarters. The “K-rails” were set up as a precaution to keep motorists from the crowd.
The public stage illuminated a rift between Benitez and the Proud Boys, a self-proclaimed fraternity of “Western chauvinists.”
Tensions peaked halfway into the demonstration when one of the Proud Boys shined a flashlight into the face of Onward America member Bassad Pesci and traded verbal barbs. Police separated the men.
Chapman said the Proud Boys booted Benitez from their ranks earlier this year because of a clash of ideologies.
“We kicked him out because he is a racist white nationalist and our group allows people of all races and identities,” Chapman said in an interview, adding that the two had an altercation the previous night at the California GOP Convention in Anaheim.
Benitez has said he is not a racist or a white nationalist.
“My white advocacy has been that we need to curtail the messages in academia that are training the white kids to hate themselves,” he said in a video post.
Pesci, who stood on the sand with a bullhorn, said claims that Onward America is pro-Nazi and pro-Ku Klux Klan are a “technique of the left to shift the pendulum of truth to put us on the defensive.”
The stated purpose of the Laguna demonstration was to call attention to Extortion 17, an Army helicopter the Taliban shot down in 2011, killing all 38 occupants, and the attacks against two U.S. government facilities in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012 that killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador.
“We’re here to hold the administration accountable when we have Americans in harm’s way, regardless of who is in office,” said Eric Gonzales, a Navy veteran.
Police made no arrests Sunday night and said the event, at its height, drew about 60 demonstrators and counter-demonstrators, a number that paled in comparison with the thousands who flocked to Main Beach in August to oppose Benitez’s “America First” demonstration.