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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
Protests in the city, July 24
Matt Oliver
Protests in the city, July 24
Protests in the city, July 24
Brandon Ferguson
Protests in the city, July 24
Protests in the city, July 24
Meranda Carter
Protests in the city, July 24
Inside agitators
Amber Stephens
Inside agitators
Why you trippin'?
Meranda Carter
Why you trippin'?

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.

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."

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."

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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