Activist feels a calling to oppose illegal immigration
By Zeke Barlow, zbarlow@VenturaCountyStar.com
July 8, 2005
Joseph Turner was a 150-pound white high school kid when he started his fight.
A senior at John W. North High School in Riverside in 1994, Turner took to a debate stage to support Proposition 187, which denied illegal immigrants publicly funded services.
The school was about 35 percent white, 35 percent Latino and the remainder Asian or black.
Most in the school were against the measure, remembers Principal Dale Kinnear. Those in favor of it "were in the minority," he said.
Turner was undeterred.
He took the microphone and started on his path as an anti-illegal-immigration activist.
"I talked about the ills of illegal immigration and all the problems with it," said Turner, now 28, a stay-at-home dad and Little League coach living in Ventura. "I couldn't get one person to stand with me."
Eleven years later, Turner has found people to stand with him. And his voice has gotten louder.
He started Save Our State, an anti-illegal-immigration group that has stirred up a hornet's nest of debate about race, racism and immigration. He's organized a few demonstrations against illegal immigration that have turned nasty, including two in Baldwin Park.
He's been alternately called a racist and a leader, a hatemonger and an activist. He says he couldn't care less about the negative labels.
"Deep down, I feel like I've been called to greatness," Turner said, explaining his journey to the forefront of debate. "If not me, who?"
Turner is a striking man with intense blue eyes and an unlined face that belies the scars of his childhood.
He grew up on and off welfare in the Inland Empire with parents who were often gone, forcing him to stay with friends of the family. Often, he was one of the only white kids in the many neighborhoods in which he grew up, he said.
He saw Mexican flags flown around town, people who spoke only Spanish and, his biggest peeve, people, he said, who refused to assimilate in the United States.
"I can't stand hyphenated Americans," he said.
Turner said he's not anti-Latino by any stretch, though his detractors say he's a racist. He loves his Latino stepfather, he said. A big baseball fan, he says one of his favorite baseball players is Baltimore Orioles shortstop Miguel Tejada.
He worked as a Republican congressional page in Washington in 1994, then studied political science at Riverside City College and later transferred to University of Southern California to study business, he said. He became a junior trader in Chicago, putting aside his political beliefs for a few years.
In 1996, he pleaded guilty to disturbing the peace in Riverside. He said the charges were filed after he got into an argument at a demonstration with someone carrying a Mexican flag.
He moved to Ventura two years ago because his girlfriend got a job nearby. The couple, who share a home, decided he'd stay home and care for the youngest of their two sons, but he doesn't like to elaborate too much on his personal life. He would not allow her or his parents to be interviewed for this story. She does stand behind him in his fight, he said. She was the one who came up with the idea for his brand of activism, called "transference of pain," he said, making an entity pay for not doing as he wants.
Turner's biggest complaint is that he says too many illegal immigrants in the U.S. could lead to a revolution of sorts, when radical groups try to take back California for Mexico. Judith Baca, the artist who created the monument that has been the subject of his ire, said that's preposterous.
Even people who agree with his ideals question his tactics.
Took his cause to the Web
He said not enough gets done through letter writing and supporting candidates, so he took to the Web.
Riding the rising swell of the illegal immigration debate, he started http://SaveOurState.org
last fall, letting others know about it by posting messages on other like-minded Web sites. He organized protests at Home Depot stores because, he said, they aid illegal day laborers by building them shelters. He lent a hand to getting a billboard taken down that read "Los Angeles, Mexico."
And then he really started raising a ruckus.
He organized two protests in Baldwin Park, where the vast majority of the residents are Latino, over wording on a monument he said is seditious and anti-American. One inscription reads, "It was better before they came," and the other says "This land was Mexican once, was Indian and always is, and will be again." He called it proof of the move to reclaim America for Mexico.
Though his May rally had only about 60 supporters, it drew 600 protesters. Hundreds of police lined the streets where protesters hurled slurs at Turner and crew and a police helicopter hovered above.
Radicals on both sides showed up. White supremacist groups sided with Turner, and one man chanted pro-Osama bin Laden chants on the other. Turner's Web site said the supremacists are not welcome in his group, but he can't stop them from showing up at public events. Baldwin Park spokesman Adan Ortega said Turner has never denounced the supremacists publicly.
Baca said Turner took the quotes out of context and that Turner's is a hate group.
"His actions have led to tremendous hostility and rage," said Baca, a Chicano studies professor at University of California, Los Angeles. "This is not a person who has in his mind what is best for the community. ... We are talking about a person who uses inciting words and yells fire in a theater."
The two protests cost the city more than ,000, what Turner calls "transference of pain." If the city won't take the words off the monument, he'll hurt them financially, he said.
He said the monument isn't the greatest of evils, but as part of a small group, he needs to fight small battles that "create positive momentum" toward the anti-illegal immigration cause.
One woman standing with Turner was hit by a water bottle and has since retained a lawyer, who has filed a claim against the city for million in damages. The city has not responded.
But the best thing people can do is just start ignoring him, said Baldwin Park Mayor Manuel Lozano.
"This is a person who is a racist," Lozano said. He questions why Turner comes so far for protests. "Why doesn't Joseph Turner just go home."
Only a handful are from county
Only a handful of the 700 people who Turner says are registered on his Web site are from Ventura County. And even those who live in the county who side with him wonder about his methods.
Camarillo resident Freeman Sawyer, who stood watch on the Mexico border as part of the Minuteman Project this spring, is all for stopping illegal immigration, but he questions the way Turner is going about it.
"I don't think that speaks well for what we are trying to do," said Sawyer of Turner's tactics. "I've heard some people say that he's too radical, that his words are too harsh."
Sawyer said many people involved in the anti-illegal-immigration movement are conservatives who don't like paying taxes. For Turner to propose a city pay more money for the fight flies in the face of conservative tax values, Sawyer said.
"I would say eventually we are going to need people like Joe Turner, but I would hope that he could think about his words a little closer," he said.
But one of the reasons that Don Silva got involved with Turner's group was because of the words he chose.
"I think he's a good leader on this issue. He's really sharp as a tack in giving an answer," said Silva, 31, a taxi driver in Reseda. He says the San Fernando Valley has "become overrun by illegal immigrants."
"I think he has a lot of potential," said Silva.
So does Turner.
He doesn't care about the racist labels, about people saying he's a bigot or otherwise. He feels he has a righteous purpose.
"The American people," he said, "I believe if you will lead them, if you are willing to take all the crap, if you are willing to take the brunt of the attack, if you are willing to be called a racist, willing to risk your personal safety, all that stuff, I think the American people will follow you through the door