Monday, November 12, 2007

The Real OC, Redux

Back in the fall of 2006, after two men arrested for hate crimes committed at a Laguna Beach day laborers work center were freed by that city's District Attorney's Office, many voiced concerns about the increasing level of violence directed at the immigrant and Latino community in what has quickly become ground zero in the war over immigration: Orange County California.

But more importantly, it raised serious questions about who was actually behind this increased violence.

While certainly no hotbed for liberal thinking, increasing evidence seems to point to a covert campaign by small group of influential residents, community leaders, and some of the nation's most virulent hate-groups to fan the fires of hatred in order to make OC the most immigrant unfriendly place in the nation.

Later this week, the Laguna Beach day laborer center will once again be drawn into the national spotlight when yet another lawsuit filed by anti-immigrant groups will attempt to shutter its doors. But perhaps more important than what goes on in the judge's chambers, is what's gone on behind the scenes to make this lawsuit possible in the first place.

When most people hear the words Laguna Beach, they picture sun-bleached beautiful people, with fabulous lifestyles living in homes tucked into hilltops overlooking an endless ocean. But just underneath the surface of this scenic beachfront community, a raging conflict is taking place.

Orange County, of which Laguna Beach is part, has quickly become ground zero in a covert campaign by some of the nation's most extreme groups to push an agenda of racism and hate. On any given weekend, members of the neo-Nazi National Alliance, Save Our State, California Coalition for Immigration Reform, or the Minutemen will travel from all over the state to converge on Laguna Beach and other OC communities, bringing with them their extreme views on race and immigration.

For some, these people are viewed as interlopers, agent provocateurs who want to use Laguna Beach as a test area to further their cause, or opportunists, using the town in hopes of launching themselves into the national spotlight. But the intruders may not have been working entirely alone. Many now believe they've been enabled by a small group of residents working behind the scenes to make the affluent beach community into ground zero in the war on immigration.

Welcome to the real OC

Those within the immigrant's rights and Latino activist community have taken to referring to Orange County California as the region "behind the orange curtain" …and with good reason. It has long been a breeding ground and test area for many of the most strident anti-immigration activist in the nation.

Orange County, a staunchly conservative region with a long history of groundbreaking initiatives designed to drive out Hispanic immigrants. "Orange County is the most Mexican-hating county in the country," says Orange County Weekly syndicated columnist and investigative editor Gustavo Arellano.

The county is home to Minuteman Project co-founder Jim Gilchrist, whose "citizens border patrol" now has chapters nationwide, and to the California Coalition for Immigration Reform (CCIR), a major force behind 1994's Proposition 187, which sought to deprive undocumented immigrants of social services, health care, and public education. CCIR's official ballot argument described Proposition 187 as "the first giant stride in ultimately ending the ILLEGAL ALIEN invasion." The bulk of Proposition 187 was ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge years after it was passed by 59% of California voters, but it has nevertheless served as the model for similar measures in other states, notably Arizona's Proposition 200.
SouthernPoverty Law Center

Like most of Orange County, Laguna Beach has been dragged into the immigration wars. The situation revolves around a controversial day laborer hiring center set up by the city seven years ago to provide a safe and controlled way for laborers and those who want to provide them with work to do business. But the center has proven to be far from a safe haven. Over the years it's been the subject of numerous protests and counter protests, many attracting outside agitators that have brought with them increasing levels of violence.

In last years incident, two laborers were injured when they were hit by a car driven by two men yelling racial epithets while intentionally racing through the center on Sept. 17, 2006 trying to hit those waiting to find a days work.

Two men - one from Laguna Beach and one from Laguna Niguel - were arrested on suspicion of attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon, and a hate crime in connection with the incident, Det. Sgt. Darin Lenyi said

Lenyi said the suspects, Dennis Kaptilniy, 18, of Laguna Beach, and Artem Soloviev, 23, of Laguna Niguel, were held on $500,000 bond.

The incident began at 9:12 a.m. when the two suspects drove into the labor center in a Toyota Corolla, and spoke with one man, apparently seeking to hire him, Lenyi said.

When the laborer declined to be hired at the price offered, a confrontation and a physical fight ensued, in which the laborer was punched in the face, Lenyi alleged. The two suspects then left in their car, police said.

The suspects returned shortly thereafter and allegedly sped through the center, hitting two people and causing minor injuries, knocking down a tree, and damaging a fence and a bench, Lenyi said. The suspects also allegedly shouted racial epithets during the attack.

The suspects drove through the center "a few times, trying to hit people and intentionally trying to run people over," Lenyi alleged.

The Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot

48 hours later Kaptilniy and Soloviev were set free with no charges filed. According to Susan Schroeder of the Orange County District Attorney's Office the case would be "sent back for further examination" and called on anyone who witnessed the incident to come forward to supply further information - despite numerous eye-witnesses to the event and detailed police reports.

Immigrant right groups and local residents viewed the release of the two with disbelief and disdain and called on the DA's office to quickly resolve this matter.

A Long History of Controversy and Conflict

The center has a long history of controversy and confrontation. It was targeted by radical anti-immigration groups in 2005 with numerous protests. At one infamous protest in July of that year, sponsored by the local restrictionist group, Save Our State, the inclusion of Nazi flag waving members of the white supremacist group National Alliance sent shockwaves through the community. For the first time the nexus of the anti-immigration and white supremacists movements was revealed in public.

Minutemen groups taking place in the protest were quick to try to disassociate themselves from their more radical brethren. They have long claimed, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, that they not only have no connections to radical white supremacist, but they actively dissuade radicals from joining their ranks.

SOS, a group already facing charges of radicalism after founder Joe Turner was quoted by a fellow anti-immigrants activist as having instructing his followers to "Bring your bats, fellas. If we are lucky, we are gonna need them…", tried their best to distance themselves from the Nazis. They went so far as to scrub their internet message boards of comments and images left by the skinheads and National Alliance members. The comments were lost … but the picture evidence remains in various place on the internet….to the consternation of SOS founder, Joe Turner, who has since moved into the "legitimate" world of anti-immigrant activism becoming the Western Field Representative for the Washington based, Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).

The event organizer, minuteman member Eileen Garcia, who calls herself one of "Gilchrist's Angels," after minuteman founder Jim Gilchrist, is believed to be behind the effort to squash the news of white supremacists ties to the rally.

Posting on the Save Our State message board, a member known as "OCAngel", believed to be Garcia, quickly requested those administrating the site lock any further comments from being posted the night after the rally until they could remove any damning comments and images.

Eileen Garcia and the mystery map

A year later, Garcia was once again at the center of controversy when she just happened to be rummaging around the California Department of Transportation in Irvine one day and stumbled upon an old map that showed that the land on which the day worker center was build in fact belonged to the California Department of Transportation, a state agency. This made it illegal for the center to continue to operate under California law. With the help of lawyers from the ultra right-wing group, Judicial Watch, Garcia and her fellow minutemen were able to shut the center down temporarily until the city and state reached an agreement.

How Garcia, who portrays herself as just a "simple housewife concerned about the effects of illegal immigration", managed such incredible detective work was nothing short of miraculous. In fact it made her an instantaneous celebrity in anti-immigrant and white supremacist circles. Her praises were sung not only by the likes of her hero Jim Gilchrist, but from the National Alliance and the Aryan Nation website Stormfront.

Others, not associated with the anti-immigrant movement, questioned this strange coincidence and allegations of possible assistance from local or state officials were raised.

Ties between local officials and the anti-immigrant movement have long been speculated by residents. Some City Council members are believed to have close ties to the minutemen and it's been speculated that they have been active on the state and possibly federal level to have the center closed. According to a source with close ties to city government, there is one member in particular who, along with her husband, "may have been deeply involved in the Minutemen activities." The source believes "that decisions about the center are made behind closed doors so nobody outside the select people knows what she's really up to."

This Friday, Laguna Beach will once again be at the center of controversy as Eileen Garcia brings Judicial Watch to town once again argue a new case aimed at closing down the work center….just another day in the sunny, OC, I guess.

This is the first in a three-part series that will be looking at the people and groups behind the effort to close the Laguna Beach Day Laborer Center and make the OC the epicenter for anti-immigrant activity. Our on-scene investigative reporter, Artemis, will be filing reports about both the trial and the events leading up to it.

Photo top right: Neo-Nazis at July 2005 rally at Laguna Beach day workers center
Photo bottom left: SOS leader Joe Turner at rally with Nazi flags in foreground

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