If you want to find one, all-encompassing picture of Huntington Beach, Orange County’s fourth-largest city, you’ll have to dig further than just the image of a surfboard stuck in the sand, with the sun setting gloriously in the background.
It’s difficult to generalize about any community, but “Surf City” presents so many tantalizing ways to look at, your search starts to resemble the effect of light through a prism, throwing off beams of blue and green and yellow and more.
Aggressive branding over the last decade has underlined this city of 200,000 people as a surf and sand Mecca, so much so that tourists might expect to run into Brian Wilson at The Longboard. The city’s mostly-successful efforts to lure tourism to the downtown area along the beaches have brought luxurious hotels and upscale shops.
But another image is emerging to change, perhaps, mar all of that. One incident after another is casting Huntington Beach as Ground Zero for those in Orange County who haven’t quite gotten over Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in 1865.
It’s tough to fairly put your finger on just when this rowdy, sliding-into-extremism activity came to the surface. Maybe it was the “Make America Great Again” rallies on the beach which resulting in battles between bare-chested lads with red hats and wannabe “Antifa” activists in black.
Later we saw anti-mask rallies, and the boarding up of Main Street from slightly-overcaffeinated folks convinced that Black Lives Matters protesters were planning on torching the Huntington Surf and Sport store.
In November, voters elected Tito Ortiz, a former wrestler and mixed martial arts athlete to the city council, an event reminiscent of Minnesotans choosing Jesse “The Body” Ventura – a former pro wrestler – as their governor in 1998.
Ortiz ignited criticism at the beginning of his term by referring to the coronavirus as a “plandemic,” a term used by conspiracy theorists suggesting that the COVID-19 virus that has killed over half a million Americans was somehow planned by shadowy figures behind the scenes.
His refusal to wear masks led the city council to consider revoking his largely honorary title of “mayor pro tem,” but he then struck a more apologetic tone and was forgiven, sort of. But at meeting of the city council this week, he reiterated his opposition to following that widely-observed public health order, even defying police to remove him from the council chamber if he went in bare-faced.
It’s easy to dismiss this all as political theater, and – of course – a lot of it is. But it’s the aroma that all of this together creates which may be behind the planned April 11 rally at the Huntington Beach Pier of a “White Lives Matter” aggregation which is certain to solidify the city’s overheated bad boy image as the QAnon headquarters of Orange County.
Maybe Huntington Beach has more than its fair share of folks on the political fringe. But that doesn’t mean that the city deserves this emerging odor of know-nothing populism.
This city is rightfully renowned for its environmental consciousness, its vast park system – best in the county, after, perhaps Irvine – and its dogged defense of its wetlands. It cherishes learning, not ignorance, and is home not only to a community college, but also to one of the largest and best city libraries in the state.
All of that – for the time being – is being submerged under the sociopolitical fog created by a few high-profile outliers. That said, maybe it’s time for the city and its civic leadership to more forcefully assert that Huntington Beach is a place where people of all races, colors, creeds, etc. are respected and cherished. If you don’t like what’s being said about you, the saying goes, change the conversation.
But as of right now, it’s hard to feel good about what I’m hearing.
Jim Tortolano’s Retorts column appears every other week, alternating with “Usually Reliable Sources.” For context, Jim points out that he is a former resident of Huntington Beach, served as managing editor of the old Huntington Beach Independent and taught journalism at Golden West College for 30 years.