A “white lives matter” rally promoted in leaflets touting the Ku Klux Klan was vastly outnumbered on Sunday by Black Lives Matter supporters and others who showed up at the Huntington Beach pier to condemn hate speech.
At the peak, at least 500 people gathered in Downtown Huntington Beach on either side of Pacific Coast Highway, and a series of skirmishes broke out. Shortly after 2:30 p.m., police declared an unlawful assembly at the nearby 5th Street and Walnut Avenue intersection to disperse what law enforcement officials described as an unruly crowd.
The dispersal followed what had started earlier in the day as a peaceful Black Lives Matter rally, but exploded into chaos as apparent white lives protesters arrived, throwing insults – and at times punches.
But while the KKK fliers that appeared earlier in the week drew widespread revulsion and fear of an outbreak of large-scale violence, the event instead mostly resulted in small fights. The Huntington Beach white lives rally was one of dozens in cities around the country that reportedly drew far fewer people than expected.
Its mission, according to posts on Telegram: “To revive the White Racial Consciousness and to unify White People against white hate. A show of support for White victims of interracial crime.”
That drew the ire of organizations throughout the U.S. that monitor white supremacy.
“We are here to let the community know we will not be a reflection of hate,” said Tory Johnson, founder of Blacks Lives Matter Huntington Beach. “We are not here for war, but to protect ourselves.”
The BLM rally began at 11 a.m., with around 100 protesters holding signs and shouting through loudspeakers before a line of Huntington Beach police officers at the city’s iconic pier.
Police quickly made multiple arrests. In one case, a man with a backpack and a tactical vest who was shouting obscenities was quickly taken into custody by police, who said he was carrying a baton.
The weekly crowd of beach visitors mingled with the protesters, as officers and deputies moved through the area around Main Street in vehicles and on horseback.
Andy Lewandowski, 60, of Anaheim, wearing a Black Lives Matter cap, said he and his fellow demonstrators were on hand to help “keep the community safe.”
The demonstrators brought with them a variety of handwritten signs, including ones saying “No H8 in HB,” “White Silence is Violence,” and “Uproot Fascism Before It Grows.”
“What do we want? Unity!” the protesters chanted at points. “When do we want it? Now!”
Michael Wauschek, 33, of Cerritos, blew on burning sage as he walked through the crowd.
“I’m here to help keep the peace and show people we are not violent rioters and also to reject the KKK and white supremacy,” he said.
Supporters of Black Lives Matter here at PCH & Main in Huntington Beach. This gathering is held the same day rumored “White lives” demonstrations promoted on social media were supposed to take place. . but I’m not seeing anyone who appears to be here for that. @ocregister pic.twitter.com/s3EZmXdvil
— Eric Anthony Licas (@EricLicas) April 11, 2021
Around 1:30 p.m., a group of several dozen protesters began arriving in the area. They did not carry signs or chant, but many of them began confronting the Black Lives Matter demonstrators.
The newly arriving demonstrators, who mainly came in pairs or small groups, quickly confronted protesters who had set up on the north side of PCH. Some were clad in dark t-shirts with an American flag, others in Trump gear. Arguments, and violence, quickly ensued.
Initially, police did not appear to try to keep the protesters, counter-protesters and beach visitors apart.
In one brief fight on the northeast corner of PCH and Main, a middle-aged woman approached a protester, mocked her Black Lives Matter chants and then, after a shouting match, threw coffee in the protester’s face.
Across the street, a black-clad protester chased an older man, spat at him and struck his back. On another corner of the intersection, punches flew in multiple directions as a group of people argued. One protester hit another on the chin, and that protester responded by shoving the other man down onto a bike.
Police did intercede in some fights. At one point a man and a teenager waving large Trump and “Don’t Tread on Me” flags were chased around the intersection by a big group of protesters. When the pair were surrounded, police on horseback waded into the crowd and took the man and teen away in an SUV.
Amidst heated arguments and people chasing one another outside Jack’s Garage Skateshop, Isabelle Soifer stood calmly with her sign showing support for BLM.
The UCI student said she wasn’t surprised that the white lives matter supporters appeared to show up just to cause chaos and start fights.
“It’s all to be expected,” Soifer, 29, said. “(Racism) has dragged on for decades, for centuries.”
According to the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, a new Telegram channel emerged on March 25 “agitating for nationwide ‘white lives matter’ marches and events to be held on April 11.”
Emily Kaufman, an investigative researcher with ADL, said that call to action grabbed attention with messaging that supports white grievance, or the idea that White people are victimized or marginalized, which is often the basis of white supremacist rhetoric, she said.
And Ku Klux Klan propaganda promoting the rally showed up on lawns in Huntington Beach on Easter Sunday, a week after similar flyers appeared in Newport Beach. The leaflets featured Confederate flags and urged “loyal white knights” to “say no to cultural genocide.”
Huntington Beach Mayor Kim Carr said she was flooded with emails from residents who were offended by the leaflets and their “hate speech.”
Coinciding with the “white lives matter” protest, the city and Orange County Human Relations said they would co-sponsor an online discussion about diversity Sunday afternoon.
The ADL says the phrase “white lives matter” originated in early 2015 as a racist response to the Black Lives Matter movement, which emerged in response to police brutality against Black people.
Kaufman said ADL does not consider “white lives matter” an organized group, though the Southern Poverty Law Center has categorized it as a “hate group.”
Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino, also said “white lives matter” appears to be a phrase rather than the name of a specific group.
“That’s not to say there is no cell of individuals or a small group that decided to form a little group by that name,” he said. “We just don’t know. These types of catchphrases and bumper sticker slogans are typically used by a broader sub-culture rather than an organized group.”
Huntington Beach has attracted groups and individuals promoting white supremacy in the past. In the 1990s, it was relatively common to spot skinheads with Nazi tattoos.
The city also has a history of rallies turning violent. In March 2017, a rally in support of then-President Trump turned into a violent brawl between supporters of the president and counter-protesters.
Last May at the pier, as demonstrators protested the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, tensions mounted while those supporting Black Lives Matter and counter-demonstrators shouted at one another and a few fistfights broke out. Huntington Beach police fired pepper balls at those who would not disperse after an unlawful assembly was declared.
As the demonstrations took place near the pier on Sunday, Orange County officials held a virtual event called “HB Hate Free” hosted by Mayor Kim Carr, Huntington Beach Councilwoman Natalie Moser and Alison Lehmann Edwards of OC Human Relations.
Assemblywoman Janet Nguyen, who took part in the virtual event, recalled the racism she encountered as a Vietnamese refugee when she came to the United States as a child.
“I, too, have been the victim of hate,” Nguyen said. “It’s unfortunate that KKK flyers were distributed around our county when we already are suffering from a rise in hate here and across the nation.”
Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris said that when she learned of the fliers she was “horrified and shocked – perhaps naively so.”
“For all the progress we have made in Orange County, we have one of the highest concentrations of white supremacist groups in the entire nation,” she said. But, she added, “We are strong not in spite of our diversity, but because of it.”
On local Huntington Beach Facebook pages, both liberal and conservative, people expressed trepidation about attending either the white lives rally or the counter-protest.
Some accused liberal members of the City Council of promoting the white lives rally – or even planting fake flyers about it – as an opportunity to further their political agendas.
A website devoted to proving the rally a left-wing “hoax” posed the question, “Have you ever wondered how a perfectly executed smear campaign comes together so quickly and seamlessly for the far-left progressive machine?”
On the other side, some worried that people at the rally would draw counter-protesters into fights.
“I was raised in Compton and my heart is with Black Lives Matter,” said Elaine Rodriguez Hirsch, who moved to Huntington Beach after high school in 1964. “I feel bad not going. I had my Compton tee-shirt laid out and ready to put on.
“But then I pictured myself in handcuffs face-down on the concrete for screaming something crazy. White nationalism makes me way too emotional.”