The Little People's Park Riot of 1978

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

Undeterred, the council requested the Orange County grand jury investigate the Little People's Park riot. On Dec. 20, the group released its findings: "no clear evidence of indictable offenses." As a panacea of sorts to the community members whom the grand jury knew would be disappointed by the decision, the report found "a clear-cut case of bad communication between citizens and those persons hired to protect and serve. The grand jury reminds the Anaheim police that [its] allegiance is owed to every member of the public, regardless of socioeconomic status, and by oath, [it has] sworn to protect the public."

The report suggested that all squad cars be marked with numbers and that all uniforms display the name of their wearer. But it refused to make public its investigation, the second time the council's promise to make the investigation public was stymied (the district attorney's office also refused to release its report). Seymour publicly fumed, telling the Bulletin the grand jury report would only "add more gasoline to the fire. . . . A fracas took place, and perhaps in that fracas, some undue force took place. But no one—not the grand jury nor the district attorney—got to the bottom of this."

On Feb. 22, 1979, the Anaheim police department, under new chief George Tielsch, released its findings on the riot: It did nothing wrong. "I believe that appropriate police policies and procedures were followed by our officers during the course of the riotous condition in which they found themselves" at Little People's Park, Tielsch wrote. "It is my strong recommendation that this incident now be considered closed by the Anaheim Police Department."

And after all those months of standing by Penguin City, Seymour suddenly considered the matter closed, telling the press the police department's report "removes the cloud hanging over" it. Community members kept up protests outside the police station, waiting for the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division to issue its report. On May 6, 1980, the bureau determined that all laws were followed, although it did admonish Tielsch in a letter by stating, "We share with you, as law-enforcement officers, the responsibility to insure to all citizens the prompt, impartial, effective and even-handed cooperation of law, and we encourage your future cooperation in this endeavor."

Then, Seymour played hardball. A month later, Amin David, the president of Latino civil-rights group Los Amigos, was removed from the Planning Commission by a unanimous council vote. Seymour claimed the reason was because David had "politicized the Chicano community at every opportunity" and took a "negative rather than positive approach"—this about a man whom Seymour, in the original council meeting that followed the Little People's Park riot, had described as a "man that I have a great deal of respect for and has a great amount of experience in handling minority problems."

The Little People's Park riot wouldn't disappear, as the ACLU suit was still winding its way through federal court. Finally, on Oct. 23, 1982, a federal jury reached a decision: Alfred Acosta, the guy who was dragged behind a house by police and ruthlessly beaten up was owed $60,500 by the city and the police department for violating his civil rights. The amount was nowhere near the $15 million requested, but activists nevertheless hailed it as a symbolic victory. Just two months later, however, a federal judge threw out the verdict, saying it was reached "under the influence of passion." Though activists appealed, the case went nowhere, and the Little People's Park case came to an official close.

* * *

On July 30 of this year, protesters nearly passed through Little People's Park.

After standing outside the police station for a couple of hours, they decided to march south on Harbor Boulevard toward Disneyland, where police blocked them from approaching the Happiest Place On Earth. Instead, the activists marched east on Ball Road, then north on Anaheim Boulevard and toward Broadway, where another police blockade stood. The only exit out was Elm Street, which would've taken them through Little People's Park and back to the police station, or an alley that spilled onto Broadway. They chose the alley instead of a brush with the past none of them knew about.

It was a fitting snub. The Little People's Park riot faded from Anaheim's memory, even if its damage never went away (see Nick Schou's sidebar). The only memorial is a mural on the wall of a market directly facing the park, painted by legendary Chicano muralist Emigdio Vasquez in 1978 and dedicated to the riots. But it long ago fell into disrepair, as the neighborhood underwent a demographic change with Mexican immigrants moving in and young urbanites moving into the pricey lofts creeping up around Penguin City.

The district attorney's office, California attorney general and U.S. Department of Justice promise to look into the deaths of Diaz and Acevedo, and there's already talk of Anaheim residents taking back City Hall. The protests will continue until they disappear, just as they always do. The memorials left where Diaz and Acevedo were slain will eventually be cleared.

And when the most recent furor ends, Little People's Park will continue to stand, serene and small, forgotten and fading.

This article appeared in print as "The Fire Last Time: The Little People's Park riot of 1978 set the stage for Anaheim Latinos' eternal mistrust of police."

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