A Ku Klux Klan rally at Pearson Park in Anaheim, California erupted into violence this past Saturday when counter protesters confronted members of the local chapter. In the aftermath, three counter protesters were hospitalized with stab wounds. Thirteen people were arrested, five of whom were Klan members, although they ended up being released the following day. According to the Los Angeles Times, a few of the counter protesters have also been released without being charged, although four of them are still in custody.
These scenes of hate groups parading publicly without their hooded robes and chaotic racial unrest clash with the dominant images of Orange County. When most people think about the area, it’s all Disneyland vacations, privileged white teens hanging out by the beach, or Ronald Reagan loyalists ensconced in gated communities. But these stereotypes obfuscate the O.C.’s diverse present as well as its racist past.
Gustavo Arellano, editor of the OC Weekly, has been writing the column “¡Ask a Mexican!” since 2004. He also wrote the book Orange County: A Personal History, as well as a recurring feature for the weekly titled “OC Pioneers Who Were Klan Members.” Since Saturday, he’s been shepherding the publication’s coverage of the KKK rally. We spoke with him about how this event occurred and what’s happening in Anaheim now.
Before the rally, how visible was the KKK in Orange County? Do you think average residents were aware of their presence?
Well you have to remember that there’s the group the KKK and then just white supremacy in general, and when it comes to the KKK, everyone always remembers how the Klan used to dominate Anaheim politics back in the 1920s. Everyone who was born back then, that’s just the history that everyone can tell. But the white power movement has been very visible in Orange County going back to the very beginning. The official Senator for Orange County, Henry W. Head, was actually a Klan member.
Orange County is perceived as a white, conservative stronghold in America. How true is that perception?
Oh yeah, we’ve been covering it in the OC Weekly for 20 years. There’s a long sordid history of hate in Orange County. The current Orange County is majority minority. In other words, whites make up less than 50% of the population and it’s been like that for 16 years. You still have those exclusively white pockets in parts of Orange County, but that’s definitely the minority. That said, that doesn’t mean that white supremacy has somehow gone down.
Has the demographic makeup changed a lot over the last 20 years?
Orange County used to be the stereotype that a lot of people still have about it, although there have always been minorities. As far back as the 1930s it’s been at least 30% Mexican. We have the largest population of Vietnamese in the world outside of Vietnam. We have the largest city in the United States with an all-Latino city council, Santa Ana. We have one of the largest Muslim populations in the United States outside of the Detroit area.
How present does racism feel in Orange County?
There’s racism in Orange County, yes. That doesn’t mean you encounter it every day. But again when you have politicians, a whole party that has been running on an anti-immigrant platform since the beginning of time and throwing hate bones every once in awhile to gay folks and Vietnamese or Muslims, it’s ingrained in the DNA. I’m not going to call Orange County a hotbed of racist terror, but it’s part of our DNA. What’s happening with the country when you see this rise in minorities, folks start freaking out and they start espousing crazy ideas. Just look at what’s going on with Trump in terms of mainstreaming white supremacy.
Is the rally and the racial tension in Orange County a reflection of what’s going on with the rise of Trump and far right rhetoric in general?
Yeah, but again, this is nothing new. This has been going in Orange County going back to when the Klan marched at that same park, Pearson Park, back in the 1920s. It’s something that is not a rare occurrence. People have this view that what happened on Saturday, the Klan popping up, is an anomaly, but no, it’s part of who we are. This is something that is bubbling under the surface and every once in awhile people pay attention.
Is there an inordinate amount of racial violence in Orange County?
In terms of violence itself, no. But you don’t need someone getting lynched or beaten up to see that racism is a part of the Orange County landscape. You just have to pay attention.
Do members of hate groups in Orange County fit any demographic profiles in terms of age or socioeconomic background?
You mean besides white?
All the people who were there, all the Klan members, they were all middle-aged men. There were no young people. But again, that’s just the Klan. There are various groups. You have a white power gang who are going to be in their twenties. And I can’t emphasize enough also the Republican Party, they’re basically the Klan without robes. You look at the rhetoric of their politicians that they’re electing, they’ve been going after Mexicans, gays, and Muslims for the longest time in Orange County. So there’s no real demographic. Nowadays the only working class parts of Orange County are Mexican and Asian, which means most of the white people in Orange County are going to be middle class. And yet you still have white supremacists coming out of that middle class, so there’s no [specific] demographic that you could speak of.
Were you surprised by the eruption of violence at the rally?
No, not given the history of protests in Anaheim. But I put all the blame on the police department. The police department is playing dumb when they say, We didn’t know that it was going to get violent. There absolutely was a possibility of that happening. That has happened in Anaheim before, where you have anti-racist, anti-fascist groups going and getting into fights. In the past it’s been [against] anti-immigrant groups. But if anything, either the police department is ignorant of history, or the police department is playing stupid. Either way, it’s disturbing that the people meant to keep the peace in Anaheim weren’t doing their jobs.
Was there any police presence when the protest started?
Nope. The police department says they had undercover [officers] there; they sure didn’t stop anything. The brawl went on for 2 minutes before the police department came. In fact, the sergeant, Daron Wyatt, he asked my reporter, “What happened?” And my reporter said, “Where were your guys? They should have been here to tell you what happened.”
What’s the mood like in Anaheim now?
There was a big peace rally yesterday, 300 people attended. There were city council candidates, school board trustees, nonprofit folks. It’s going to be used as a political gold star for the people who were there. They’re going to use that for their election campaigns. It’s politics at its most cynical at this point. And it’s funny because there were people [at the peace rally] who were at the protest on Saturday, telling all those people, Where were you guys on Saturday? Why are you just now showing up when all the cameras are here? I think that’s a very solid point. And of course when the anti-fascist people were yelling at the quote unquote peace protestors, the peace protestors started singing “We Shall Overcome” to shut them up.
You’ve been doing your “¡Ask A Mexican!” column for 12 years. Do you feel like racism has fluctuated over that time?
Yeah, it always fluctuates. When I started in 2004, there wasn’t much happening. In 2006 you had those big Amnesty [International] marches fighting against racists. Then when Obama was elected, you had a lull. Now we’re in the era of Trump. So it always fluctuates, but never changes. And of course you can’t forget Obama deporting over a million people. What never changes is Mexicans becoming Americans and Mexicans assimilating to the American landscape.
How does it feel to see someone like Donald Trump continuously dominating the election cycle?
It shows disgust with politics as usual. You can see the same thing with supporters of Bernie Sanders—different sides of the same coin. It’s populism. People are not happy in this country right now. With the right, I think they’re deluded because they could have brought this up when it was Bush running us into the ground; and Obama—I’m not a 100 percent supporter of Obama—he inherited a horrible mess and I think he’s done a great job of trying to put our country back into shape. Yet, a lot people are upset with him, which, honestly at this point, the only thing that I can really think of is that it’s because Obama’s black. But at the same time, people are tired of Hillary. So it makes sense why someone like Trump would be shooting up through the polls. I still don’t think he’s electable in the general election. A lot of people do like what he has to say, but not necessarily him. [It’s] only because he represents an alternative, which is something our political system has never really offered. If anything the two party system is reaping what they sowed a long time ago.