In Occupied Territory

The riot gear won’t come out for another 45 minutes, but at noon you can already spot the cops on the roof of the old school auditorium beside the Baldwin Park city hall, and it’s hard to miss the two plainclothesmen in wraparound shades leaning against the wall of the corner market. Across the street from them, at the westernmost edge of the Metrolink parking lot, a dozen protesters have gathered. They’re waving American flags and holding enigmatic picket signs reading “Sedition: conduct or language inciting rebellion.”

It’s still not altogether clear what that definition has to do with the monument at the other end of the parking lot, two adjoining arches of stucco and exposed adobe brick designed by the L.A. muralist Judy Baca. Titled “Danzas Indígenas,” it had greeted San Gabriel Valley commuters for 12 years without controversy until a few weeks ago, when someone e-mailed Joe Turner selections from the texts inscribed in the stucco, namely a fragment of a poem by Gloria Anzaldua reading, “This land was Mexican once, was Indian always, and is, and will be again” and the words “it was better before they came.”

Never mind that, according to Baca, that latter line was a quote from a white resident mourning the fact that Baldwin Park is now overwhelmingly Latino, and that it floats in the stucco alongside such banalities as “a small-town feeling.” Turner saw his opportunity. Riding the momentum of resurgent anti-immigrant sentiment — Schwarzenegger’s encomium to the Minutemen, talk-radio hysteria about a Villaraigosa mayoralty, the KCRA billboard battle — the Ventura resident posted an article on his Save Our State Web site, demanding that “seditious anti-American language” be removed from the monument. “Californians are tired of watching their communities turn into Third World cesspools as a result of a massive invasion of illegal aliens,” Turner huffed.

He may have picked the wrong fight, or at least the wrong spot for it. By noon on Saturday more than 200 counter-protesters have already gathered in the far end of the Metrolink lot. The monument itself has been roped off by police, but the crowd is in good spirits and about 30 Aztec dancers are skipping about and banging drums.

At the other end of the lot, Joe Turner, who turns out to be a 28-year-old with a fixed sneer and frat-boy good looks, tells me about the protest he just organized at a day laborers’ pick-up site in front of a San Bernardino Home Depot (similar actions have been organized in recent weeks in Laguna Beach, Temecula, Glendale and Rancho Cucamonga): “We protest, we film employers, we take down license-plate numbers: mainly intimidation tactics. We’re usually very effective.”

Here in Baldwin Park, though, he acknowledges, “We’re in hostile territory, occupied territory so to speak.” He nods over his shoulder in the direction of the counter-protesters, and adds that the police “put them down there and us here and we’re very happy about that.”

But the counter-protesters are no longer “down there.” They’re marching across the lot toward Turner’s group, which has grown to about 25 but is easily outnumbered 10 to one. The police stop them about 100 feet away, but their taunting chant, “Ra-cists! Ra-cists!” is easy to hear.

A man with a cane steps into the street in front of Turner and yells that there are immigrants working in a strawberry patch down the road, “Go chase their illegal asses outta there and go pick the strawberries! Go take the jobs back, assholes!”

Florencio Briones, a student from El Monte, is going at it with Dottie Dalton, a grandmotherly 66-year-old from Murietta who just got back from a month on the Arizona border with the Minutemen. She and Briones are jabbing fingers in each other’s faces. “Immigrants pour more money into this economy than they take out,” says Briones.

“Are you kidding? They send it back to Mexico!” scoffs Dalton.

For what it’s worth, Briones is right, but no one’s in the mood to listen. Before long the conversation has degraded to Dalton screeching, “Illegal! Illegal!” in Briones’ face until two sheriff’s deputies pull him away.

A few minutes later, Briones is still shaking his head in disbelief. The monument, he tells me, says nothing about secession, nothing about Aztlan or the reconquista, nothing Dalton’s troops seem to think it says. “All it does is remind people of the cultures that were here before the colonists came. These people must be out of their minds.”

The counter-protesters, who seemed to have begun dispersing, reappear just across the street. They are seriously pissed off. Soon the police have strapped on riot helmets and formed a line between Turner’s followers and their opponents, who now fill each of the three remaining corners. I try to talk to Dalton above the yelling from both sides and the buzzing of a police helicopter overhead. “The Minutemen let the genie out of the bottle and she’ll never go back in,” she says, with a warm, maternal smile. “It’s our country and we’re gonna take it back!”

The crowd across the street doesn’t see it that way. They’re yelling, “Go home! Go home!”

But Joe Turner is beaming. “I love it,” he says. “I fucking love it.”

He doesn’t smile for long. At about 20 after one, someone lobs a water bottle into the air. It lands on Dottie Dalton’s head, laying her out on the sidewalk. A cop starts shouting into a bullhorn, but he’s drowned out by screaming on both sides. A bearded man kneels next to Dalton, pouring bottled water into an American flag bandanna, daubing at her brow. Turner no longer seems to be enjoying himself. He paces peevishly, red-faced, and barks, “What the fuck?”

Things cool down a little, and the screaming turns to gentle, taunting chants of “Cu-le-ros, cu-le-ros,” (roughly, “ass-holes, ass-holes” — sing along at home), but there are still a couple hundred angry people massed on every side of Turner’s group, and the depth of his miscalculation is sinking in. A pink-faced, white-bearded man named Val puts a hand on Turner’s shoulder and laughs, “We gonna get out of here alive?”

They will, but it will take a while. The cops will escort them to the police department around the corner, where they will wait ignominiously in the shade of a loading dock until the streets cool down. But let’s stay with them for a moment. A young Latino man in a wheelchair has somehow rolled his way among them. He wears black pants, a black sweatshirt and a black Raider’s cap, and he’s holding an ear of corn in his right hand. Tears are falling down his cheeks. “You people do not preach truth or beauty,” he cries, shaking his head and staring at his knees. White women in their 60s with dyed perms stand around his wheelchair in red, white and blue windbreakers. “You don’t know what love is,” he weeps. The women titter nervously. “Your hearts are full of hate and fire.”

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