When Anaheim Mayors First Hung with the Mexicans

I had the pleasure of meeting former Anaheim mayor Bill Thom a couple of times at meetings of Los Amigos, the longtime Latino civil rights group he helped found in 1978. He always occupied a table near the front, a seat of honor unconsciously granted by other Los Amigos members for the gabacho politician who cared all along. Thom passed away last month during surgery, and the Orange County Register has a remembrance of him in today's issue. It's a nice gesture for one of the unsung heroes of civil rights in Orange County, a man who did something shocking in the 1970s that is still foreign today--he took the side of aggrieved Mexicans while not asking for anything in return.

Adam Townsend's Reg piece only mentions that he "helped start Los Amigos, a Latino-rights advocacy group that still exists in the city, said Amin David, the leader of that organization." But Townsend doesn't give the context of its genesis from one of Anaheim's darkest moments, one crucial to pushing us--however so violently--away from the Gunkist Oranges past: the Little People's Park riot of 1978

In the summer of 1978, a group of Latino youths were hanging out at Little Peoples' Park in Anaheim, a tiny space of green just down Broadway from Anaheim City Hall. They had just returned from playing football when police made them line up against the wall and began invading homes in the surrounding Penguin City barrio. The resultant arrests and, well, riot, sparked an Orange County district attorney and Grand Jury investigation in which no charges were filed against the department even though the D.A. found that the Anaheim Police Department was at fault. The city attorney's office and police department stonewalled the DA and Grand Jury at every step of the way (I have hundreds of pages of correspondence on this issue, which I'll eventually turn into a cover story some day), but many important changes came about. Take it away, the official Anaheim Police Department history!

Officers were required to carry business cards. The police complaint procedure was revised, offering citizens the opportunity to pick up complaint forms at their local branch libraries. Also, Officers were required to attend cultural awareness training sessions. Other reforms were implemented; the Police Community Relations Board was created; patrol cars were designed with four-inch unit numeric decals and officers were required to wear large embroidered name patches on their jackets.

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These changes were soon instituted in all Orange County police departments.

Needless to say, relations between the city's Latino community and its establishment deteriorated after the Little People's Park riot (it should be noted that then-Mayor John F. Seymour--who would go on to serve as state and U.S. senator--held town hall meetings on the Little People's Park melee, but only at the insistence of the Orange County Human Relations office). Stepping in to serve as the buffer was Thom. I once asked Thom if I could interview him about helping start Los Amigos, and now I'm kicking myself for never getting around to it, but I do know that Thom's alliance with Latino leaders was instrumental in calming both sides down.

Such outreach by Thom--who also served as the county's Democratic Party leader in 1979 and 1980--was farsighted for an Anaheim politician, the lot of whom previously acknowledged their Mexican constituents by segregrating brown children in schools, keeping all Mexicans penned up in the city's iconic Pearson Park like cows, not pushing to build a dam that would've prevented floodwaters from destroying barrios, or uniting with Orange County's power structure to kick some orange picker ass. Nowadays, Anaheim politicians actively court Latinos, but only to serve political needs, whether it was Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle teaming with cowardly Latino politico Larry "Nativo" Lopez to shill for a Mexican multinational in 2002 or councilwoman Lorri Galloway rallying striking Disney workers over the summer (an issue I agree with her on, but one that nevertheless earned her labor's endorsement in her tight Council race this November and thus puts her in the wrong for this particular point). None of this would've been possible without the vision of Thoms, who only wanted to make sure all of Anaheim had a voice.

*Pictured: an Emigdio Vasquez mural painted in memory of the Little People's Park riot, across the street from where the violence occurred.


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