Manuel Diaz lay in the grass outside an Anaheim, Calif., apartment building last weekend, face-down and twitching with a police bullet in the back of his head, a lawyer for Diaz’s family said.
Anaheim officers handcuffed him, called for backup and began searching the area. They did not immediately begin CPR, bystander videos show. A few hundred feet from where Diaz, an unarmed 25-year-old, lay dying, officers opened fire on a gathering crowd with pepper spray pellets and beanbags, said Dana Douglas, the family lawyer. A police dog bit a man. (SEE VIDEO AT BOTTOM OF STORY)
The next day, police shot and killed another Latino man, Joel Acevedo, 21, who they said was a gang member who shot at officers while fleeing. By Friday, police were involved in a third shooting in less than a week after officers opened fire on two men fleeing a burglar alarm. One escaped; the other was bitten by a police dog and arrested.
The killings sparked days of intermittent clashes between protestors and police. Looters entered some stores, broke windows and while some demonstrators marched through town armed with nothing but signs, others set fires. Officers donned riot gear and clashed with the crowds. At least two dozen were arrested.
While much of the country watched in shock, people who study urban unrest and police community relations say that Anaheim, a Southern California city best known as the home of Disneyland and a seat of Orange County conservatism, shares the social tinderbox characteristics that have set other communities ablaze from Detroit to Los Angeles.
“Riots don’t just happen, said Clemmet Price, a Rutgers University-Newark historian who has written extensively about urban unrest. “There is a long complicated history that would make a city susceptible to something like that.”
Newark, for example, erupted into a 1967 riot after an African American cab driver was arrested and inaccurate rumors spread that he had been killed in police custody. The explosion had been building for decades, Price said. Newark's industrial job base had eroded and poverty was intense in African American neighborhoods. The city’s infrastructure was crumbling. Whites fled to the suburbs. By 1967, Newark was half African American.
“But the city did not acknowledge that change,” Price said. “The police force, even the teaching corps, remained overwhelmingly white and somewhat to very disconnected from the experiences of a large number of people living in that city.”
The way some people describe Anaheim is no different.
“What we have here is concentrated power in the hands of a wealthy minority, a working-class and working-poor Latino majority that feels it has no voice coupled with completely uneven distribution of the city’s resources. And then, the deaths of two young Latino men in the span of one weekend,” said Jose Moreno, a California State University-Long Beach professor who also serves on the Anaheim City School Board and is president of Los Amigos Orange County, a community organization.
“We want this to be the happiest place on earth,” Moreno said. “But it’s not for those of us who live here, most of the time.”
Diaz's death appears to have sparked the week's unrest. Police said he was shot after refusing an officer's command to stop. The police union said Diaz reached for something in his waistband and was a “documented gang member.” Diaz’s family has denied he was in a gang and say that the claim is an attempt to smear a victim shot in the back of the head. The police dog that charged the crowd that gathered just after Diaz was shot, escaped and wasn’t intentionally set loose, police said. Investigations into all three of this week's police shootings continue.
In Anaheim, a city that sprawls over 50 square miles, Latinos hold many of the area's low-wage hospitality jobs. Most live in poor and working-class neighborhoods near the center and northern sections of town know as “The Flatlands.” For Latinos in Anaheim, the median income is $49,495, according to the 2010 census. Nearly 20 percent of the city’s Hispanic population lived in poverty.
Just across the Riverside Freeway, many of the city’s affluent, mostly white families live in the northwestern stretch of town known as “The Hills.” In 2010, white households enjoyed a median income of nearly $60,000 a year. About 13 percent -- the national average -- lived in poverty.
Money, power and resources are concentrated in The Hills, said Bardis Vakili, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. Four of the city council’s five members live in The Hills.
The Hills, home to about 17 percent of the city’s population, has twice as many libraries as The Flatlands and far more parks, fire stations and community, youth and nature centers, according to an analysis by Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development, a nonprofit economic advocacy organization.
One explanation may lie in the differences between Anaheim's population and its electorate. Latinos make up about 53 percent of Anaheim's population. But because so much of the Latino population consists of people under age 18 and those who are immigrants, Latinos comprise just 33 percent of the city’s voters.
Over the last 15 years, a developer-controlled political action committee injected large sums of money into local elections, ensuring that pro-business candidates are elected to city offices, said Moreno. In Anaheim, pro-business candidates favor tax abatement incentive packages for large hotels. In many cases these hotels have been built on land that once housed apartment buildings where low-income hospitality industry workers lived, said Moreno.
Anahiem is also the largest city in California that elects all its city council members in citywide elections, said Vakili. There are no districts in which Latino voters, or Flatlands voters, can elect a candidate. Over the city’s 150-year history, three of 127 people who have served on city council have been Latino, Vakili said.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in June claiming that Anaheim’s election system violates California’s Voting Rights Act. Moreno is one of the plaintiffs.
Beyond the city's political situation, police community relations have long been strained, Vakili said. Anaheim police were the first in the nation to invite U.S. Immigration and Custom's Enforcement officers (immigration agents) to screen all inmates brought to the city's jail. Inmates at the city jail have typically been charged with minor crimes, Vakili said.
Anaheim's police force also does not mirror the city's population. The city's police force consists of 363 officers, 82 of which are Hispanic, police said.
Five people have also been killed by Anaheim police this year, including the two men slain this week. A map of the incidents generated by The Los Angeles Times shows that police shootings have happened in neighborhoods all over the city. However all but one of these neighborhoods are in The Flatlands and all but one of the men shot and killed were Latino.
There are lessons that cities and police departments should learn from places like Newark, Detroit and now Anaheim, said Price.
“Power-sharing is essential,” said Price. “When the demography of a city or for that matter a state or region is changing as it is always want to do, it is the responsibility of elected officials and civic stewarts and clergy to see the writing on the wall.”
On Tuesday, a group of mostly Latino protestors clashed with police at city hall. Protesters threw rocks and bottles. Police fired more crowd-dispersing bean bags and pepper spray pellets.
The council suspended its meeting early, missing a deadline to put a measure on the November ballot that would have created council districts. City Councilwoman Gail Eastman, who is white, declared victory in an online community message board, the Orange County Weekly reported:
“In spite of how it happened, it was a big time win for all who opposed seeing that placed on the November ballot,” Eastman wrote. “Tonight we celebrate a win with no shots fired!”
The next day, Diaz’s mother, Genevieve Huizar, stepped before a bank of TV cameras and appealed for calm. The Diaz family filed a wrongful death and civil rights lawsuit against police this week.) At least 24 people had been arrested in the week’s unrest, police said. Federal authorities told Mayor Tom Tait Friday an independent federal investigation will be launched into Diaz's death.
"Whatever the truth, we will own it," Tait has said,
Start your workday the right way with the news that matters most. Learn more