Three Years After the Anaheim Riots, Nothing Really Has Changed

They came to Pearson Park in Anaheim from Bakersfield, Santa Ana, Los Angeles, Oxnard and beyond to mark the third anniversary of the killings of Manuel Angel Diaz and Joel Acevedo. Their deaths at the hands of police sparked riots and gained worldwide notice, along with promises of more funding and attention by politicians and activists alike for the city's working-class youth.

The crowd Saturday afternoon was good enough, with about 150 people spread over dozens of picnic tables and booths–far smaller than the first memorial or even last year's gathering. A taquero warmed tortillas and grilled chicken, al pastor and carne asada. Anarchists laid out clothes and other items for the Really, Really Free Market, a yard sale/gift exchange at which everything comes without a price. On the grass was a poster board depicting Mickey Mouse with devil horns and a hatchet dripping with blood. Anti-police brutality rap blared from speakers while people talked.


As the thunder roared and lightning flashed, activists spoke about everything from filming the police to changing the system. Then Diaz's mother, Genevieve Huizar, stepped up to the microphone. “This day is your day as much as it is ours,” she said to the crowd. She then turned to her 5-year-old granddaughter: “What's your name?”

“Justice,” the little girl replied. Nods and smiles all around.

Notably absent were the politicians who joined peace marches back in 2012. “They're not even welcome here, and they know it,” Huizar said. “I don't trust the city of Anaheim.” Also not bothering to show up? Latino leaders and nonprofit organizers, who had used the urban unrest to act as the city's saviors.

“My son has been forgotten,” said Donna Acevedo of her son Joel, who was killed the day after Diaz. “I never hear his name.”

But the details of those two days in 2012 are still raw in their mothers' minds. On July 21, Anaheim police officer Nick Bennallack killed the unarmed Diaz, 25, as he ran through the apartment complexes of Anna Drive after reportedly noticing patrol officers coming toward him. Residents demanded answers for the shooting; police responded by shooting less-than-lethal projectiles into a crowd that included women and children, as well as having a K-9 bite a man who was protecting a stroller.

The next day, 21-year-old Acevedo died on Guinida Lane when, police say, officer Kelly Phillips returned fire. The back-to-back police killings ignited Anaheim's barrios, with protests culminating in street clashes between riot-gear-clad police and 1,000 protesters in front of City Hall on July 24, 2012, as the Disneyland fireworks lit the sky. The Orange County district attorney's office later ruled both shootings justified. A civil jury rejected Huizar's “excessive force” lawsuit last year, a decision currently under appeal.

In the wake of her son's death, Huizar pleaded with protesters to remember her son peacefully. “I regret calling for peace,” she admitted during a break in the Pearson Park commemoration.

Nearby, Donna Acevedo, wearing a red tank top embroidered with the word “Love,” carried a large, framed photo of Joel flashing a toothy grin. She remembered talking to her son the day of the Diaz killing. “Don't worry, Mom,” she says he told her. “I'm okay.”

There is a collection of votive candles, stuffed animals, handwritten letters and crucifixes left at a water meter at the apartment complex parking lot where Joel was shot. Acevedo goes there once a week, not only to remember, but also to try to help out Guinida Lane. She feels neighborhoods such as that one are used to prop up politicians and nonprofits. “They finally [erected] a pocket park,” she said, “but if you look at the neighborhood, it's still neglected.”

Determined to make a change in Anaheim, Acevedo ran for City Council last year, winning about 4 percent of the vote with minimal fund-raising. “People don't care anymore because they think we got all the reforms we asked for,” she said.

These days, Acevedo holds art classes for kids in the courtyard of the Anna Drive apartment where she lives. She collaborates with the Umbrella Collective, a group of young Anaheim activists that emerged after the riot. She's also focused on the November trial for the wrongful-death lawsuit filed on behalf of her son.

As a resident, Acevedo says she hasn't seen any improvement in police relations. “They come in like they own the neighborhood instead of realizing that people live here,” she said. “They rush in when nothing is even happening.”

The tone changes when cops are invited to community events such as peace walks or neighborhood cleanup days, when politicians and leaders are walking alongside the residents. “That's when they come with cookies for the kids,” she adds.

At Pearson Park, the rain eventually fell on those gathered for the July anniversary. “The police won because they still have all the power,” Acevedo said. “It should be the power of the people, but right now, I don't see anyone. It's like you're marching, and you turn around, and nobody's there.”

At that moment, a small group broke away from the park for a march toward the Anaheim police department.

The mothers of Manuel Diaz and Joel Acevedo joined them. “We don't want our sons forgotten,” Huizar said. “It's all about our love for our sons.”

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