An airplane with an aerial banner reading "Hate is Beneath Us" circled around Laguna Beach on Sunday, as over 2,500 protesters on Main Beach below overwhelmed the few dozen that gathered for their monthly anti-immigrant and refugee "America First!" rally. Police equestrian units separated the two sides from each other, with skirmishes few and far between. But the counter protesters decisively won the numbers game and it's all thanks to the Orange County Democratic Socialists of America, a local chapter barely formed in December after the presidential elections.
The group jumped into action after the tragedy in Charlottesville, where a white supremacist rally turned into a riot, leaving 32-year-old protester Heather Heyer dead after being rammed by a car. A DSA-OC member saw Laguna Beach listed among a flurry of alt-right rallies scheduled in the wake of Charlotteville and wanted to do something about it. "It's our responsibility to show them that they will be confronted by a huge, unified community from a variety of backgrounds," says Jessica Riegert, a DSA-OC steering committee member. "Silence is violence."
The task proved a big one for a group not even a year into existence.Volunteers spent the past week preparing for their big day at the beach by readying press releases, training people in non-violent de-escalation tactics, enlisting street medics and scheduling bullhorn speeches at the counter rally. All DSA chapters in Southern California turned out on Sunday. At one point, police let through another flank of clergy-led interfaith protesters organized by Orange County Congregation Community Organization that further swelled the ranks.
The DSA-OC expected a crowd of 700 people to come protest Trump-inspired bigotry, but were humbled by a community response more than three times that estimate. The broad base ranged from antifa to liberals. America First! goers turned to conspiracies to explain the influx by pointing out parked buses in the touristy downtown. "So wait, they think that we bused people in?" says Riegert with a chuckle. "That's ridiculous!" And it is. A picture shared by pro-Trump livestreamer Irma Hinojosa on Twitter arose suspicions about Inland Empire Stages bus #9040, but Weekly reporter Frank John Tristan asked the company for comment. "Inland Empire Stages was contracted by the city of Pico Rivera to provide charter bus service to the Pageant of the Masters in Laguna Beach," writes Inland Empire Stages president Curtis Basey. "Inland Empire Stages did not provide any service relating to the protest in Laguna Beach."
Hinojosa's fake news aside, the DSA-OC's "rose handshake" emblem was stamped on ubiquitous protest signs that read "Always Antifascist" and "No KKK, No Fascist USA." Many people approached DSA-OC members curious about their organization at the protest. Interest in the national group and its ideals is being renewed. "We call ourselves the 'Trump bump,'" says Riegert. "After the election, there's so many of us that formed together with the DSA-OC to make sure that there would be a resistance." But it can just as easily be attributed to bouncing back from the post-electoral "Bernout" of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders who helped popularize socialism with his failed bid.
The DSA is a historical descendant of the Socialist Party of America that ran legendary labor leader Eugene V. Debs for president five times in the early 20th century, once behind bars. Espousing a platform that's neither neoliberal capitalist nor communist, the DSA is making a comeback in a big way thanks to a national membership surge positioning it as the largest post-WWII socialist organization in the United States. Part of that growth comes from the blossoming of new local chapters like OC's, which counts 150 dues-paying members in their ranks and a lot of sympathetic activists that aren't yet formal members.
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"People are trying to figure where they are right now and which groups are going to help them out the most," says Riegert. Where DSA-OC goes after organizing a successful anti-racism rally is sure to be top of the list for discussion at their next meeting. They don't know if they will expend energy organizing another massive response against the next (and apparently last) America First! vigil on Sept. 24 after already proving their point this weekend. Either way, DSA-OC says Trump-inspired racism won't get a free pass with a resurgent Left in OC.
"I think our success in showing you can confront these people and say 'No more!' speaks to our ability to make important action happen," says Riegert. "We're proud to see all of these people come together and make a very clear statement that this hateful rhetoric is not going to stand."