Dozens of people have been arrested in Los Angeles following a chaotic and at times violent demonstration by anti-transgender protesters who targeted a Koreatown spa that has a trans-inclusive policy allowing trans women to use women’s facilities.
Saturday marked the second weekend of violent protests this month in the streets around Wi Spa, a neighborhood business that has found itself at the heart of a right-wing media storm over an alleged incident in which a customer filmed herself complaining about a trans woman in the women’s area of the spa.
The far-right protesters called for a boycott of Wi Spa and chanted baseless claims about paedophilia, as women carrying signs reading “protect female spaces” and “It’s worse in women’s shelters” marched alongside men wearing helmets and masks that covered their faces.
Calls to defend “female spaces” and “women’s shelters” have become rallying cries of anti-trans groups, who have falsely suggested that trans-inclusive policies endanger cis women. California has for years had laws in place that allow trans people to use facilities that match their gender.
The chants and signs in Los Angeles on Saturday highlighted the convergence of anti-trans activism with other strains of far-right activism. Many demonstrators chanted “Save our children,” a slogan taken up by QAnon conspiracy theorists, whose ideology is centered on an elaborate narrative about a cabal of influential paedophiles. Other demonstrators wore shirts pledging to murder leftwing activists, with reference to rightwing death squads in Chile in the 1970s. According to multiple protesters, Arthur Schaper, the leader of the California chapter of an anti-LGBT hate group, arrived early to the protest outside Wi Spa and took refuge behind a line of police officers as trans rights protesters heckled him.
For hours on Saturday, the neighborhood around Wi Spa was filled with lines of police in riot helmets and clashes between police and protesters, with reports of less-lethal weapons being used against the trans rights and anti-fascist activists who showed up as part of a counter-protest against the far-right demonstrators. The volatile protests, in the middle of an ordinary Saturday, left some passers-by confused and fearful.
A Los Angeles police department spokesperson said police made several dozen arrests for failure to disperse after declaring an unlawful assembly shortly after 11am. LAPD also appeared to fire rubber bullets at trans rights demonstrators from a close distance, despite a recent judge’s ruling restricting the department’s use of certain “less lethal” projectile launchers against protesters. A Guardian journalist who tried to interview far-right protesters was chased, pushed, and shoved to the ground.
Footage also showed LAPD officers taking a trans flag from demonstrators, and the police department later posted a photo of a rainbow-painted piece of wood left behind, claiming it was some kind of violation.
Far-right groups and Republicans legislators have over the past year increasingly targeted trans people as part of a broader culture war, with anti-LGBTQ campaigns and a series of anti-trans state bills, including legislation targeting medical care for trans youth and attempting to prevent trans girls from participating in women’s sports.
The US rightwing media have spent several weeks turning the inclusive policy of a local Korean spa into national news. Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show put the spotlight on Wi Spa in late June, highlighting a viral video of the customer who complained to spa employees . In the video, spa employees politely reiterated the business’ non-discrimination policies and compliance with the law, as the customer argued, “There’s no such thing as transgender.”
A Los Angeles LBGT newspaper later reported that there were questions about the veracity of the allegations in the viral video, and that it was not clear if any transgender customers were even present in the spa when the video was filmed.
The following Saturday, 3 July, saw violent clashes around the spa as anti-trans demonstrators showed up to protest Wi Spa, and local trans rights and anti-fascist activists showed up to defend it. Police said they made no arrests during the first round of chaotic protests, despite several violent attacks captured on video.
Amber Hooper, from Orange County, had watched the violence in early July in shock, and had decided to come to Wi Spa with a friend for the second counter-protest on Saturday 17 July, after local activists said far-right demonstrators were planning to return. The friends said they wanted to represent their community, and were hoping the violence would stop.
It was frustrating to see that “the people who talk about law and order are against the laws that protect trans people,” Hooper said. “Trans rights are human rights.”
Jamie Penn, a neighborhood activist and medic, said that the trans rights demonstrators wanted to protect the spa and its business, but that the spa itself was trying to remain neutral, and that it seemed to want the whole situation to go away.
Wi Spa did not immediately reply to a request for comment on the ongoing protests. “Like many other metropolitan areas, Los Angeles contains a transgender population, some of whom enjoy visiting a spa,” Wi Spa had said in a statement to Los Angeles Magazine in late June, noting that California law bars businesses from discriminating against trans people. “Wi Spa strives to meet the needs of all its customers.”
Southern California has long been a center of rightwing extremism, including violent pro-Trump demonstrations, militia groups, activists links to QAnon, and white supremacist organizations, and many of the California defendants charged with participating in the 6 January pro-Trump insurrection at the US capitol came from Los Angeles and surrounding cities.
LAPD has faced intense scrutiny for its aggressive response to demonstrators, including multiple reports in recent months finding that officers used excessive force and violated its own policies during last year’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations, in some cases causing serious injuries requiring hospitalization.