The Little People's Park Riot of 1978

The scene that set the stage for Anaheim Latinos' eternal mistrust of police

The Little People's Park Riot of 1978

Little People's Park is a tiny slab of grass near downtown Anaheim, just down the street from police headquarters and two blocks from City Hall. The afternoon of Sunday, July 29 was similar to most weekends for the barrio green. Families strolled on the sidewalk; a Somali woman played with her little boy on the playground. Some veteranos lounged in the picnic area, guarding trays of food for an eventual birthday party.

And all around the park, Anaheim seethed.

The city was in its ninth day of protests, sparked by the officer-involved shooting deaths of 25-year-old Santa Ana resident Manuel Diaz on July 21 and that of Joel Acevedo a week later, deaths that tapped into a long-simmering resentment Anaheim residents had with their city. On July 24, more than 1,000 people rampaged outside City Hall, setting fires and smashing the windows of businesses, leading to 24 arrests. The protests on July 29 were more muted—just nine arrests, about 400 protesters in total, split between one group that occupied the front of the police department and another that marched silently from City Hall through the the working-class neighborhoods nearby.

Emigdio Vasquez's mural commemorating the 1978 riot
Jennie Warren
Emigdio Vasquez's mural commemorating the 1978 riot
Downtown Anaheim, 34 years later
Meranda Carter
Downtown Anaheim, 34 years later

A massive police force kept an eye on the two groups via squad cars, SUVs packed with SWAT members, officers on horseback, undercover officers, even armed men in camouflage uniforms standing on the roof of the police station and a nearby church, ready to unleash the department's fury. All the while, Little People's Park stood alone, tranquil save for the helicopter circling above and police cars screaming down tiny Elm Street. But there was no crackdown in the park, which would've made the surrounding residents sigh in relief—if only they knew they should've sighed.

Thirty-four years ago this week, it was here that the city burned with anger at its police. After residents called the dispatch desk to report an attempted murder, officers responded by treating them as the criminals: Dozens rushed to the scene, blocking off any escape route, beating anyone and everyone, and invading people's homes without a warrant. The resulting furor made national news, and initially united residents and the City Council in a call for justice in a fashion far removed from the apathetic, even callous response the current council has offered to this summer's unrest.

Unfortunately, the coalition between politicians and the community over the Little People's Park riot eventually dissipated, and what little gains were made to quell police brutality quickly disappeared. The relationship between Anaheim's boys in blue and many of the Latino barrios they're sworn to serve became forever antagonized and slowly deteriorated over the ensuing decades, setting the stage for last month's protests and the anger that remains. The protests that have sieged the city for the past two weeks could've been averted—if only people remembered the lost lessons of the past.

* * *

On the night of July 30, 1978, residents of Anaheim's Penguin City barrio celebrated. Neighborhood teens had just returned from Westminster, where they had faced off in a football game designed to keep kids away from the gang life.

Penguin City (named, according to legend, because a fat, waddling woman would always have neighborhood children follow in a row behind her) was one of Anaheim's oldest barrios, right next to the orange groves that gave Anaheim its riches, next to the railroad tracks, and just down the street from the Sunkist Packing House. Official segregation kept the neighborhood Mexican for decades; after the desegregation battles of the 1950s, de facto segregation kept the neighborhood down. It slowly deteriorated, with a vacant lot on the corner of Elm and Clementine streets a haven for drug users, prostitution and trash. But with the help of the First Presbyterian Church and private business owners, the Penguin City community reclaimed the area, planted some grass and christened it Little People's Park in 1970; by the next year, the private property became a public park.

But the barrio faced a problem: The police headquarters stood just two blocks away. It was easy pickings for a department that was still overwhelmingly white, that didn't think twice about including crude jokes and drawings of Mexicans in the union newsletter, and that already had a reputation for brutality. It achieved national infamy in 1970 by driving out Yippies from Disneyland and fighting with crowds who couldn't get into a Grand Funk Railroad concert at the Anaheim Convention Center. In 1978, a police officer who already had a history of recklessness ran over an elderly man; instead of getting fired, he received a sweetheart deal that enticed him to retire. On July 15 of that year, officers shot an escaped convict to death in a manner so grisly that even the conservative Anaheim Bulletin criticized the force for its "lack of restraint." Police Chief Harold Bastrop, a 23-year veteran of the force, had already announced his retirement for the end of the year after his own force gave him a vote of no confidence.

In Penguin City, police hassling of residents and arrests without explanation were part of the barrio life. But on this hot July night, everyone was happy. There wasn't a squad car to be seen, young people were motivated to better the neighborhood, and it was time to party at Little People's Park.

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