Five Years After the Riots, the Anaheim Revolution is Dead

Police stop Anaheim youth from marching to Disneyland
Police stop Anaheim youth from marching to Disneyland
Photo by Matt Oliver / OC Weekly

When I marched more than a mile from a Wal-Mart parking lot at Anaheim Plaza to the Anaheim Police Department headquarters in December 2014, I felt a premonition gnawing inside of me. The action marked five years since Anaheim policemen shot and killed Caesar Cruz, but my city had lulled itself back into a false tranquility. Caesar's mom, Theresa Smith, had held marches and rallies for years, but the number of people who joined her were dwindling.

And why wouldn't they? Anaheim activists were filled with optimism following victory at the ballot for district elections that November. A revolution in the city was within reach, one where people would be put ahead of Disney, where residents would be represented by councilmembers who lived among them instead of being sequestered away up in Anaheim Hills. Myself and Weekly Mexican-in-Chief Gustavo Arellano—both lifelong Anacrimers—were told by everyone to stop our skepticism, and join the victory parade.

But as I walked alongside Smith and others, I knew that by the time the fifth anniversary of the Anaheim Riots came, few would care and nothing would have changed; district elections be damned.

With that moment now here, I visited two other sites of mourning. In 2012, Manuel Diaz and Joel Acevedo were shot to death by Anaheim policemen within days of each other, setting off a week-long conflagration in the city that culminated in a downtown riot. Only four votive candles rested outside the iron gate on Anna Drive where officer Nick Bennallack killed Manuel Diaz on July 21, 2012. A few miles down, a tattered makeshift memorial for Joel Acevedo still stands in a barrio by Disneyland. A picture of Joel with his mother Donna Acevedo-Nelson dangles from piping next to an apartment complex on Guinida Lane where he was killed by officer Kelly Phillips the night following the Diaz slaying.

Five years ago, angry residents immediately protested the killing of Diaz, who was unarmed, in broad daylight. The standoff turned chaotic when bottles thrown from the crowd were met by police with less-lethal projectiles. Viral video of a K-9 police dog rampaging into the crowd of men, women and children brought Anaheim's rage to a boil. The city barely had time to process what happened when Acevedo was killed; police say he fired at them first but the distrust between Latino communities and the police only grew further. We all should have seen it coming, especially after the largest barrio in the city exploded in anger that March when Martin Angel Hernandez was shot and killed in a Wakefield alley.

But today, memories of those tumultuous times are fading like the teddy bear that rests at Acevedo's memorial. Between burned-out activists, the nonprofits that never really cared and city leaders eager to tuck the past away, there's no commemoration of the dead happening this weekend, no call to action for a still very unjust city. Anaheim absorbed the shock of the riots, and a new, defiant politics failed to rise up. My gut feeling about this anniversary proved right despite the images of mothers collapsing in grief over their dead sons that will always haunt me.

Disneyland fireworks explode during the riots
Disneyland fireworks explode during the riots
Matt Oliver / OC Weekly

Anaheim quickly turned from the scene of a raucous riot to all but quiet by summer's end with the help of the city's Latino leadership class. But first, the police had to don military garb five days after the June 24 downtown riot to scare Anaheim youth back into obedience. Thanks to a crumpled-up Incident Action Plan that leaked online, we know the police feared and prepared for urban unrest in barrios deemed "hot zones" before a planned July 29 demonstration following the riots. Under the command of then-deputy chief Craig Hunter and a lesser-know Captain Raul Quezada (who's now the police chief), the show of force worked. Only 400 activists turned out, most of whom came from out of town.

John Welter, Anaheim's police chief at the time, blamed "outside agitators" and "anarchists" for the riots in the press, a damned lie given all the local arrests and the "hot zones" plan. Despite the comments that suggested Anaheim's Mexicans knew their place, none of the city's Latino leaders condemned his remarks at the microphone during a post-riot emergency city council meeting in August. That was the first sign of the calculated cowardice that paved the road ahead.

By October, things quieted down enough for Los Amigos, Anaheim's longtime Latino advocacy group born out of the Little People's Park Riot of 1978, to pull a stunt that disturbed most of the families who sought anyone in the city to champion their deceased loved ones. During a "Noche de Yo-Yo" event for the late Amin David, new Los Amigos president Jose Moreno asked Welter and his staff seated at one table to stand. He then asked the same of mothers whose sons had been killed by Welter's men. "I was so disgusted and even shocked to be used like that," Acevedo-Nelson recalls. "Then I had to read about it in the Register as if it was a good thing." But that wasn't the end of it all. The following year, Moreno, serving on the Anaheim City School District board, asked how best they could honor Welter upon his retirement.

Who needs to bring in the National Guard?
Who needs to bring in the National Guard?
Matt Oliver

The riots held another promise far away from Los Amigos meetings at Jagerhaus restaurant for Anaheim's barrio youth. They instinctively plucked a page from Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed and spontaneously protested against the police instead of going at each other. "For once, it proved it was possible for the people to unite because I saw people who would never get along," Chuco, an Anaheim rapper, recounted to me about the downtown riot. "I saw people there look at one another and usually would trip on one another, but that day, it wasn't about that."

As the United Survivors of Anaheim, families who lost loved ones to police violence, they organized marches in different barrios where the fatal shootings happened in late 2012. The actions kept momentum going and provoked difficult conversations between rival neighborhoods. But the lessons proved to be short-lived. Net banging reinforced entrenched street wars with "Rest in Piss" comments left on YouTube tribute songs to Anaheim's native sons felled by police. And then, Diaz's memorial on Anna Drive itself was defaced with graffiti by a rival gang two years later. The city used the incident as pretext to take the memorial down, another move towards Anaheim amnesia.

No barrio truces ever stuck, as new, pointless political battles emerged. The same circle of Latino leaders that genuflected before Chief Welter promised Anaheim salvation through district elections. A month before the riots, Moreno and David became two plaintiffs in an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit that sought to have council seats switch from at-large to single-member district elections to supposedly give Latinos better representation. Right after the riots, district election supporters pressed the city to settle the suit and begin the healing. Being the biggest city in OC, Anaheim was long overdue for electoral reform. But while activists criticized Disney for stuffing the coffers of favored candidates, they kept quiet as the Walt Disney Company heavily funded the ballot campaign and paid for political signs in support.

Once upon a time in Anna Drive
Once upon a time in Anna Drive
Gabriel San Roman / OC Weekly

Either way, the House of the Mouse deserves a heaping of blame for why things haven't changed (and won't) in Anaheim. With Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge at Disneyland in the works, the theme park secured a gate tax moratorium for up to 45 years. Then came heavily subsidized four-star luxury hotel developments for all the crowds sure to come when the new attractions open in 2019. The free-for-all came on the eve of the first city elections by districts and locked in a rapacious resort economy destined to keep things unequal for the riot next time. 

These days, homelessness in Anaheim is now the social justice talk of the town, not police accountability. A pilot program for a civilian review board ended its run with an uncertain future ahead. A handful of activists press on to revive and strengthen the board with subpoena powers, but they're unlikely to get anything not watered down—even from the so-called "People's Council" where Mayor Tom Tait holds a majority with three Latino council members, including Moreno, by his side. And that's the worst of the riot's tattered legacy; that's Anaheim got nothing out of it. Placentia's police riots in 1972 brought about Casa Placentia for at-risk youth. Little People's Park is memorialized by a legendary mural by the late Emigdio Vazquez that's slowly fading away. Anaheim can't even claim a cultural center for youth or any public art project to remember the not-so-distant past.

But police brutality is still very much around, even when it involves off-duty LAPD cops pulling out guns on teens walking across their lawn. Four people died last year in Anaheim at the hands of its police department, only one shy of the 2012 tally. That's not counting one death the coroner missed from that year; the uprising that never was. The Anaheim Revolution is dead. Long live the Anaheim Revolution!


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