LAGUNA BEACH (CNS) - Hundreds of people rallying against illegal immigration and counter-protesters opposing their stance were squaring off today along the shore at Broadway and Pacific Coast Highway in Laguna Beach.
The organizer of the"America First" event, Orange County resident Johnny Benitez of Orange County, said the group hopes to keep the gathering -- their fifth rally in Laguna Beach -- peaceful.
All of the group's previous demonstrations went off without incident.
Police aren't taking any chances, however, with additional patrols on site. And, several local businesses boarded up their storefronts as a precaution, according to reports from the scene.
Less than an hour before the official 6 p.m. start of the rally there were already hundreds gathered representing both sides of the issue, with some verbal confrontations but no physical ones reported.
Police said they expect about 1,000 people to show up in total.
A number of those protesting illegal immigration were wearing "Make America Great Again" hats and flying red flags.
The event today was preceded by a gathering Saturday in the same location that advocated against racism 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, according to the Orange County Register.
The Saturday gathering 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 doesn't want his group to argue if counter-protesters show up today.
"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 people 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."
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