Outrage in Anaheim

July 30, 2012

Michael Brown and Danielle Hawkins report on how the struggle to win justice for victims of police violence has spurred protests in Anaheim, Calif.

RECENT INCIDENTS of brutality by Anaheim, Calif., police are galvanizing a neighborhood response against police violence.

On July 21, Anaheim police murdered Manuel Diaz by, according to witnesses, shooting him first in the back of the leg, and then, as he lay on the ground, shooting him in the back of the head. Police then unleashed a vicious assault on a crowd of residents of an East Side apartment complex, including small children. Police fired rubber bullets and bean bags, and let loose a police dog.

The following day, another police killing--this time of a young man named Joel Acevedo--added to residents' outrage.

In response, residents of the Anna Drive neighborhood in Anaheim were joined by local activists and supporters for two subsequent rallies on July 24 and 29.

Protesters--galvanized by the shocking footage of Anaheim police standing around while a still-alive Diaz bled to death, as well as the footage of the subsequent assault on residents--congregated at City Hall July 24 in an attempt to gain access to a meeting.

A crowd in Anaheim protests police brutality
A crowd in Anaheim protests police brutality (David Rapkin | SW)

When dozens of Anaheim police were deployed, clad in riot gear in front of the City Hall entrance, many protesters opted to go on an impromptu march through nearby Anaheim streets, including visiting the city's police department.

According to Rick, a resident from nearby Fullerton, "I came out to support my fellow Orange County residents because these out of control police have become a problem."

"While we marched through the city's streets, it felt powerful. I'm not an activist or anything, but you could see the confidence people were gaining by countering the police, their policies and the inequality that exists here," he continued.

Before circling back to City Hall, the crowd of 500 people chanted, raised fists and even high-fived several commuters, who either exited their cars or honked their horns in support.

Residents of Anna Drive were joined by a network of local activists, who have all bonded after their loved ones were murdered by police. Among them were the Anaheim Cruzaders, Kelly's Army and Michael Lee Nida's Rydas.

The Cruzaders formed after the killing of Caesar Cruz in 2009, while Kelly's Army took shape soon after the brutal murder of Kelly Thomas, a mentally ill homeless man, at the hands of the Fullerton police in 2011. Thanks to petitioning and a campaign by Kelly's Army, three Fullerton City Council members, who had remained largely silent about Thomas' murder by police, were recalled.

Nida's Rydas formed after Michael Lee Nida II was gunned down in October 2011 by a Downey, Calif., cop. Nida, a father of four, was shot in the back with an MP5 submachine gun. Police have already declared the murder a case of "mistaken identity."

Benjamin Rojas, a member of Nida's Rydas who attended the rally, said, "This is our last stand," when asked about how to combat police brutality.

"Years ago, I was brutalized by the cops and it changed my whole point of view," he said. "We're still seeking justice for Michael, but today we're here to support the families and do it peacefully."

When asked why he thinks resistance to police brutality is on the uptick, Rojas said, "Everybody has a cell phone camera. They can't hide this stuff anymore."

LATER THAT evening, the crowd swelled to more than 1,000 people.

It's not clear whether Anaheim riot police first gave an order to disperse and then began to move on the crowd or whether, as was reported by outlets such as the Los Angeles Times and Orange County Register, the crowd's outrage boiled over and some members of the crowd began pelting police with rocks and bottles.

Windows were smashed at several local businesses, as some 50 to 100 members of the crowd broke off from the group, according to police. Twenty-four arrests were made.

The righteous anger and resistance expressed by members of Anaheim's working-class Latino community, according to both Mayor Tom Tait and Police Chief John Welter, were supposedly egged-on by "outsiders."

Welter told the Register in an interview, "I think the vast majority [of people] were from outside, and I think they were here for one reason and one reason only and that is to create havoc, damage property, cause injuries and in effect just attack the democratic way."

Both Tait's and Welter's accusations of outsiders stirring up trouble are misplaced, and designed to deflect away from the fact that there have been six officer-involved fatal shootings this year alone in Anaheim.

Blaming "outsiders" has been a tried-and-true tactic used by racist politicians and police officials since the civil rights movement, implying that locals aren't up to the task of organizing against inequality. But of the 20 adults arrested, 18 were from Orange County, including 16 from Anaheim.

A follow-up protest on July 29 drew both supporters from the community and beyond. Some 300 people, including some from as far away as San Diego and Arizona, showed up to protest at the Anaheim Police Department, where groups like the Cruzaders have been protesting every Sunday for two years.

"Theresa Smith [of the Anaheim Cruzaders, whose son Caesar Cruz was shot and killed by police] has been an inspiration to the rest of us," said Damion Ramirez, an organizer against the unjust death of his friend Michael Nida.

At the rally, Ramirez said, "This is about an attack on the working class, because our lives aren't worth anything to them. When they kill us, they think it doesn't matter. But we are now the voices of our brothers and sisters who have been killed."

The crowd chanted, "Am I next?" as officers looked on.

Anaheim police responded to the rally by calling in reinforcements from every other city in the Southern California area, in addition to the Orange County Sheriff's Office and people dressed in military fatigues that many believed to be with the National Guard. They were mounted on horses and had military armored vehicles.

Anaheim, home to Disneyland, obviously isn't the "happiest place on earth" for some of its residents. Despite the 16 million visitors to Disneyland each year, 15.5 percent of the city's residents live below the poverty level, according to Census numbers.

Latinos, who comprise 53 percent of the city's population, are under-represented on the City Council. Most Council members reside in the nearby affluent community of Anaheim Hills.

In June, the ACLU filed a lawsuit charging the city with shutting out Latino representation through its at-large election process. According to the ACLU, "[T]he city has made it nearly impossible for Latinos, who make up more than one third of the electorate, to be fairly represented on the city council."

On July 27, Mayor Tait met with U.S. Department of Justice and FBI officials, both of which have agreed to conduct independent reviews of Manuel Diaz's murder. The city will also be required to provide federal authorities with information about the other police shootings in Anaheim this year.

Ongoing protests by groups like the Cruzaders, Kelly's Army and Anaheim residents fed up with police brutality, will be key to carrying the struggle forward in the days and weeks to come.

Sarah Knopp contributed to this article.

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