The Little People's Park Riot of 1978

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

Then shots rang out. A rival gang in a white Volkswagen drove by a group of partiers and opened fire. The gang sped out of the neighborhood, only to return and fire again. Richard Ornelas rushed into his nearby home to call the police, who responded immediately. But instead of pursuing the suspect, they began asking the 20 or so young adults in Little People's park why they were drinking.

The crowd was incredulous. Lonnie Menchaca, a National Guardsman in his uniform, yelled, "Where were you cops when we needed you? You fucking cops never back us up." When an officer ordered him to leave, Menchaca yelled back, "You have nothing to be proud of."

The officer ordered to him to leave or he'd be arrested for "interfering in the performance of my duties."

"I don't give a fuck," Menchaca responded.

At that point, the officer slammed Menchaca into the wall, to the horror of the crowd. Onlookers began shouting at the police to stop, to not kill Menchaca. Some of them threw rocks and bottles at the cops—and then it was on.

Police called a Code 3, and about 25 squad cars flooded the tiny community, wielding batons and Mace. No one was safe. Most of the crowd ran into a house, thinking the police couldn't go onto private property without a warrant; the police rushed them, pulled them out and began beating them. A woman asked for a officer's badge number and was arrested. Police handcuffed individuals, then proceeded to beat them. Another onlooker was clubbed on the head, fell to the ground unconscious and was left there. Residents fled to their homes, only to have doors broken down. Alfred Acosta, who wasn't even at Little People's Park, was beaten up once, dragged 100 feet and beaten up again, then handcuffed and beaten up one more time for good measure. When a resident went to the police station late that night to complain, he was arrested. One teenager, already hit with a baton twice and Maced in his eyes, hid in a bush; when officers asked why he was there, a police report quoted him as saying "he was hiding so he wouldn't be beaten again." He was then arrested.

Anaheim Mayor John Seymour—who'd later become a state and U.S. senator—wasted no time in calming the situation. Three days after the Little People's Park riot, Seymour, Councilman Don Roth (who'd later become an Orange County Supervisor) and Bastrup met with more than 30 residents at the city's Teen Drop-In Center to hear their complaints. The mayor was shocked at stories that this wasn't an isolated incident, that residents had long feared the police. "We shouldn't have to live like this," one tearful woman said. "If the police attack us, who can we turn to for protection? We are afraid."

"I don't know what can be done, but we want to help," Seymour told the crowd.

Bastrup was a bit more standoff-ish, telling the audience, "I have to sit in judgment of my officers, and I have to see the facts from both sides. I can't stay here and listen to hearsay evidence. I must remain objective."

Seymour asked those present to attend the following Tuesday's City Council meeting and "repeat your [stories] before the entire council." He also suggested that a citizen's police review commission be formed, a downright revolutionary idea then in vogue in progressive cities, certainly not in a law-and-order suburb such as Anaheim. More than 100 people attended the next meeting, and over the course of four hours, more than 20 speakers shared their stories of police abuse—and it wasn't just Latinos from Penguin City.

Donald Klonz recalled the horror of seeing his handcuffed son's head smashed against a car window after he was already apprehended for reasons no officer shared with him; when he went to the station to demand answers, a lieutenant warned him if he was going to "rant and rave," they'd send his son to Juvenile Hall and beat him up extra because he was a "big boy." Residents of an apartment complex complained that police raided a party, threw people into a pool and sprayed onlookers with Mace. Joseph Gaicalone described the raid as the "judgment of 1984" and warned, "If there is no justification for human rights in this case, I will assure you that Anaheim will be put on the map not as the pleasant place of Disneyland, but as a place of horror. I will promise that."

But the majority of the speakers that night had been at the Little People's Park riot. "The chief doesn't seem to have any control," said Richard Ornelas, a Penguin City resident who frantically called the FBI, begging for help. (The agency said it wasn't in the business of preventing crime.) "The council doesn't have any control. But someone must be controlling [the police]. They are committing criminal acts.

"We believe in the law, and we want to live in the law, and we want good law," he continued. "But our children and our young adults and our teenagers are growing up with a hatred of the law because this [has been going on for them] since they were little, and they are growing up this way, and we don't like it. It is time that this changes and this quits."

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