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.
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.
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.”