The activists arrived outside the Wi Spa in Westlake Saturday morning, some prepared for the worst.
Several wore bike helmets and vests with extra padding. N.W.A.’s “F— Tha Police” and Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” filled the air.
They were met by far-right extremists who over the last few weeks had turned a debate over transgender access at a Korean spa into a rallying cry.
It didn’t take long for the dueling protests to dissolve into disarray.
By the end, the LAPD had used projectiles and batons and arrested 40 people — mostly for failure to disperse. Several said they sustained injuries at the hands of police.
“I knew it was going to be violent. I didn’t know it was going to end up like that,” said Jessica Rogers, a 31-year-old who had come to document the event and support transgender rights and was among those arrested.
In the aftermath, the police are facing questions about whether officers used excessive force. But the incident has also exposed the power of a viral video given widespread attention in the right-wing press and social media.
The spa has become the latest hot spot for clashes between far-right groups and the left in L.A., kicked off by the video taken by an irate customer in late June.
The video showed a woman arguing with Wi Spa employees after she said she had seen a customer with male genitalia in an area that is reserved for women. The Wilshire Boulevard facility has some gender-separated areas with changing rooms and Jacuzzis.
The footage was quickly amplified by an international network of right-wing activists, pundits and media outlets, including Breitbart, the Gateway Pundit, RealClearPolitics and TheBlaze, a publication founded by Glenn Beck. Message boards where anti-trans activists gather, including Mumsnet, saw thousands of comments.
The spa told The Times Monday that they are required to follow California law that prohibits businesses from discriminating against customers based on race, gender, sexual identity or expression.
“Like many other metropolitan areas, Los Angeles contains a transgender population, some of whom enjoy visiting a spa,” it said in a statement, adding that the spa “strives to meet the needs and safety of all of its customers.”
Brian Levin, director of the nonpartisan Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino, said the protests are indicative of a “democratization of hate” that has allowed far-right groups with a variety of ideologies to come together around flash-point events after they are amplified online and in conservative media.
“The lightning rod stuff that occurs on social media … then gets slung like a catapult by influencers, and then ends up as violence in the streets,” he said.
The woman who filmed the video and many on the right have framed the issue as one of protecting women and children. Some on social media have inaccurately demeaned transgender people in terms of “perversion” or pedophilia, and the idea of protecting children has become a rallying cry for online conspiracy theorists. Levin, the extremist researcher, said fear and discomfort around changing sex and gender norms have longed underpinned far-right beliefs.
Saturday’s incident followed another day of dueling protests near the spa earlier this month. In the lead up to the second, LAPD Deputy Chief Al Labrada said threats on social media from both sides called for violence.
“The chatter on social media was calling for violence, calling for payback, ‘be prepared,’” Labrada said. “When you see that type of chatter, the intent is not to peacefully protest, to voice concerns regarding LGBTQ issues.”
About 50 to 80 people that included members of the far-right Proud Boys, Labrada said, marched to the spa at about 11 a.m. He said officials positioned themselves between both groups by Coronado Street and Wilshire Boulevard after fights broke out.
Labrada said people on both sides were armed with weapons, including knives and bats.
“It was a potential for mass injuries, mass carnage, because of the intent of both groups to go after one another at Wilshire Boulevard,” he said.
An unlawful assembly — announced via bullhorns and text alerts to residents in the area — was declared at 11:07 a.m. Labrada said officers fired 40-millimeter projectiles and beanbag rounds at protestors who were preparing to throw or who had thrown items at officers.
“There has to be a threat to officers,” he said. “In this case, there was. There were water bottles, smoke bombs, rocks being thrown towards the officers.”
But several who attended the protest provided a sharply different account, describing minimal violence between the two groups, and claiming the LAPD engaged in excessive use of force towards the counter-protesters.
Attorney Christian Contreras said he’s preparing to file at least 10 claims against the police department alleging excessive force and violations of 1st Amendment rights, including cases of protesters he claimed were shot at point-blank range and struck by batons when they didn’t pose a threat to officers.
Among those he’s representing is documentary filmmaker Vishal Singh.
Singh, 28, said he was standing in the middle of Coronado Street filming the protest when a police officer began pushing him backward with a baton, telling him repeatedly to get onto the sidewalk.
“Are you serious?” Singh said. According to Singh’s footage, the officer replied: “I am serious — on the sidewalk. This is our street. Get on the sidewalk.”
Video shows Singh, wearing a white T-shirt and a black helmet, rapidly walking backward and filming. Singh stepped behind a parked car and onto the sidewalk to film officers he said were swinging batons at protesters. He said an officer leaned around the back of the parked car and, with “both hands on his baton like it was a baseball bat,” swung at his right arm, fracturing a joint in his hand and two of his fingers.
The X-ray of his pinky finger, Singh said, looks like “a cup where you dropped it and put all the pieces back together.”
Labrada declined to comment on the incident until officials have finished reviewing body-worn camera footage.
Unlike the first Wi Spa protest on July 3, where right-wing and left-wing protesters brawled in the streets, on Saturday there “weren’t any moments where the right and the left actually ran into each other,” Singh said. The police, he said, “were really focused on keeping them separated.”
Sean Beckner-Carmitchel, an independent journalist, also said that the clashes that he saw were almost exclusively between counter-protesters and the police. Carmitchel, 34, said he saw counter-protesters throw one smoke bomb in the direction of officers and two other bombs into the far-right crowd.
Bamby Salcedo, president and chief executive of L.A.-based TransLatina Coalition, called the protests “unfortunate.”
“We are just over a previous administration that inflicted so much violence against our community. Obviously there are conservative people and extremist people who are mad because they don’t have that power anymore,” Salcedo said. “This is the type of situation that creates and incites violence.”
Reached via phone Monday, the woman who filmed the viral video that sparked the protests said she has visited Korean spas for nearly 20 years but had never come across an unclothed transgender person before. She found herself “stunned” and “traumatized” to see a person with male genitalia on the women’s side of the facility exiting a shower area.
The woman asked to be identified as “Angel,” not her given name, because she said she has been receiving death threats. Angel said she has never been involved in political activism before, and she and Marc Little, a prominent conservative Black pastor, are now seeking revisions to California’s civil rights law, which forbids businesses from discriminating against gender identity or gender expression — a provision added in 2011.
Angel said she had not attended any of the protests, and “absolutely” did not want to see anyone harmed, but was not surprised by the clashes.
“Whenever you have good and evil coming together, there is going to be violence,” she said.
The fight has spilled over to Wi Spa’s most recent Facebook post. A few excited comments in English, Spanish and Tagalog about the spa reopening were soon drowned out by more than 2,200 comments from Facebook accounts in Illinois, Texas, Georgia, England and Australia that accused the spa of failing to protect women and facilitating pedophilia.
One woman who posted a week ago to ask whether the spa was open for business got a response from a man in Utah who wrote: “Not for very long! They made their polluted bed and now they have to sleep in their own sinful sludge.”