Huntington Beach’s Wall of Denial

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Who says you can’t build anything in California? Huntington Beach is busy constructing a wall of denial around whatever is left of its soul.

The Orange County city has long been associated with the open and outlaw side of California. Named for a railroad robber baron (Henry Huntington), the city grew through oil speculation, aerospace, rapid post-war housing development, and a free-spirited surfing culture inspired by its beautiful beaches.

But in this century, Huntington Beach has achieved a different sort of prominence: as the anti-California, its independent vibe having curdled into a nasty mix of irresponsibility, litigiousness, and conspiracy-mongering.

Surf City USA (the trademark name it won after a fight with Santa Cruz) feels more like Scofflaw Town. Today Huntington Beach is bitterly defying state policies designed to build housing, protect immigrants, end the drug war, and enhance voting rights and representation.

Behind all this defiance lies questions about the surfing capital’s ability to adjust to new racial realities. While the other three Orange County cities with more than 200,000 people—Irvine, Anaheim, and Santa Ana—now have non-white majorities, Huntington Beach, at 63 percent non-Hispanic white, clings stubbornly to whiteness. And city policies limit the ability of younger, more diverse generations of Californians to gain a foothold in town.

The city government and its political leadership have also positioned themselves as allies of President Trump in his legal battles against the state. Most troublingly, the city has declared war on state sanctuary protections for unauthorized immigrants, arguing in court that California’s 100+ cities with charters—separate local constitutions—could ignore state law on immigrants. If the city succeeds (and it won an early round before a judge who personally praised Huntington Beach’s police chief from the bench), it would make a mockery of equal protection.

In short, Huntington Beach has dressed up anti-immigrant policies with claims that it’s merely defending local control. That’s head-spinning chutzpah, given that leading Huntington Beach politicians have aligned themselves with the federal government’s attacks on other California localities that chose to protect immigrants rather than support Trump’s mass deportation policies. Huntington Beach also is claiming that it’s protecting public safety by opposing sanctuary policies—even though data show immigrants are less likely to report crimes in places where local authorities cooperate with federal immigration enforcement.

Huntington Beach’s attacks on state policies go beyond immigration—and are often accompanied by claims that the city is somehow a victim of the rest of California. In January, the city sued the state to challenge a new law that forces local communities to streamline housing development. But when the governor and attorney general responded a week later by suing the city for failing to meet its housing obligations, Huntington Beach and its representatives complained, ludicrously, that they had been unfairly singled out.

Resistance to home-building is particularly strong in Orange County. But even in that context, Surf City is a legitimate target. Its tourism and beach-related industries rely heavily on poorer, non-white workers who commute long distances—those are the workers who make the place Surf City—but it has refused for years to do even the most basic planning, much less building, to house such workers. And when city officials tried to address affordable housing earlier this decade, they faced rebellion from residents.

“Huntington Beach’s dismissive approach to housing — claiming there is no problem and that the state should just mind its own business — is Exhibit A for why we have a crisis in this state,” State Sen. Scott Wiener, a state leader on housing policy, said in a statement after the lawsuits.

Huntington Beach’s scofflaw instincts extend to other issues. Take marijuana legalization. In order for California’s legalization of marijuana to work, cities must license and regulate the legal industry, while cracking down on the black market. But Surf City, like far too many other California cities, has done the opposite: prohibiting the establishment of legal, non-medical marijuana sales and distribution within the city, while doing little to stop illegal operations.

Huntington Beach also has resisted legal demands that it change its election systems to comply with the state’s voting rights act. Specifically, while other California cities have divided themselves into districts and elected council members who represent different neighborhoods (and are more likely to be non-white), Huntington Beach has stuck to at-large elections, which mean council members are elected by all city voters. In responding to a legal demand for the election shift, the Huntington Beach city attorney accused the lawyer seeking the change of pursuing “reverse discrimination.”

Unfortunately, Surf City’s racialized opposition to state norms isn’t confined to the city limits. One Huntington Beach representative, the former state assemblyman and 2018 gubernatorial candidate Travis Allen, is a favorite to become the next chair of the California Republican Party. He traffics in phony Trump-like claims about immigrants and voter fraud. But Allen’s act has so far proved too Trumpian for even Trump; the president endorsed Allen’s Republican opponent, John Cox, in last year’s governor’s race.

Surf City also faces scrutiny about hate groups. Last fall, the federal government charged four members of a Huntington Beach-based white supremacist group, the RAM or “Rise Above Movement,” with inciting riots and attacking counter-protesters at rallies around the country—including the infamous white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. RAM was also linked to violence at a 2017 pro-Trump rally in Huntington Beach.

Huntington Beach has no monopoly on hatred; organizations that track hate groups say white supremacists can be found across California. But after the arrests, news reports referred to previous links between Huntington Beach and hate groups dating to the 1980s, when skinheads were all too visible on the pier and downtown.

City officials responded that Surf City has an unfair and outdated reputation. That reaction is understandable. But Huntington Beach also might have used the arrests as an occasion for reflection—and to reassess the messages the city is sending by defying more inclusive state policies on housing and immigration. Instead, Huntington Beach has doubled down.

Hate’s up, Surf City. Are you sure you want to keep riding this wave?

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

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