On July 11, a fight broke out during Rep. Katie Porter’s town hall event at an Irvine park, when far-right figures organized a confrontation and one of Porter’s supporters was arrested for throwing a punch.
Last week, a Victorville councilwoman was arrested after clashing with police as they tried to remove one of her supporters from City Hall.
Physical confrontations during local government meetings aren’t the norm. But they’re no longer a big surprise either.
And in the wake of Jan. 6 — when some Southern California residents were part of a mob that beat police officers, threatened lawmakers and stormed the halls of Congress in a failed effort to prevent certification of an election in which former president Donald Trump lost — there is widespread concern that violence is coming to the routine government gatherings that keep democracy running.
It’s not clear if there’s been a spike in violent incidents and speech at local government functions, since no one appears to track that data. Generally, law enforcement officials say arrests and physical violence during civic meetings in Southern California remain rare.
But police agencies also have ramped up their presence at some public events. Surveys also suggest public officials — particularly health, election and education officials — are more concerned about their safety than ever before, with most citing threats by a diverse coalition of largely right-wing activists. Other data shows a doubling of threats of physical harm against Congress members, while organizations that track hate crimes say they’re seeing an increase in hostility directed at local county, city and school board officeholders.
The hostility can include hate speech, which is protected by the First Amendment but can set the stage for physical violence.
A disturbing example played out at an Orange County Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, July 27.
A member of the public who identified himself as “Tyler Durden” (a character from the movie “Fight Club”) and a member of “America First” (a motto championed by Trump and his supporters) directed his public comment at the board’s Vietnamese American Chair, Andrew Do. The speaker described Do, an American citizen whose family once fled a communist regime, as “one of these communist parasites,” and told him to “go the f— back to Vietnam.” The supervisor did not respond, but the comments drew cheers from the crowd.
“A lot of the attention is being paid to officials and agencies that (previously) people wouldn’t even know about,” said Brian Levin, a criminal justice professor at Cal State San Bernardino who directs the university’s Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism.
Levin said the center he leads recently started to track violent incidents and speech at local governmental meetings, a world he didn’t previously see as a hotbed of conflict.
“Traditionally, these have been sleepy places that have been off the radar,” Levin said, referring to gatherings of city councils and school boards, among others.
But he added that government meetings increasingly are targeted by activists who use violent speech — or the threat of actual violence — to raise their profile. The local events, Levin said, “are being amplified by a subculture that’s on social media, and is able to tie these meetings to some cataclysmic event.” That’s creating some trends that Levin described as “vivid” and “distressing.”
Peter Levi, an Orange County-based regional director for the Anti-Defamation League, said officials and members of the community can push back against violence before the trend ramps up. But, he added, those steps may require some training and tough conversations and courage.
“When good people do nothing, that is the big danger.”
Violence in American politics is nothing new. Everything from the Civil War to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan (founded specifically to disenfranchise Black voters and later to enforce Jim Crow segregation) to the assassinations and bombings that punctuated American politics in the 1960s and ’70s, are examples of political violence.
Local government meetings have not been immune, even if the incidents are usually less spectacular than war or insurrection. In 2012, for example, police arrested a woman who refused to stop speaking during a Riverside City Council meeting. And in 2016 officials took a boxcutter away from a man at a Los Angeles City Hall meeting.
But Levin said a “confluence of factors” is making the current political moment ripe for actual violence, even in local meeting halls.
The public, he noted, no longer trusts former community touchstones, such as police and universities and newspapers and health experts. At the same time, ethnic and racial diversity, multiculturalism, and acceptance of all sexual orientations are changing in ways that threaten people who once benefited from the old status quo.
Toss in trends like the recent coarsening of political discourse, the rise of social media (where facts and propaganda and conspiracy theories co-mingle and can have equal sway), and the tension that comes from a global pandemic, and you’ve got a recipe for potential violence.
It’s the “democratization of hate,” Levin said, and a political landscape where “extremism has become mainstream.”
To illustrate that point, Levi with the ADL noted that Nick Taurus, a self-proclaimed American Nationalist who coordinated the July 11 confrontation at Porter’s town hall, is not running against Porter in the 45th District as a third-party candidate. He’s running as a Republican.
“They don’t even have to share the same anchored and rigid ideology,” Levin said, referring to people who might resort to violence to make their political points.
“The fears are amorphous, but the villains are particular.”
When it comes to villains, there’s a long tradition of extremist groups on both sides of the political aisle opposing federal authority. But in recent years, Levin said Trump and some Republican leaders effectively directed the focus of a significant swath of the country away from traditional boogeymen that Americans of all political stripes once rallied against — such as Soviet Russia or ISIS. Instead, Trump and his supporters have urged voters to revile specific national political figures on the left, agencies such as the FBI (“the Deep State!”), and even local or state-level elected officials, who Trump, while president, sometimes called out by name.
In April 2020, after Trump used Twitter to air his criticism of Michigan’s Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmore, armed protesters invaded Michigan’s state capitol, prompting some elected officials to put on bulletproof body armor and call off a discussion about COVID-19 safety measures. And during the unprecedented attack of Jan. 6, Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol chanting “Hang Mike Pence!” and threatening to kill House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
When such incidents are discussed, critics on the right frequently mention violence from the left. They note that in 2018, when the Trump administration was taking heat for its policy of separating families at the U.S. border, Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters of Los Angeles encouraged supporters to confront Trump Cabinet members wherever they were spotted in public. Republicans also have characterized Antifa, which is short for “Anti-fascists” and is a loose network of far-left activists who typically organize to counter efforts by white supremacists, as a threat to America’s political health and safety.
Levi, of the ADL, said his group does track hate crime from the left, and that his chapter recently provided training to local law enforcement on how to identify such threats.
In April, a group of about 10 men dressed in black who identified themselves as Antifa said they were attending a Los Alamitos Unified School District board meeting as “peacekeepers,” after the board’s previous discussions about school programs aimed at reducing bias drew raucous crowds. Police eventually directed the school board to hold meetings on the topic virtually for safety reasons.
But Levi and many others have said the data is clear: The vast majority of hate-based violence currently is coming from white supremacists and other figures on the far right. And, to date, there are no reported examples of far-left activists disrupting regular government meetings in Southern California.
The Orange County Board of Education planned to hold a July 27 forum to discuss critical race theory — a decades-old view of systemic racism that’s become a new hot-button topic for Republicans — in the unincorporated community of Rossmoor. But after the Orange County Sheriff’s Department told the board that 69 deputies would be needed to maintain security, and that the board would be asked to pay $96,000 to cover that expense, the board moved the forum to their offices in Costa Mesa.
This month, city council members in Huntington Beach were escorted by police as they attended public meetings to discuss how to fill an empty council seat. The seat had been left vacant when former Councilman Tito Ortiz — who mocked masks, espoused conspiracy theories and become a local hero among Trump supporters — resigned because he become uncomfortable with the negative attention he received as an elected official.
Huntington Beach Mayor Kim Carr said she did not feel nervous or fearful at the meetings, and that she welcomes “dissent.” But police recommended extra precaution when Ortiz supporters pushed loudly for the council to choose as a replacement a woman who previously embraced language used by white nationalists. The council went a different direction, appointing civil rights attorney Rhonda Bolton.
“I think sometimes people try to intimidate you with this type of rhetoric,” Carr said, referring to heated political discourse. “It doesn’t work on me. I’m not sure who it works on. I’ve never seen it be successful.”
Some of the speakers, Carr said, walked “right up to the edge” of voicing comments that could be considered threats. However, she didn’t believe anyone crossed that line or instigated violence.
“But you don’t want to under prepare,” she said. “You need to always be ready in case somebody decides to take things a little too far.”
What can be done?
Southern California law enforcement agencies say it’s standard practice to have at least one uniformed officer at government and political functions. Agencies also routinely monitor online chatter and other sources to determine if they need to send additional support or recommend other safety precautions.
For Porter’s town hall, which was punctuated by violence, Irvine Police Sgt. Katie Davies said her agency was aware of planned protests before the event. The police, she added, communicated with the town hall organizers and eventually staffed the event with five officers.
Police generally recommend that political events be held in private locations, where access can be controlled, Davies said. Porter’s team planned the town hall in a park, since the event was billed as “family friendly” and outdoor gatherings are less likely to spread coronavirus, and because it was Porter’s first big in-person event since the start of the pandemic. Porter’s team did not ask for police to limit access to the event, and Davies said that would have gone against police’s responsibility to guard freedom of speech rights.
Porter declined a request to be interviewed for this story.
Some of Porter’s supporters criticized the Irvine PD for not having more officers present, and said the officers who were on the scene took too much time to respond when the fight broke out.
But Davies said that based on the information police had prior to the event, “the amount of police personnel was appropriate.”
“Our role is to be a uniformed presence, keep the peace, and respond to any criminal activity that may occur… . If criminal activity occurs, we handle it appropriately, as we did in this case.”
It’s a complex issue, to be sure. Many leaders on the left generally want police to be less aggressive, particularly in the wake of police violence during last year’s Black Lives Matter protests. And some elected officials fear that having a line of officers at a town hall would simply raise any existing tension.
But Levin said his Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism generally advocates for better securing all political gathering places, from federal and state capitols to local school board meetings.
Their recommendations include making sure uniformed law enforcement is present, not allowing firearms at the scene, and quick removal of anybody causing a disruption. Also, Levin said, everyone from police to political leaders to members of the public need to read the room and be aware of tension at a meeting, to avoid being caught off guard if violence breaks out.
Better data can help drive better safety planning. So Levin also is advocating for creation of a statewide commission on what’s been termed the current “State of Hate.”
Levi, of the ADL, said violent extremism doesn’t emerge from a vacuum; it starts with violent language. And that’s why, in his view, hostile, xenophobic, homophobic rhetoric that’s becoming routine during, say, the public comment portion of the O.C. Board of Supervisors meetings, needs to be addressed. That kind of talk, in his view, can escalate to something more serious.
Levi also says people shouldn’t directly engage with extremists. “You’re never going to convince them (to favor your opinion), and it just feeds into their narrative.”
One of the tactics employed by extremist groups is to come to public places and use aggressive, violent rhetoric as a way to bait a response from the other side. If the counter protesters take the bait and throw a punch — which might be what happened during Porter’s town hall — the violence can be described as having been committed by them, not the original agitators.
Instead Levi doesn’t recommend total silence. In the case of hate speech made during public comment periods, Levi said elected officials should “use their power and authority to condemn such… speech, and say it has no place in their chambers… rather than passively sit there.”
Several local leaders have spoken up to condemn the racist comments recently directed at Republican Supervisor Do. State Sen. Dave Min, D-Irvine, called the comments aimed at Do “despicable” and “unacceptable.”
Levi said he’d like to see a hotline to encourage people to report hate incidents at public meetings. He also wants to see resources spent to train police, public officials, teachers and others how to recognize and react to extremist language and behavior.
Some community members are organizing on social media to counteract extremists.
But, in this case, the mere threat of violence is exerting its own power.
Many who want to push back believe it won’t be safe to attend local meetings and express their view — particularly when agitators include people who refuse to wear masks or get vaccinated for COVID-19.
“This is the major problem,” tweeted @InMinivanHell, who regularly shares examples of what she views as extremism at Orange County meetings. “The only people speaking up & having their voices heard are far-right conspiracy believers.”
“As a community,” she said in another tweet, “we deserve to be kept safe from threats and racism when attending govt mtgs.”
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