A few hours after the city came together Monday in De la Guerra Plaza to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s messages of unity and compassion, police erected a barrier in front of the Santa Barbara News-Press. On one side, supporters of the paper — which has invited widespread backlash over its repeated use of the word “illegals” to describe immigrants in the U.S. without permission — carried signs, bullhorns, and American flags to promote free speech and decry abuses of the country’s immigration system. They were rallied by a Claremont group called We the People Rising and accompanied by members of the Santa Barbara Tea Party.
On the other side, a diverse crowd of community activists spoke against what they’ve described as blatant racism on the part of News-Press management. The activists said they respect the paper’s First Amendment rights and editorial prerogative, but take issue with its dehumanizing word choice that intentionally offends Latinos, who account for 44 percent of Santa Barbara County’s population. “Support free speech, not hate speech!” they chanted and circulated a petition to boycott the paper and its advertisers after it refused to run a retraction.
While the two camps stayed away from each other for most of the day, confrontations did take place. Some of the interactions were civil. Most were not. Between shouts of “Protect our borders!” “Defeat censorship!” and “We love the News-Press!” paper supporters hurled derogatory, epithet-filled insults across the plastic fencing, the least offensive of which were, “Speak English, you morons!” and “Go back to where you came from!” They also demanded to see documentation proving citizenship and held signs that read “Stop the Invasion” and “Deport Illegal Alien Gangbangers.” One News-Press demonstrator threatened to light an opposing protestor on fire. Another repeatedly asked where others lived so he could “find them later.”
The dueling demonstrators blasted bullhorns in each other’s faces and tried to out-yell one another. Some News-Press detractors called the supporters white supremacists and argued how their forebearers were also immigrants. One repeatedly stomped on an American flag. About a dozen police officers were on hand for the event, which drew several hundred people. No arrests were made.
The paper’s editors have repeatedly defended their word choice, saying it’s accurate to describe someone living in the country illegally as an “illegal” and comparing the spray-paint vandalism that hit their office to the Charlie Hebdo attacks. The vandalism and an earlier protest took place after the paper published the headline “Illegals line up for driver’s licenses” above a January 3 news story about a new California law (AB 60) that allows state residents to apply for a driver’s licenses without proving U.S. citizenship. Last Friday, the News-Press ran another article on the same topic with the headline “Driving legal opens door to illegals’ past.”
“We will not give in to the thugs who are attempting to use political correctness as a tool of censorship and a weapon to shut down this newspaper,” News-Press copublisher Arthur von Wiesenberger recently wrote to the Minuteman Project, an activist group against illegal immigration. We the People Rising members came from all over Southern California to attend the rally. Its executive director, Robin Hvidston, said beforehand, “Freedom of speech is not about pleasantries. It can generate opposition, but that’s what it means to live in this great country.”
On Monday, group leader Mike McGetrick from Orange County pointed to the News-Press critics across the plaza and said, “See what’s going on there? That’s what happens when you have open borders.” He said he wants to see immigration laws enforced more effectively and worries about how “Mexican is being taught in school instead of English.” He accused the other demonstrators of “getting more militant and angry. … They shout and call us names.”
McGetrick said a continued influx of unauthorized immigrants would spell financial ruin for the state, but liberals and Latinos are blind to such issues. “That’s what these idiots don’t understand,” he went on, also describing Sacramento’s Hispanic caucus as “a bunch of rat finks.” If the media would only shine an investigative light on them, he said, “they’d scatter like cockroaches.” Marilyn Schneider from San Bernardino County said the activists had “an entitlement aspect. They think, ‘I’m entitled to live here as an illegal.’ We say, ‘No, you’re not.’”
Many of Monday’s attendees were rallied together by PODER (People Organizing for the Defense and Equal Rights of Santa Barbara Youth), which has voiced loud and consistent criticism of the News-Press. City councilmember Cathy Murillo, former News-Press staffers, and area religious leaders accompanied them. Some wore cardboard butterfly wings to symbolize migration, in this case of monarchs from Mexico up California’s coast. “They’re beautiful and peaceful, just like our people,” said PODER member Savanah Maya. “Migration is natural to beings of all kinds.”
Maya said she was heartened by the crowd’s size and diversity and was glad for the relatively peaceful proceedings considering “how much antagonizing” her group endured. “We did exactly what Dr. Martin Luther King was asking for,” she said of the civil rights leader’s insistence on nonviolence. In coming days, Maya said, PODER members and volunteers will make door-to-door calls on businesses, asking them not to advertise with the News-Press or distribute the paper in their stores. “This has sparked so much energy in us,” she said. “This is just the beginning.”
Ralph Armbruster-Sandoval, a professor of Chicano-Chicana studies at UCSB talked about how the News-Press ignores standard journalism guidelines, called it a “silly” publication, and declared, “They’re fighting so hard because we’re winning.” The crowd later chanted “Undocumented, unafraid,” “We are beautiful, My nation is beautiful,” and “Love, not hate.” Listening nearby, Alvarado Jimenez equated “illegals” to the “N-word.”
Invoking the messages of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Pastor David Moore called on the News-Press and its owner, Wendy McCaw, to practice decency and compassion toward all, regardless of race or status, and to recognize basic human rights. He also appealed to the religious sensibilities of those embroiled in debates over immigration. “Many of you listening are Christians. I hope to reason with you: As a young child, Jesus’s parents, Joseph and Mary, fled violence in their homeland into Egypt. What if they had been turned away at the border? Don’t forget that Jesus was human.”
Moore, who recently penned an op-ed for the Huffington Post and helped lead Santa Barbara demonstrations in the wake of the Eric Garner and Michael Brown killings, spoke through a PA system over the blaring bullhorns of News-Press supporters. “To our brothers and sisters who are outraged that we are even gathered here to make a statement,” said Moore, “I am willing to find out why you are so afraid, and I hope that we share an eagerness for immigration reform.” He also spoke of love for all, explaining, “Oh, yes! I prayed for Wendy McCaw this morning. When you love somebody, you want them to do the right thing.”