Long Beach 8th District Councilmember Al Austin and 33rd District California State Senator Ricardo Lara’s communications director provided statements this week after a group of protestors prompted the cancellation of a planned immigration forum event at the Iglesia Cristiana Templo Shalom on 1120 E. Market St. on Sept. 30.
That Saturday, the two elected officials were set to host an event that would have featured presentations on immigration policies, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and private legal clinics, but the forum was over before it started, when a group of at least nine people showed up with picket signs, which featured messages condemning illegal immigrants, calling for the firing of Lara, praising President Donald Trump and touting topic points about supporting homeless veterans and providing jobs for “real” American citizens.
A majority of the protestors utilized smartphone devices to livestream the situation, which oftentimes had them confronting Austin about immigration issues, even claiming that he was condoning illegal immigration.
“We’re here to document and show to the world– this is live right now– how we have state senators and a city councilmember who are openly undermining our immigration laws,” Arthur Schaper, a protestor from Torrance, told the Signal Tribune at the event. “They are defying the rule of law. They are promoting illegal aliens, rather than promoting the needs of the citizens in these communities.”
In a phone interview on Wednesday, Austin said the protestors’ claims were “ridiculous.” He added that they seemed to be part of a “very divisive agenda,” which is something he attributed to their support of Trump.
“Well, I just think it’s a strategy that is being employed by a number of interests,” Austin said. “I just think it speaks to the tone created by our very irresponsible president […] The event was public, so they had a right to be there, but I think they should have respected the church and the intent. There was also an opportunity for them to possibly learn something, which they didn’t get a chance to do because they came here to disrupt.”
After some heated debate that day between Austin and some of the protestors, the councilmember’s staff promptly escorted him to his vehicle in the church parking lot. Many of the protestors surrounded his car and continued to yell their claims at him– calling him a “disgrace” and someone who did not benefit the community– which caused him to point at them, calling them a “disgrace,” before leaving the event roughly before 10am.
In the phone interview, Austin admitted that the situation got pretty tense, and, due to the aggressive nature of the protestors, said there was some concern about it getting physical, which didn’t happen.
“I’m glad that it didn’t happen,” he said. “[…] It was kind of chaotic, and people were feeling intimidated. […] I had a couple of young interns there with me, and I really had to apologize to them that they had to see that side of it. And I had to assure them that it was going to be OK. But, for young people to see that– people who come in here and assuming they are coming into a safe space, it’s unfortunate. I think it’s a sign of the times, and, again, I think the tone is set at the top. Keep in mind who these people said they represent.”
Schaper claimed elected officials are putting the needs of illegal citizens over the needs of foster kids and homeless veterans. He said every time he drives to downtown Los Angeles, he always sees a homeless person.
“What about their needs?” he questioned. “The more I study the history on this, illegals have been coming into these areas, they have firebombed black communities, and nobody cares. […] We have Americans of all backgrounds being wiped out by illegals– murdered or their jobs are being pushed out, public safety is being undermined– and we’re calling them on this.”
Schaper also added that America needs to prioritize its citizens.
“We want every elected official to put Americans first, respect our president, to honor the rule of law and to ensure the public safety of all Americans to ensure that illegal aliens are not fighting our posts of any kind of safety in these cities,” he said. “What they’re promoting instead is lawlessness. It’s abject lawlessness. And we’re confronting it, and we’re exposing it. We’re allowed to do that.”
Before he continued, the rest of his group called him over for a picture. As they were posing for shots, Victor Paredes, a local resident in the area, confronted them about how they woke him up because of how loud they were.
Paredes and a few protestors exchanged some racially charged words, and Paredes left the scene.
The Signal Tribune caught up to Paredes and asked him about some of the rhetoric the protestors were defending.
“The bottom line is that you’ve got a group of people that have hate, anger, bitterness in their life,” he said. “Apparently they’ve found an excuse to, I guess, feed into that. […] At the end of the day, as a people, we can never move forward until we understand our differences and respect each other’s differences. We have to be realistic– this is a country where people come from all nations of the world, and we need to learn how to embrace that and just respect that they are coming with so much diversity […] and they are just coming to better themselves.”
Fernando Garcia, a protestor who told the Signal Tribune he was homeless, interrupted Paredes during the interview and called him a liar. The two, face-to-face, exchanged a few words about race and immigration before Paredes concluded all the protestors want are a “white, European America” and left.
Garcia claimed Paredes was probably a “plant” sent by Lara’s office for his agenda.
In an interview at the event, Garcia added that he was evicted from his home illegally due to the construction of more homes in his area.
“The thing is, these guys lie to people,” he said. “[…] They’re trying to brainwash you because [the 2018 election] is coming […] It’s just protecting these people; it’s not protecting our people.”
He also said the streets would be safer with the mass deportation of illegal immigrants.
“Who’s going to want gangsters on the street?” he said. “They even know it’s better for the community if criminals get deported.”
Long Beach Police Department (LBPD) officers were dispatched to the church around 8:57am regarding a group disturbance, according to LBPD spokesperson Nancy Pratt in an email. Pratt said that, upon arrival, the officers concluded the protestors were exercising their First-Amendment rights and all parties left the location without incident a little after 10am.
Michael Soller, communications director with Lara’s office, said the whole circumstance was a valid example of free speech and praised the police for making sure people were safe and allowing the protestors to speak their mind, but he condemned the behavior.
“Really, we know how to do this in America,” Soller said. “We know how to have peaceful protests that aren’t disruptive, that allow the event to continue. And that didn’t happen here. I think that’s certainly sad in this case.”
Austin said there are no immediate plans to reschedule the event but that his staff will work with community partners to ensure the information is available for the public. He also said his staff is going to put some thought into how to deal with similar situations in the future.
According to Soller, the state senator couldn’t attend the event, regardless of the protestor presence. The Signal Tribune also couldn’t get in touch with Lara by press time.
In a phone interview on Monday, Soller, although he wasn’t present at the event, said the situation seemed “frightening and disturbing.”
“When you look at some of the things that have been posted already online by the people claiming to be behind this– they’re talking about a victory– it’s not a victory,” he said. “Our perspective out there is that we are going to continue to do these events. This is a failure of our civil discourse, when people disrupt something. […] I don’t want to say anything about the people who came to protest, but it seemed pretty clear that there were people from outside of this neighborhood and outside from even the Long Beach community who were there to protest.”
Jonathan Solorzano, a presenter with the Long Beach Immigration Rights Coalition who was set to speak at the forum, said this isn’t the first time anti-immigrant individuals have presented themselves. He said a similar group protests in front of Lara’s office from time to time.
Solorzano noted that the few people who did attend the event didn’t get the chance to be informed– and that “the rest who arrived probably overheard everything and were scared away.”
He also posed the solution of making Long Beach a sanctuary city to better protect citizens.
“We need to make sure that we can protect our immigrants in an effective manner, and that’s the one thing we’re working toward,” he said. “The best thing you can do is to overpower them with people power, have more of a positive turnout for our communities to come out and really benefit from this and shut that whole bit up. In this particular case, they obviously had more numbers and had more people making noise, and that’s ultimately what resulted in the event being canceled.”
Austin echoed what he told the protestors on Saturday– that it was “disgraceful” for them to be disrespectful in an area of worship and peace. He also wanted to ensure residents that he is fighting to keep them safe.
“As a public official, an elected official representing the 8th district in the city of Long Beach, I feel like it’s my responsibility to provide resources, information to everyone who lives here,” Austin said. “I care about everybody’s quality of life. No resident in this city should walk around in fear.”