Editor’s note: Laguna Beach resident Jim Rue attended the Presidential Civil Forum Aug. 16 for the Coastline Pilot. Here is his story.
I arrived at the Saddleback Church on foot, having parked in a shopping center nearby. A friend volunteering at the event had suggested that would work most smoothly for me. But when I explained to the policeman at the main entrance that I was headed to the media credentialing center to pick up a press pass, he shrugged.
“Security is tight and I can’t let you pass unless you have either a ticket or a media credential. Maybe you could call your friend to come outside and bring you your pass?”
I explained I had left my phone in the car as I had been instructed. He shrugged again.
Then I realized that my friend in the media center had also left her phone behind. A 90-minute wild goose chase in the midday heat ensued, involving walkie-talkies, a shuttle bus, a taxicab and a number of well-wishers and advice-givers. The volunteers and police tried to be helpful. They gave me water. I could not reach the media center.
Eventually I had to admit that the media center and my window of opportunity had both closed. The management of the event had gotten the better of me. I would not see the event.
But I could see another story emerging at the corner of Saddleback Parkway and Portola Drive. A gaggle of demonstrators, 75 to 100 strong when I arrived, was growing steadily in size and volume on all four corners of the main intersection. The first sign I saw said “Free Palestine!”
Then, “Let Bob Barr debate!” Then a group of 20 or more red-shirted “DividedWeFail” advocates waived AARP signs while their leaders yelled at them through a battery-powered bullhorn. There was plenty of honking, yelling and chanting. Somewhere in the background someone beat a rapid tattoo on a snare drum. The assembly was peaceable if noisy. The only arrests outside the gate occurred after an altercation between groups of right-to-life advocates and anti-Iraq War demonstrators became physical.
The demonstrating groups were numerous and diverse. There may have been as many as 1,000 people assembled on the street by 5 p.m. when the forum was scheduled to begin inside at the main building called the Refinery.
The protesters were a far more colorful group than those ticket-holders still wending their ways onto the campus. One woman had traveled from Pasadena for the demonstration. The tattoo on her bicep showed a cartoon figure like the Pillsbury Doughboy brandishing a semiautomatic firearm.
There was a Lady Liberty, and a small patrol of American “commandos” with their faces covered. A portly fellow in a Lincoln Navigator and a lot of “bling” had come for the event and stayed for the demonstration, as I had. “My counterpart assured me a ticket would be waiting, but it wasn’t,” he said.
One demonstrator said she was a doctor. She told me repeatedly, “It’s getting ugly. There’s gonna be trouble, I can see. It’s gonna get ugly.” I think she may have been disappointed when it never did get ugly.
I could see how she would expect violence and arrests. The police were tense and hyper-vigilant — one squad on T3 personal mobility vehicles and another on horseback. Much larger numbers were in cars or on motorcycles, preventing demonstrators from going onto the campus or spilling into the street. A group of communists and socialists was in attendance. A small core group of 9/11 conspiracy theorists handed out fliers saying, “Have you been lied to enough?”
The atheists were there. War critic groups Code Pink and ANSWER brandished signs proclaiming “No more war for empire,” “No war on Iran,” and “US out of Afghanistan,” while hollering at police and the adjacent group of pro-life advocates. Even the hate group God Hates Fags was in attendance with signs damning the candidates of both major parties. Laguna’s Progressive Democrat Diane Valentino asked one of the horsemen, “Why don’t we get any horses on our side of the street? Are we being too good?”
Someone from the “Vietnam Veterans Against the War” characterized the happening as a “Be-in.” One of their numbers led a long and enthusiastic but entirely ambiguous chant of “Fired up! Ready to go!”
The Libertarians were there, the Greens also. Also, various unions for Obama were there (most notably firefighters), but almost no one was there specifically boosting McCain. Apparently most of his supporters were inside. A few drove the boulevard gawking at the demonstrators and shouting valuable advice like “Get a job!”
By 6 p.m. the crowd had begun to thin as demonstrators headed off in the directions of their TiVo machines to watch the historic forum.
Walking across one quiet intersection on the way to my car I remarked to the motorcycle officer idling on the side of the road, “Lot of sound and fury back there...” Wordlessly he turned his face away from me and lit a cigarette.