A group of 100 marchers waving American flags headed south on Crenshaw Boulevard on Saturday to protest illegal immigration and what they called its damaging effects on the black community.
But they never reached the park that was their destination, and the rally turned into two tense hours of confrontation under a hot sun with counter-protesters on the opposite side of the street. Insults and epithets flew across the asphalt as hundreds of Los Angeles Police Department officers kept guard. Although some people expressed concern about another May 1 melee, in the end, police earned praise for their restraint and efforts to calm the crowd.
Police defused the standoff, both sides dispersed and five people, including organizer Ted Hayes, a longtime activist for the homeless, were arrested peacefully.
The marchers, made up of black activists and Minutemen, homeless people and neighborhood residents, held a city permit for an afternoon rally at the historic Leimert Park in the Crenshaw district.
Nearly 500 counter-protesters, mostly black and Latino, some with Mexican flags and others with antiwar placards, swept down the other side of Crenshaw Boulevard. They converged on the park first and blocked the original marchers from entering. Some said they had heard those marchers would include KKK members, and the counter-protesters denounced what they called racist outsiders trying to incite violence.
As the two chanting groups faced off, police kept watch, some on bicycles and some in riot gear, batons held in position. Police negotiators shuttled between the two groups as some protesters heckled them.
The two groups called out contrasting slogans and songs. One marcher bellowed "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," also known as the Black National Anthem, through a bullhorn. Other marchers followed with "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." On the other side of the street, some chanted: "The whole world is watching. We remember McArthur Park," referring to the May 1 melee between police and immigrant-rights marchers.
At times, the gathering felt like a street festival, with mothers with babies in strollers and musicians playing drums. Other times, tensions mounted in the heat as some protesters in the park called the police "pigs."
Officers finally donned helmets and stood in lines, quietly facing protesters on both sides of the street. The groups finally dispersed peacefully, and some leaders on both sides praised the LAPD for effectively avoiding a violent situation.
"LAPD did a tremendous job in how they handled the protest," said activist Najee Ali. "It could have been very volatile."
Some members of the original march, however, criticized counter-protesters for denying them entry to Leimert Park.
The march to the park was led by Hayes, who has organized an African American group opposed to illegal immigration. He was joined Saturday by members of the Minutemen Brigade as well as some black marchers who said that illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America are taking their jobs and flooding schools and hospitals.
During negotiations, police commanders prevented march organizers from entering the park, saying they were forced to take that step for public safety reasons. The crowd inside the park included many children and families, they explained.
"I realize you have a permit," incident commander Deputy Chief Charlie Beck told black activists and Minutemen jammed on a sidewalk outside stores across the street from the park.
"I have to deny you access to the park. I do this for public safety," said Beck, speaking through a megaphone.
Many of the marchers protested loudly, characterizing the counter-protesters as Spanish-speaking "illegal aliens" who already were taking their jobs and now were denying their right to enter the park.
"What country is this!" a woman yelled at Beck.
"Don't forget to do it again in Spanish," another called out mockingly.
At one point, a group of women -- most of them white and grasping rolled-up American flags -- sat on the pavement across from the park, chanting, "We want our park."
Several said they were members of the California Coalition for Immigration Reform, based in Huntington Beach, and had come to South Los Angeles to stand up for the black community and against illegal immigrants, who they said are taking jobs from African American residents.
They pointed across the street at the waving Mexican flags.
"That is the border," a man said.
After spirited and sometimes angry talks with Beck and other police, Hayes told his followers that he planned to be arrested and that others could choose to join him, one by one. The energy ebbed among marchers, some of whom had pushed to march past police lines into the park. One of Hayes' supporters, holding an American flag, waited politely to be handcuffed. Even some of the most outspoken Minutemen members said they would abide by Hayes' decision.
Across the street in the park, many of the counter-protesters faulted the marchers, saying they were invading the Leimert Park community and trying to incite tensions between blacks and Latinos.
"They are coming in here, not knowing our community," said activist Bilal Ali. "There are no black and brown problems in this community. These people are too intelligent to fall for that. We see this as a scam."
Counter-protesters carried signs that said, "In our ghettos, black and brown = one love," and "Together under one community."
Said Pedro Reyes, a South L.A. resident, "We are all suffering the same injustices. So there is no need to try and divide us."
Supporters of full legalization for illegal immigrants plan a march at noon today in Hollywood.
Times staff writer Cara Mia DiMassa contributed to this story.