Hundreds march along the boardwalk to condemn racism and white nationalist violence
By Joe Piasecki, Gary Walker and Gabe Schneider
Here at the edge of the Western world, where authenticity blends seamlessly with performance, an awkward hodgepodge of progressive activists — white, black, brown, red, gay, straight, young, old, capitalist, communist and perhaps even a few militant leftists — managed to steal Venice’s white hot spotlight under the banner of a common cause.
As the boisterous stream of anti-racism demonstrators flowed briskly along the boardwalk from Windward Avenue toward Google’s local offices on Main Street, there may have been as many onlookers pointing cell phone cameras at the procession as there were participants in it.
Late Saturday morning brunch patrons stood and cheered and a few shopkeepers even stepped forward to applaud as the marchers chanted slogans like “No Trump! No KKK! No fascist U.S.A!” and “This is what democracy looks like!”
LAPD Pacific Division officers, who maintained posts at every intersection of Speedway along the route and briefly stopped traffic on Pacific Avenue and Main Street, estimated the crowd at about 800 strong. But it felt like a lot more.
“It’s great to see a crowd this size and the amazing diversity. This is the face of Venice,” said Jed Pauker, formerly of the Venice Neighborhood Council and one of several locals who volunteered to help with crowd control. “We’re inclusive. But when you start spouting hate, we’re going to come back at you.”
Unlike the protests and counter-protests the prior weekend in Charlottesville and this week’s events in Laguna Beach, Boston and Phoenix, the roughly three-hour demonstration in Venice went off without arrest or incident, in no small part because the opposition was a no-show.
Matthais Lehman, a Westside-based California Democratic Party delegate, put out the call for “The Alt-Right is Not Alright with Los Angeles” rally after one such group threatened to protest outside Google over the firing of engineer James Damore, who openly criticized the company’s push for greater workforce diversity. Citing the previous weekend’s violence in Charlottesville, that group quickly backed down. But Lehman and others doubled down on the chance to put out their own message.
“The impetus for me was to show that most people don’t agree with what happened in Charlottesville,” said Claudia Trevisan, a legal recruiter who lives in Venice. “We outnumber them. Our voices are stronger.”
“Silence is consent, and I don’t give my consent to that [white nationalist] bullshit,” said UCLA student Hoang Nguyen, 21.
“We thought it was over. We thought our side had won,” said Naomi Nightingale, a civil rights activist in Venice’s historically black Oakwood neighborhood since the late 1960s. “We’re not only going to resist, we’re going to persist.”
Many of the demonstrators took aim at President Donald Trump, arguing that his divisive campaign rhetoric and reluctance to blame the alt-right for the violence in Charlottesville has empowered white nationalists to come out of the shadows.
“When I saw those riots in Charlottesville, I couldn’t believe people were so willing to express those beliefs in this day and age. It goes to show the effect our president has had: allowing people to feel proud of holding onto hatred and prejudice against people who aren’t like them,” said Alberto Reyes, 23, who works in scientific research.
“The message Trump’s trying to send is that only white people are important,” said graphic designer and Culver City resident Harvey Fang, 38.
“It’s ridiculous to compare people from the Confederacy to George Washington. Those statues were only put there to intimidate people of color,” said Satkartar Khalsa, 22, of Marina del Rey.
The feeling that white nationalists are emboldened hits close to home for public relations specialist Laurence Cohen, a Santa Monica resident concerned about recent alt-right protests in that city.
Earlier this month, at least 20 white nationalists clashed with locals in Virginia Avenue Park while trying to disrupt a meeting of the Racial Justice Coalition, a grassroots community workgroup formed in 2011 after a racially motivated assault at Santa Monica High School. Santa Monica police removed a few of the alt-right demonstrators and prevented others from storming the lobby. Protesters have announced plans to return in greater numbers to disrupt the committee’s September workshop.
“I go to the park for the farmers market on a regular basis, and it’s just horrifying to know there are white supremacists coming here to disrupt a peaceful gathering,” said Cohen. “What concerns me is that free speech needs to be protected, but hate speech does not.”
An occasional ACLU donor, Cohen is troubled by that organization’s willingness to assist hate groups, including filing a lawsuit that facilitated the “Unite the Right” protests in Charlottesville.
Differences of viewpoint among the Venice demonstrators stood out during a series of short speeches delivered behind Google, where speakers included representatives of a Native American group, Black Lives Matter and even a surprise appearance by L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin.
The most divisive was an activist who called on participants to chant “cops and Klan go hand-in-hand” and received a chorus of boos instead.
“That’s not why we’re here!” shouted Priscilla Gonzales, 27, of Newport Beach.
“A lot of blue lives are defending our rights to protest today. We shouldn’t fight hate with hate,” she later elaborated, explaining that her conservative Christian parents taught her that differences in lifestyle choice and religious beliefs are no reason to hate other people or treat them poorly.
One common thread of the march: cautious optimism.
“We don’t know how all this is all going to end,” reflected Cohen, “but I do believe the goodwill of the American people will find a way.”