Why Anaheim, known for Disney and the Angels, erupted in violence this week

The fatal police shootings of two young Hispanic men in Anaheim last weekend led to an explosion of ethnic and socioeconomic resentments that have festered for years.

AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes
In this photo taken this week, Palm trees frame the Anaheim City Hall in Anaheim, Calif.

Anaheim, the city of 340,000 25 miles south of here, is perhaps best known for its 2002 world champion Angels baseball team and globally famous Disneyland.

But this week it is in the spotlight for demonstrations, arrests, civil-rights lawsuits, and city, state and federal investigations into alleged police abuse after the fatal police shootings of two young Hispanic men last weekend led to an explosion of ethnic and socioeconomic resentments that have grown and festered for years.

Demonstrations and clashes with police erupted for days after the shootings, reaching their height with riots late Tuesday in which 1000 protesters surged into the streets and 24 people were arrested. Anaheim Police Chief John Welter said police declared an unlawful assembly when the crowds swelled to 1,000 people.

The dual killings have upped the number of fatal shootings by police in this metropolis of palm fronds, freeways and mini-malls to six so far this year, compared to four at this time a year ago.

Helping to quell the unrest in the city was the announcement that the US Dept. of Justice would launch an investigation into potential civil rights violations – whether or not the fatal shootings reflect a pattern of abuse by Anaheim police.

Interviews with local activists, ethnic organizations, police, and residents reveal tensions resulting from the huge growth of the Hispanic population have been rising for two decades. The Hispanic community now accounts for 53 percent of Anaheim’s residents, followed by 28 percent who are white, and 15 percent Asian.

Analysts point to a lag in having that population growth represented on the city council and in the police and fire departments as fostering resentments.

“What a lot of the press and pundits are saying about this is true – there is a disparity of income between Hispanics and the affluent here, there is inequality in education, and overcrowding and gang activity,” says Alejandro Moreno, a member of Los Amigos of Orange County – the dominant Hispanic advocacy group in the region – and an activist for Hispanic causes in Orange County for 25 years.

Mr. Moreno says tensions have also been fueled by the growth of Disneyland in recent decades – the expansions of malls, retail shops, and accommodations outside the former boundaries of the park. Local police, he says, are unfairly devoting more energy to protect those new neighborhoods than they are the scruffier neighborhoods where Hispanics live.

“There are more police dedicated to making sure that those resort areas are crime free rather than the rest of the Latino communities in Orange County,” he says. “These people want to create ‘the happiest place on earth’ and have Latinos come and help and clean up, but they don’t want them living there because they say they don’t look good, and don’t take care of their homes.”

Moreno and others also describe the phenomenon of male youth who grow up without fathers and therefore join gangs, resulting in a model of male authority that is warped or non-existent.

But Anaheim’s biggest problem, long waiting to bubble over, he says, is that “the people here who hold the power, don’t want to let it go, and Latinos have finally had it.”

At a meeting with Mayor Tom Tait on Wednesday, Moreno says, officials said all the right things and were very believable in their actions and motivations.

“The mayor said he wanted relations between ethnic groups to be kinder,” says Moreno. “I raised my hand and asked him if he knew the Spanish word for that. He didn’t, nor did another city council woman.

“I think their hearts are in the right place, but they just don’t know how.”

Benny Diaz, California state director of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) says the agreed upon investigations into the shootings will go far in sorting out the problems and will help lead to the establishment of an independent citizen’s oversight committee for the police.

“The distrust of the police here has been growing so much that no internal investigation will satisfy complaints. This will provide the spotlight needed to set up such a body,” Mr. Diaz says.

LULAC has also proposed to divide the city up into five voting districts so that Hispanics will have a better chance to get elected. He says the problem with running for election citywide is that it cost too much for most Hispanics – about $100,000.

In the meantime, Mayor Tait has the job of maintaining calm amid the suggested, but not yet verified, problem of whether outside agitators are coming in to take advantage of the situation.

“The federal government has agreed to help us conduct an impartial, independent investigation to sort out what exactly happened,” he said in a press conference, “We all need to be patient until all of the investigations are complete.”

Other ethnic organizations say that Anaheim is perfectly equipped to survive and become stronger from these episodes.

“The inequalities exist and underrepresentation is certainly a reality, but Anaheim is not a city at war with ethnic tension as it might appear,” says Hassam Ayoush, Executive Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

“Lots of very good and well-attended ethnic organizations exist to deal with the growth of Asians, and Arabs, and Hispanics. These can and will help offset the built-in economic injustices as well as political underrepresentation.”

Killed in the weekend violence that precipitated the protests were Manuel Angel Diaz, 25, who was shot and fatally wounded on Saturday while running away from police, and Joel Acevedo, 21, who was shot by an anti-gang officer on Sunday.

Police say Mr. Acevedo was a known gang member who was spotted in a stolen SUV and who fired on police during a pursuit on foot. Police also have described Mr. Diaz as a known gang member, and the police union is alleging that he was seen reaching for something in his waistband that could have been a gun.

Diaz’s family has filed a suit seeking $50 million in damages.  According to local media reports, an attorney for Diaz's mother said he was shot in the back and again in the head after falling to his knees.

Mayor Tait is scheduled to meet with members of the US Attorney’s office and the FBI on Friday.

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