The Little People's Park Riot of 1978

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

Council members sat in shock, claiming they had no idea the city's police were that hated. Finally, Councilman William Kott spoke. "I'm appalled and can't help but wonder if this is America," he said. "We have heard enough evidence here, and something should be done."

Activists presented five demands and asked the city to implement them: the citizen's review board suggested by Seymour, protection of people who filed complaints against the department, the removal of officers involved in the riots from active patrol in the area, to allow Penguin City residents to choose who'd replace the suspended police, and a commission that would allow them to offer their input for Bastrup's replacement. They also invited the council to hold a meeting at Little People's Park on Aug. 23, so they could report back their answers.

The council immediately agreed to conduct a city attorney interview of the melee and make the findings public, to attend the community meeting and to direct Bastrup to replace the regular patrol of Penguin City, and it promised to work on the rest. "I think the first step that we have to take forward is one to admit that this great city of Anaheim has . . . a problem," Seymour said. "Don't sweep it under the rug; don't look the other way. Admit that we have a problem."

Some council members didn't want to attend a meeting at Little People's Park. One complained that holding such a meeting would cost the city an extra $150. But Seymour wouldn't have it. "I feel that this body made a commitment to that neighborhood to meet with them on their grounds within their neighborhood, and I, for one, am prepared to do that at any time to share their very real and legitimate concerns," he said. "I think it's an act of bad faith, if not treading upon the pride that they do have in that neighborhood, by moving the meeting."

Councilwoman Miriam Kaywood wouldn't relent. She brought up the specter of community violence, saying holding a meeting in the barrio would expose the council to the possibility of a drive-by.

"Well, Miriam, you promised," Seymour reminded her.

"You've never changed your mind?" she snapped back.

"If there is any sector of this city that any public official is concerned for their safety about going in and meeting with that neighborhood," the mayor responded, "then I'd say we're in worse shape than I ever thought we were."

The special City Council meeting happened as planned on Aug. 23 at 6:30 p.m., with hundreds in attendance. A sixth community request was made that day: that police officers be forced to carry business cards at all times. Though a seemingly trivial request, Robert Acosta told the council, according to city minutes, that residents had spent "a great deal of time . . . discussing the difficulties in filing a complaint against Anaheim police officers. The officers refused to show their name tags or deliberately covered them up." The council passed the motion immediately.

At the conclusion of the meeting, Seymour thanked those in attendance and "urged the community to stay organized and keep prodding" them toward justice. "He was empathetic with their position," council minutes recorded, "and their frustration for having to endure the problems they had expressed for so long, and he asked for their patience in working with the council."

The future seemed bright, and the Bulletin editorialized on the day of the meeting that it was "time to clear the foul air over Anaheim." But, as with most political promises, little eventually happened.

* * *

That September, the Orange County district attorney's office declined to prosecute any officers involved in the Little People's Park riot, saying most of the beatings that night happened when "only necessary to meet force directed toward them." Deputy District Attorney (and current Superior Court judge) Ronald P. Kreber did admit there were two beatings that seemed as though they were unprovoked, but "in the course of our investigation, we were able to narrow the possibilities down to four officers in one incident, but in the absence of more specific evidence, criminal charges could not be instituted."

Community members were outraged. The ACLU and the Mexican-American Bar Association of Orange County filed a $15 million lawsuit in federal court against the city on behalf of three of the Little People's Park riot victims, alleging "simmering dissatisfaction" by Latinos against the police and naming the City Council (which, it felt, hadn't done enough), OC District Attorney Cecil Hicks and 20 officers as defendants. Bastrup, for his part, blasted any critics of the police. "The public has been led to believe that a major problem exists in the minority community and that the police department has been failing in its program concerning minorities," he told the council. "There is not a major problem in the minority community, as these few people would like the community to think."

His department buckled down. When Kott went down to the police station and asked for a complaint form, the desk clerk told him he had to talk to the watch commander first and that the councilman was "uncooperative" for even asking. In an Anaheim Police Association's newsletter, Sergeant Jon Beteag—who was the supervising field officer during the Little People's Park riots—ridiculed Seymour and other council members as "local hack politicians" who were "tripping over [one another] in their rush to sling more muck on the badge" in their defense of "thieves, dopers and gunsels."

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