Both sides of Trump’s “Good People”
A Profile of A Protest Along A California Boardwalk Following A Murder In Charlottesville
“But listen, you don’t need to be worried about these Alt-Right guys. They don’t want to fuck with Black guys. They just really hate the Jews.”
It is one week after 32-year-old Heather Heyer was struck and killed by a James Alex Fields with his silver Dodge Challenger while protesting the White suprematists’ rally to save University of Virginia’s statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia. The enraged are packed in and finding their footing on the sand of the Laguna Beach boardwalk. It’s a lot of people sandwiched together in a space much smaller than a football field and far more narrow. The ocean is calm and across the way, tourists are browsing through Chihuly style glass sculptures as they await their reservations at European inspired restaurants.
But here, on the wooden path that acts as trimming for the Pacific Ocean beachside, bikini-clad visitors are packing up and carving a path between the angry and the enforcement. Two groups of beachgoers rush their children along as they speak in French and Catalonian accented Spanish with their large sunglasses catching the same postcard reflection seen in the riot shields covering the heads of the more than half-dozen police horses. Officers in various shades of blue, brown and green wearing badges from various surrounding cities, create a parameter and place themselves between men waving American flags and Americans waving signs disparaging the president.
This wasn’t the Laguna Beach featured on any hotel’s website or even the one I grew up going to with my mother and father. The courts I played basketball on were a bit further down the way, just about as far from me as I was to the ocean. Close enough to smell the seaweed washed up on the shore and salt water.
Trump had declared there were people at fault on “both sides” in Charlottesville. A remark that pointed again to his inability to disparage anybody who had complimented him or tweeted a word of support whether it was Putin in the past, an accused child molester in an upcoming election, or in this case, White supremacists; many of whom prefer the term “White nationalist” to Nazi.
There were dozens of people pushing forward now. The horses dividing them from the American flag waving Trump supporters who have met here, in this exact location every week for months, mostly undisturbed to list the names of American citizens raped or murdered by undocumented immigrants; or in their words “illegal aliens.”
“Get those animals off those horses!”
Just to lay out the geography a bit: the beach here, Main Beach as it’s called, sits along Pacific Coast Highway. The long road that as its name suggests, makes its way down the West Coast of California. It’s the famed highway; one that rock groups sang about and Swedish travelers fly to see in order to avoid the dark days and cold winters of their native country. From the highway, there’s a sidewalk then a patch of grass and a little bunker of sand with various paths leading up from the sidewalk to the boardwalk. As stated earlier, just beyond the boardwalk is the beach.
What made this gathering of anti-illegal immigrant Trump supporters different was that in the wake of the President’s words, folks were hungry and desperate to find the next place, any place, to gather and let their voices be heard. The local news that covers an area from north of Los Angeles to the south of traditionally conservative Orange County, was searching for the next event as well. They had spotlighted this event as the next gathering of White nationalist, and right or wrong, the word had gotten out.
Law enforcement officials came from places, that on a wrong day in OC traffic might take an hour and a half to get to, to stand shoulder to shoulder and lend a hand to Laguna Beach police. They were intermixed in the crowd. Most making an effort to stand within arm’s length of a yelling match or a finger jabbing session. All had come from the left, and newcomers had joined the fray on the right, but the left was inflamed. Most of the nationalist who came to join the anti-illegal immigrant folks held flags on long metal poles or donned their “Make America Great Again” hats. They spoke calmly and asked questions about citizenship and patriotism to the people of all races and genders; who attempted to hold them accountable for a wide range of Trump’s moral and verbal crimes against the country.
The most vocal from the left were gathered in a bunch, standing recklessly in front of the mounted officers. At the horses tails were the most vocal of the nationalist and regular anti-illegal immigrant crowd. The police had corralled them in the sand pit between the sidewalk and the boardwalk, and in that space they had found common cause. They all supported Trump, and if you asked, none of them were racist. Not only were they not racist, but the people they had just met, the people who were waving flags by their side (who also supported Trump) weren’t racist either. They were good people who were tired of their fellow Americans getting murdered in the streets.
“I’m not a racist or anything but–maybe we should just divide it up.”
On the other side, the left was a mix of every available grievance there was against Trump. Environmentalists, socialist, Peta members, men against sexual violence, White supporters of Black Lives Matters; you name it, they were there. Once again, this is Laguna Beach, not the front lines of a racially charged, disenfranchised city. However, to the Trumpers in the pit, they were all ANTIFA. Ravenous lefty anarchist bent on tearing apart the fabric of “traditional” American culture and moral code this country was founded on. You got a lot of that talk here, and if you stood in the pen with the Trumpers looking past the horses rear ends at the chanting crowd on the other side, the screaming man with the Babybjörn on the other side of the boardwalk, you got the idea pretty quick. That anger from the liberal protesters, if captured in slow motion, looked violent. It seemed on the edge of explosion. It looked like they were coming for the flag itself.
With a word, the row horses advance a foot forward, towards the crowd as a chant of “Get those animals off those horses! Get those animals off those horses,” goes up. Hooves clack on the wood and fists rise in the air.
Standing in the pit, I made my way over to a young man in his early twenties. He had on a long short sleeve t-shirt, some heavily worn and baggy cargo pants, and was holding one end of a banner that listed the names of Americans who had been cut down by non-American killers. He had a shaved head and was about five feet eleven inches. Notably, he had a giant outline of an iron cross on his neck that reached from the bottom of his chin to the area just below his throat.
Moments before I had watched him- as he watched a group of Trumpers banish a guy with a swastika and SS tattoos on his face, an act performed loudly in an effort to ensure that everybody watching knew that he wasn’t one of them. The swastika guy had walked off with his friend in a Raider jacket and his girl in a pink crop top, and on his way out he turned and told the crowd, “At least I have the balls to have it on the outside. I’m real. You all have it inside. You’re full of shit.” Then, the double “fuck you” fingers and a couple of laughs.
The guy I was approaching now was behind the excommunication. He wanted the guy out, too. However to many, the tattoo on his throat symbolized damn near the same thing: White power, White pride, White Nationalism, and White supremacy.
When you speak to him, he’ll tell you he’s “no racist.” He’ll tell you that he works construction. That he doesn’t have much. He’ll tell you that he lives in Watts sometimes, and other times he lives in a car in Venice. The job market is tough on a kid who spent more time fighting in the streets or between the walls of a juvenile detention center than in school. He caught punches because he was White, but he’ll tell you he’s “cool” with everyone- after all, in a place like Watts, he’s got Black and Brown neighbors.
His beef is a fair one. He’ll tell you that in construction, in order for him to work the number of hours needed to do the job, his employers have to pay him a certain wage, respect specific safety standards, and in some cases spring for his health insurance. He explains that those costs and those requirements have led his employers to look for work other places, cheaper places, or illegal places. Nevertheless, the majority of his beef isn’t with the employers; they’re doing what they gotta do. His beef is with the immigrants taking his job at half the cost.
You listen to the guy, and it sounds reasonable that he’s here holding this sign on this side. They take his job, they take people’s lives, they’re not from here, and they need to go. But if you listen longer and let him talk, he’ll also tell you that he doesn’t get this White privilege thing. No college called him up and offered him an easy way in. No headhunter ever sought him out for a CEO role. In fact, those same cops that fuck with the Black kids, fucked with him. Then, the Black kids fucked with him.
Addiction fucked his family; his dad, his brother, and his mom. His father, currently imprisoned, told him that when Obama visited the lockup he came through and “freed a bunch of the Black guys. Just let ‘em go.”
During the Obama administration, a number of inmates mostly low-level offenders, were released if they met certain guidelines created by the Department of Justice. Many released were held on extended sentences resulting from drug possession crimes; non-violent offenses. However, in a prison system where
Black inmates disproportionately make up 2.3 million of the 6.8 million Americans currently incarcerated, his dad only saw “Black guys” getting the goodbye and good luck handshake.
You can see why he feels and how he feels. You can look across that boardwalk, hear the people calling him a racist and understand. He’ll tell you that he doesn’t have much, that his family didn’t have shit, and you’ll get it. You’ll get it until you listen a bit longer and he says, “I don’t know man. I’m not a racist or anything but I feel like, with all this fighting and stuff, maybe we should just divide it up.”
“Divide what up?”
“The country, man. Just like Whites stay in their part, and Blacks and Mexicans and shit, they stay in their little area. You know?”
Yeah. I know.
You write in enough bars during the daytime and you’ll run into the kind of people who say the right stuff to start, the “normal” things conversation: “I love the Bears;” or “I don’t really get soccer.” Then, after an hour, or a couple of drinks, or after a couple of quiet rounds of commercial breaks you get: “My ex-wife is fucking crazy;” or “My son died a couple years back.” Sometimes after a bit more time, someone will turn to me and say, “you know I’m not racist, but you know…” What follows that phrase is an assortment of things, but usually a comment that has fallen from a tongue softened by comfort. A comfort that if articulated would sound something like, “We drank a beer together. Well, at least near each other. We talked, so I can talk to you.”
That was happening now. At that moment it made sense. The guy with the iron cross on his neck and an immigrant beef could tell a Black man how he thought the country should be carved up by race in order to ensure a livable level of peace.
Our conversation ended with a handshake and a thank you from me. I waited a minute, then moved on. The big guy with the thick red beard, who for the last twenty minutes had been laying out how Charlottesville and the resulting tragedy had been set up by police and local government officials- who were hoping to use a tragedy as a jumping off point for a crackdown on pro-Trumpers. “Everyone was strapped on our side. All these guys. It’s a miracle only one person died.”
The police had sent everyone down the same narrow street, the nationalist and Antifa, coming at each other from opposite sides. It was a classic fish in a barrel mantrap where the authorities knew there was bound to be chaos. They wanted people to be hurt. They wanted it to go down. The man in the beard will tell you all this, and he knows because he was there.
This guy, we’ll call him Steve, is a bodyguard for an Alt-Right nationalist who has a following in the thousands. Before Twitter banned him, the nationalist was listed in the top ten by Time magazine as one of Twitters most influential.
Steve was in Virginia to do a job. The job of bodyguarding had gotten him in a room in Charlottesville with Richard Spencer and David Duke. It had gotten him in a hotel room where the firearms outnumbered the people five to one. They “packed for protection,” he’ll tell you. The fact that there were so many weapons on hand, yet no one had met their end, was a testament to fact that the Alt-Right activist and the White national leader had assembled in simple protest- not for violent means. If they had wanted violence, there would have been enough to start a small war.
Steve is a great storyteller. He’s never been to prison, his family isn’t in jail, he loves America (he loves everybody in fact), and he points to his girlfriend who is also standing in the anti-illegal immigrant pit enduring slanderous screams and hateful words; he’ll tell you that he loves her. His girlfriend is Black, and she waves an American flag as she checks her phone for text messages standing off to the side with another woman who holds a sign expressing her desire to “Make America Great Again.” I looked around at the company they kept, and asked Steve if he was concerned.
“For her. For your girlfriend.”
“Yeah. I am. Because of them.”
The crowd had grown. The Babybjörn dad was being encouraged by the crowd going around him, a crowd of all ethnicities. Laughing together, but when they turned away from each other or away from the beach, they faced the pit to scream that Steve and his girlfriend weren’t real Americans. That they weren’t shit. It made sense, Steve’s comment, at that moment- it did. He spoke to me about how, as a Black man, Trump is trying to make life better for me. He had been coming here every single week because it was intolerable that Americans were being killed by illegals. It was important to him that they honored the names of the dead because they were citizens and they deserved to have their names called.
It was a ceremony the group performed every week. All members of a Facebook group they gathered on the boardwalk of picturesque Laguna Beach, and read the names of everyone who had been killed by an “illegal alien” or an “undocumented worker.” He told me there weren’t any racists in his group. I ask him,”How do you know?”
“That’s not really welcome here,” he says.
“It’s a fine line though, right? Maybe?” I ask.
“Well, that’s true.” Steve takes a moment to mull it over while grasping to find a favorable response. “I see what you’re saying and there may be some. Like a couple, but that’s not most of us.”
“But those few, they can make all of you look like a racist, right? Like someone looking in from the outside?” I ask him.
“Yeah. True,” he says. “But we’re so small in numbers that we can’t always afford to kick someone out. You know what I mean? A lot of these people are good people and we share a point of view.”
“But you see what I’m saying?” I ask.
“I do,” he says.
The sun would go down, and along with it the police would eventually shuffle everyone off of the beach without incident. Later the local news coverage would juice up the event, making it into something it wasn’t- something larger than the reality of the protest. A gathering of people that seem to be confused about what they’re there for. A wall? Racism? Immigration? Anti-Trump? Pro Trump? A bunch of lost souls looking for somewhere they belong.
Article photography by Aric Avelino