Street fires blazed in front of the condemned Shamrock apartment complex in Placentia on the balmy night of June 18, 1972. A crowd of Chicano youth, angry at Placentia police for their baton-happy ways, was growing by the hour, and the cops didn't know what to do. Finally, Police Chief Norm Traub called community activist Rose Orosco and asked her to cool tempers.
Orosco hastily left a graduation pool party and headed to the scene: the city's historic La Jolla barrio, where tensions between police and Chicanos had existed for decades and were finally going to erupt. The spokeswoman for the Committee of Concerned Mexican-American Citizens didn't even have time to change out of her bathing suit. And she didn't know her teenage son, Larry, had been there since the trouble began.
"My friend lit a car on fire in front of the campo," Larry, now 61, says referring to Shamrock's nickname. "From that point on, the cops came, and we started throwing bottles and rocks at them."
But United Browns activist Abe Moya remembers it differently. Some families had stayed at Shamrock, unable to afford housing elsewhere, and grew angry when utilities were shut off in an effort to force them out. "When the police came into the campo, that's what started the riot," Moya says.
Traub also called Frank Burciaga, a member of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) Placentia council. With Alex Segovia, he headed to the Shamrock, where single moms and immigrant fruit pickers had lived before the city condemned the units to make room for something nicer. The 33-year-old Burciaga scolded the crowd of about 250, who ignored him as a couple of them continued clearing wood from abandoned apartments to fuel the fires.
That's when Traub stopped relying on activists to control the situation and assembled his force (bolstered with backup from the Anaheim, Brea and Fullerton departments) on the bridge across from La Jolla. Soon after, they marched into the barrio. "Sure enough, they started cracking heads and trying to scatter the kids," Burciaga recalls.
"Somebody got the idea to join arms so that the cops wouldn't come any further and beat up the people behind us," Rose, now 80, says. "They pushed us out of the way and beat up a lot of people anyway."
The dramatic scene made news headlines at the time (including a dramatic spread in the Chicano-centric La Raza magazine), but it never penetrated the Orange County consciousness. In Placentia, however, the riots remain a raw subject for those who thought they were going to make things better for their barrio but quickly found what many are starting to realize today: If you're a police officer in OC, you have impunity to do whatever the hell you want.
The unrest continued in La Jolla for three consecutive nights. Police eventually arrested 13 people, mostly minors; four officers suffered injuries. On the second night of rioting, Larry ran with other young people into Moya's home. "I went back outside, and the cops grabbed me," Larry says. "I started fighting with them, and they beat me up." The jura left the 16-year-old with a black eye and busted nose. "I went home, and my mom saw me all beat up. She made a complaint with Placentia police, and they took pictures of me."
Rose demanded a town hall on police brutality during a Placentia City Council meeting. Her sister, Gloria Lopez, collected stories of abuse—from police knocking down front doors to spraying mace at preschoolers; city officials gave her two and a half days to turn everything in or risk the town hall's cancellation. "You make people mad when this happens . . . very mad," Lopez told The Register. "You don't beat people's heads when they're in their house."
The Oroscos and others were continuing La Jolla's proud tradition of fighting anti-Mexican bias in a city where the divide between rich gabachos and poor Mexicans is like few others in OC. The city's orange pickers participated in the Citrus War of 1936 to fight for a union, and veterans returned from World War II to fight school segregation and elect one of the county's first Mexican-American council members, Alfred Aguirre, in 1958.
But radicalism was entering Placentia thanks to a chapter of the Chicano Liberation Front (CLF). Just months before the La Jolla riots, they took responsibility for firebombing an administrative office at Valencia High School. "Our violence has been self-defensive in nature," a communique linked to the CLF after the riots read. "We have used it to protect ourselves from the pigs who have been perpetuating violence toward Chicanos for years."
Memories differ on who or what exactly started the La Jolla riots. But a week later, hundreds packed a community center for a special meeting. "If this is an 'All-American City,' what happened?" Rose recalls asking. A Placentia News Times reporter later asked for her full speech, but she refused because the local paper had made a disparaging remark about her being dressed in a bathing suit during the riots.
Placentia had a Latino councilman at the time, Jack Gomez, but "he didn't involve himself in it too much, even though he was born and raised in La Jolla," says Burciaga, who also spoke at the meeting. "Nobody really knew how bad things were."
After three hours, Gomez and his colleagues voted to hand over allegations of police brutality to Orange County District Attorney Cecil Hicks. The newly formed Orange County Human Relations Commission held a panel seeking out the roots of the riot, focusing on the anger over families being displaced from the Shamrock apartments. The Placentia Unified School District also formed a task force after the unrest to look into demands for more Chicano faculty and culturally relevant coursework.
While the city soul-searched, the DA returned with a report in September that found "insufficient evidence" of police brutality during the riots. "We really weren't expecting much from the district attorney's office," Rose told the Los Angeles Times in response. "They're not going to investigate their own people."
An investigator told the paper that an Anaheim officer identified by Larry wasn't on patrol that night and that the teen told him the officer's "hand slipped on his baton."
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LULAC continued meeting with city officials afterward to create youth programs, including the Placentia Athletic Club, a boxing gym for La Jolla kids. In 1975, Burciaga helped start Casa Placentia for at-risk youth and served as president of its board, but the Placentia City Council axed its funding six years later.
Moya also helped with Casa Placentia and tried to memorialize the riots through art. "We were going to do a mural in Old Town Placentia," he says. "We did get some funding, but it was voted down by the city."
Rose quit her life of activism after the DA report and moved to Anaheim in 1978. When riots exploded in that city five years ago, it brought La Jolla back to mind.
"I got frustrated because I was working so hard and nothing came of it," Rose says. "The cops didn't stop doing what they were doing, and the schools didn't get any better. Forty-five years ago, and nothing has changed. Nothing!"