Anti-illegal immigration demonstrators clash with counter protesters in Laguna Beach

- Anti-illegal immigration demonstrators and counter protesters squared off in Laguna Beach Sunday night in what started as an "America First" rally. 

Hundreds of counter protesters showed up, vastly outnumbering the pro Trump group.

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The organizer of the"America First" event, Orange County resident Johnny Benitez of Orange County, said the group hoped to keep the gathering --their fifth rally in Laguna Beach -- peaceful.

All of the group's previous demonstrations went off without incident.

Police weren't taking any chances, however, with nearly 100 officers from five different agencies on the site of the confrontation at Broadway and Pacific Coast Highway.

Shortly after 9:00pm, police brought out a bearcat SWAT unit and ordered an unlawful assembly.

Several local businesses boarded up their storefronts as a precaution, according to reports from the scene.

Shortly after the 6 p.m. start of the rally, there were some verbal confrontations but no physical ones reported.

Police confirm there were 3 arrests, but details on charges were not immediately available. 

There were several verbal altercations and at least one physical assault caught on camera. 

Tensions were high since plans for the "America First" gathering were announced following the Aug. 12 violence at a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

A number of those protesting illegal immigration were wearing "Make America Great Again" hats and flying red flags. Counter-protestors waved signs with messages such as "Hate will never make us great." A peace sign was constructed on the beach from seaweed.

Sunday's event was preceded by a Saturday gathering in the same location that and called for unity in Laguna Beach.

"Laguna Beach doesn't (just) tolerate diversity - we embrace diversity," Mayor Toni Iserman said at Saturday's event.

The Saturday crowd was filled with signs reading "Unity over division, love over hate" and "The future is inclusive" among other sayings. Many in Saturday's group tied ribbons around trees and lampposts to leave a peaceful message before today's rally.

Since plans for the "America First" gathering were announced following the Aug. 12 violence at a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia,  Benitez said he has received "death threats and hate mail."

But Benitez said his group's rallies focus attention on the "victims of refugees and illegals."

"Not just violent crime" victims, he said. "But all of the repercussions of people who came here who shouldn't be here. I don't see it as a refugee crisis -- it's a cheap labor scheme."

Since his events have been violence-free in the past, if there are conflicts this time then, "We'll know which elements made it happen," he said.

Benitez said he didn't want his group to argue with counter-protesters.

"I don't even like to see the screaming matches," Benitez said.

"Hopefully, the police will do their jobs, which I believe they will... I'm assuming there won't be violence, but you can't really control it."

Benitez said he's mostly concerned about "the (counter-protesters) in the black masks. They generally get confrontational right away... But we're going to try to keep it violence free. A lot of our people are pro (President Donald) Trump."

Laguna Beach police Sgt. Jim Cota told City News Service he was confident his department could handle the demonstration.

 About 80 people showed for the most recent rally on July 30, Cota said.

"We're ready for this. They can bring out the whole world and we'll be ready for them," Cota said.

The department has many officers with deep experience in crowd control, Cota said.

"A majority of the people working on this are very tenured, so we know how to deal with them," Cota said. "We've been having meetings daily and our chief is very pro-active."

By 10:00pm, all demonstrators had been cleared out of Main Beach and PCH was opened once again. 

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