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The Happiest Place On Earth: Racist Police Violence in Anaheim

Southern California in July can be suffocatingly hot, the kind of intense heat that drives you indoors for much of the day and leaves tempers simmering at a low boil, waiting for a reason to bubble over. Frustrations are high in communities across the southern half of the state thanks to the relentless heat and ongoing economic woes; Orange County, for example, has an unemployment rate of almost 8% and a foreclosure rate hovering around 2%. The traditionally conservative county has some of the most dramatic economic inequality imaginable on display, from the mansions of the wealthy to the crowded tenements of the poor who serve them.

The largest city in the county is Anaheim, home of ‘the happiest place on Earth.’ It may be known for its sports teams and the sprawling Disneyland complex with associated resorts, but it’s more than that. It’s also a large and diverse community with shifting demographics, including a large Latino community locked into the service industry and frustrated by their lack of political and social power in white-dominated local politics. The ACLU has even been involved, with a suit challenging the city’s habit of shutting out Latino voters.

It was 4pm on Saturday, 21 July when two police officers saw three men in a car and decided they looked suspicious. The police department would like the public to believe this was because they were gang members with ‘a criminal history,’ as though this justifies any of the ensuing events, but the colour of their skin suggests otherwise; perhaps they were suspicious merely because they were Latino, and not for any other compelling reason.

When the officers approached the car, the three men fled, and with good reason; Anaheim had already experienced several fatal officer-involved shootings in 2012, many of them involving Latino men. One of the officers opened fire on Manuel Angel Diaz, an unarmed 25 year old man. He was shot in the head and back and left to die on the corner of La Palma Avenue and North Anna Drive over protests from witnesses, who screamed for help as the police surrounded the site in yellow tape.

Protesters gathered to vent their anger over yet another senseless shooting in their community, while trying to understand what, exactly, had happened. As the crowd grew, it included many families protesting together, including young children. The police response included an impressive display of excessive force: They opened fire on the crowd with pepper spray and beanbags, and released a police dog into the already explosive mix. The dog was released ‘by accident,’ the police say, but witnesses have testified otherwise.

This might have gone unnoticed, much like other routine acts of police brutality across the United States every day, except that a news outlet picked up the video and aired it, and it shocked even jaded viewers. The sight of people rushing to protect their children from a dog who had obviously been set on them, of police opening fire on unarmed protesters attempting to flee, resonated with the country.

Protests were still ongoing when, a little over 24 hours later, the police shot another man, Joel Acevado. They claimed he was a gang member too, arguing that he was suspicious because he fled from the site of a car chase. A gun was found next to his body; Anaheim police say he fired and them and argue this is evidence he was armed, defending their actions on the grounds that he was dangerous.

The two shootings in quick succession, paired with the flagrant abuse of power on the part of the police, was enough to ignite the burning fuse that had been laid by the city’s leadership; the Latino residents of Anaheim decided that enough was enough, and they started taking to the streets in growing numbers. The police responded in kind, stepping up patrols and becoming increasingly aggressive with the protesters; on the night of 24 July, the protests began to include setting fire to dumpsters and pushing back against the police as desperate citizens fought to be heard.

It was evident that a crisis was underway in Anaheim, and one that had been created by those in power.

Citizens registered their anger and refusal to take any more abuse, and the eyes of the nation turned to Anaheim, where protests were reported as riots and scaremongering media reported the ‘dangers’ of the protests even as individual protesters called for nonviolence and the parents of the dead made impassioned speeches to the crowd, asking for justice.

‘Am I next?’ protesters chanted in front of the police station, as they drew chalk outlines of dead bodies, carried signs, and made speeches. The peaceful nature of the protests was elided in reporting on them, while police opened fire with so-called ‘non-lethal’ rounds, some of which hit and injured small children, and aggressively cordoned the protesters, in a response utterly out of proportion to the nature of the protest.

They weren’t the only ones asking for a review of the Anaheim police department and the shootings: Mayor Tom Tait pleaded for help with the investigation into the deaths, while Presente.org also demanded accountability. The only people in the equation who didn’t want a fair and even investigation of the Anaheim police were, of course, the Anaheim police, who struggled to justify their actions in an increasingly hostile climate that grew extremely disinterested in hearing their excuses.

Protesters began crossing the informal lines drawn in their community in their search for justice. Previously sacrosanct Disneyland began to see crowds of peaceful protesters who wanted to make visitors to the resort aware of what was going on in the community they were visiting. The escapist delights of the resort are much harder to swallow when you have to pass a group of people who want to know why the police have opened war on their community at the front gate, and, predictably, aggressive suppression of the Disneyland protesters included arrests and barricades to prevent them from reaching areas frequented by members of the public.

Meanwhile, the police began stopping and harassing Latino citizens going about their daily business in Anaheim. If being Latino in public was a risk before, the risk doubled in the wake of the shootings and protests as the police attempted to ‘restore order,’ code for suppressing the Latino population’s legitimate anger and frustration.

Because silencing dissent is always an effective way to ensure it will quietly boil away.

After nine straight days of protest which included State Senators and City Councilmembers, it was clearly time to hold a news conference. On Monday, Presente.org organisers, affected family members, and hundreds of protesters rallied at the office of State Attorney General Kamala Harris to present a petition demanding an investigation into the police department’s actions, making it clear they wouldn’t remain silent in the face of injustice.

Recent events in Anaheim reveal the high price of systemic unexamined racism. In a city where those in power, including the police force, are mostly white, racism becomes institutionally entrenched. Latino citizens have been crying out for help in Anaheim for a long time, but it took two quick deaths in succession paired with outstanding police brutality for the city, and the rest of the country, to pay attention. Racial problems didn’t arise in the city overnight, and they aren’t going to be resolved overnight either.

And the same goes for many other US cities struggling with similar issues. In 1951, Langston Hughes asked what happens to a dream deferred; ‘Does it dry up/like a raisin in the sun?’ That’s the obvious goal of the white majority in the United States, which is happy to allow racial inequality to fester, and to make it even worse through regressive legislation attacking everything from the right to vote to the right to work. In Anaheim, though, it exploded, and as white America faces down a hot, dry summer with a population that’s growing tired of inequality, it may discover that it is about to face a chain reaction.