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BOLD: Joseph Turner, 29, of Ventura, in front of a statue of Father Junipero Serra, believes “aggressive activism” will focus attention on illegal immigration. (Stephen Osman / LAT)

As the insults flew and the protest reached a boil, Joseph Turner couldn't help but smile.

The 29-year-old head of the upstart Save Our State organization had come to Baldwin Park to pick a fight over illegal immigration. He had led a band of like-minded souls into the heart of the city to protest public art they deemed "seditious and anti-American." Part of a monument at the Metrolink station is inscribed "It was better before they came," interpreted by some as a barb at whites who displaced California's Mexican residents in the 19th century.

They got all of the fight they could handle. Hundreds of counter-protesters in the predominantly Latino city rose up to meet them, chanting "Go home, racists!" As news crews captured the clash, police in riot gear called for reinforcements.

The group's protests had drawn fire before, but nothing like what erupted last month in the working-class community.

"I couldn't have scripted it better," said Turner, a former stock trader who runs the anti-illegal immigration group from his Ventura home.

"My goal is to continually keep this issue in the forefront of the American consciousness," he added. "What makes our organization different is that we are not afraid to confront anybody about our beliefs."

Critics call those beliefs racist and divisive, dismissing Save Our State as yet another "vigilante group" jumping on the anti-illegal immigration bandwagon.

"Save Our State is not saving anything. They are just creating more hate and division," said Antonio Bernabe, coordinator of the day-labor program for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. "They don't want to look for solutions. They just want to make noise."

But with little to show for years of complaining about illegal immigration, Turner believes he has hit upon a solution that will work. He calls it "aggressive activism."

It's not about writing letters or calling elected officials. Rather, the technique focuses on high-profile events that touch a nerve, make politicians sweat and bring the media running. Indeed, a second protest — and counter-protest — in Baldwin Park on Saturday also received media coverage.

"I call it a street-fighter mentality," said Turner, a stay-at-home dad and Little League coach. "Too often our side has been reactive. I need to get rid of apathy and create activism."

Turner's brand of activism was shaped in part by a childhood of welfare dependency and transience while growing up in some of the Inland Empire's grittiest neighborhoods. Turner believes those poverty-stricken places were made worse by waves of illegal immigrants — just as he believes other communities across California are withering under the weight of that influx.

Turner graduated in 1995 from Riverside's North High School, where he made local headlines for a speech supporting Proposition 187, the 1994 initiative that sought to deny many public benefits to undocumented immigrants.

He earned a business degree in 2000 from USC and worked for a time as an equities trader in Chicago before returning to California and settling in Ventura in 2003 with his wife and two children.

With time on his hands and an ear on talk radio, Turner was spurred to action last year by controversy stemming from U.S. Border Patrol sweeps in the Inland Empire and by an on-air campaign on KFI-AM (640) to oust Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas) for what critics claimed was a lax record on illegal immigration.

In working on those issues, Turner said he met plenty of others fed up with illegal immigration and ready to do something about it.

"I realized how fragile the momentum was and I didn't want to let that die," said Turner, who launched Save Our State in July and counts hundreds from various ethnicities as members. "I wanted to do something. I just knew I had to get involved in some capacity."

Save Our State has been protesting long and hard since incorporating last summer.

Members descended on Redondo Beach and picketed Home Depot stores for what they view as policies that encourage day workers to congregate at those sites. They've attended rallies backing last summer's Border Patrol crackdown and joined protests over billboards for a Spanish-language TV news station that labeled "Los Angeles, CA" as "Los Angeles, Mexico."