Anaheim, One Year Later: Tension Lingers Over Police Shooting Of Two Latinos

Thought it wasn't the first officer-involved shootings in Anaheim, the protests that followed drew national attention.
By @katierucke |
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    (Photo/screen grab via YouTube)

    (Photo/screen grab via YouTube)

    After the deaths of two Anaheim residents last July at the hands of two officers from the Anaheim Police Department, large protests occurred throughout the city for about two weeks as residents displayed their discontent at what they saw as police brutality and racial profiling of Latinos.

    Thought by police to be a gang member, unarmed 25-year-old Manuel Diaz was shot and killed on July 21. The next day, 21-year-old Joel Acevedo was shot and killed after allegedly firing a handgun at police. Though Acevedo and Diaz were not the first to die as a result of officer-involved shootings in Anaheim, the protests that followed drew national attention and crowds of more than 300 protesters.

    As the one-year anniversary of their deaths approaches, the two men’s mothers, Donna Acevedo and Genevieve Huizar, have sent a letter to the Anaheim community asking residents to join them and the families of other victims of police brutality in a protest.

    Sponsored by ANSWER — an advocacy group that asks the public to Act Now to Stop War and End Racism — the July 21 event is publicized as a special tribute to the people of Anaheim.

    Though ANSWER has held demonstrations throughout the U.S., Mike Prysner, one of the local directors of ANSWER’s Los Angeles chapter, says the July 21 event is special because it will be led by about 30 families who have lost a family member in a shooting involving police.

    The protest comes about a year after the victims’ family members, friends and neighbors gathered outside the city’s police department and attended city council meetings to vocalize their discontent for the officers’ behavior.

    Dressed in SWAT gear, the officers’ response to the protests made national headlines after they fired bean-bag rounds and pepper spray into crowds filled with women and children. One incident caught on tape featured a police dog that got loose and bit a few demonstrators.

    The tumultuous relationship between Anaheim residents and the police disappeared from newspapers shortly after the protests quieted down, leaving the community alone to recover and heal.


    Working toward peace

    Though more than 50 percent of the 336,000 residents in Anaheim are Latino, political representation of Latinos in the city has been historically slim. This lack of a political voice fueled part of the residents’ anger last summer, but the most vocalized concern was in regard to police actions.

    In 2011, crime statistics from the FBI found that violent crime — homicide and aggravated assault — had increased by 10 percent in the city. The crime wave continued in 2012, most of it perpetrated by gang members.

    Veronica Rodarte is the co-founder of We Are Anaheim, or Somos Anaheim, a group that works to bring all Anaheim residents together through art and community service events. Rodarte told Mint Press News that she helped found the group after last summer’s protests.

    “Things in Anaheim got out of control very quickly,” she said, explaining that the group tried to “restore some type of calm” by organizing a silent peace walk and constructive dialogue between residents and police officers.

    While groups like We Are Anaheim have done their best to restore a relationship between the community and police officers, some have not yet healed.

    Prysner told Mint Press News that the “epidemic” of police harassment and violence is a nationwide issue. He said groups like ANSWER are trying to hold officers accountable for abuse of power.

    “[Police brutality] has been an issue for a very long time,” Prysner said, adding that police officers have become increasingly militarized in recent years.

    “This march is in a sense a special tribute to the people of Anaheim,” he said, explaining that following the “murders” of Diaz and Acevedo, Anaheim became a site of “heroic protests.”

    As news spread of the upcoming protest and the letter from Huizar and Acevedo, local news organizations began reporting that though it had almost been a year since the riots occurred, many Anaheim residents had not been able to forgive the police.

    A report from the Voice of Orange County said that since last July, Anaheim police officers have been “met with confrontational crowds” when they respond to calls in Latino neighborhoods where gang members live. The report went on to say that the riots that occurred last year “shattered the Latino community’s trust in the police department,” and that “relations between the two groups have remained sour, if not worsened” in the last year.

    Gloria Alvarado is a community organizer working on the ground in Anaheim to bring the Latino community and police officers back to a healthy working relationship. She disputed reports that hostility between the two groups has increased throughout the past year.

    “Are they friends? Best friends? No, perhaps not,” Alvarado said.

    But she stressed that the community is embracing the ability to speak to a police officer and working to bring peace back to the neighborhood. She said that the Latino community is very receptive to building a relationship with the Anaheim Police Department and understands that police are there to protect the community.

    “Only a few groups are still hostile,” Alvarado said.

    In a statement to Mint Press News, Sgt. Bob Dunn, the Anaheim Police Department’s public information officer, said, “The Anaheim Police Department has long been a leader in crime prevention and community policing; investing in the youth of Anaheim through programs such as GRIP (Gang Reduction Intervention Partnership), Safe Schools, Cops 4 Kids, Explorers and Junior Cadets.

    “We continue to look for new ways to connect with the community we serve. From hosting community fairs, engaging Anaheim youth in our mobile Cops 4 Kids program and leading coffee with a cop sessions, our Department strives to be a central and positive influence for community relationships in Anaheim.”

    Ruth Ruiz, public information officer for the City of Anaheim, agreed with Dunn. In an email to Mint Press News, she said the city is “working together with individuals, community groups and local organizations [to] strengthen neighborhoods throughout the city.”


    ‘Radicals’ stirring the pot?

    Matthew Cunningham, an Orange County resident and community blogger, said he started his blog last August to offer the public a different perspective as to what was going on in Anaheim after the riots.

    “I thought it was awful,” he said. “I don’t take riots as a very legitimate means of political expression.”

    He added that some have tried to “romanticize” the riots for political purposes.

    Cunningham said there’s a misperception that there is animosity between the residents and police officers, adding that a very small faction of people comes to the city council meetings to “blast the police and call them murderers.” He called the letter from Acevedo and Huizar a “radical statement.”

    He cautioned Mint Press News against believing “there is a huge issue between residents of Anaheim and the police. It’s just a handful [of residents] who have beef with the police for no reason.”

    Cunningham, who has friends among the Anaheim police force, said the upcoming ANSWER protest is being organized by a radical group. He said those who attend the event will likely not have anything in common with the average person in Anaheim.

    Still, reports from local media illustrate a different story.

    In May, Donna Acevedo was pulled over by Officer Kelly Phillips — the man who shot and killed her son Joel last year — in what she called “an unjustified traffic stop.” After confronting Officer Phillips, Donna Acevedo says Phillips kicked over candles at her son’s memorial and removed at least one poster. Three young witnesses, aged 11 and 12, verified Acevedo’s account to Voice of Orange County.

    Prysner told Mint Press News that in May 2013, 13 people were killed in Southern California by police. A big element in the police killings, Prysner says, is racism.

    “A big majority of those killed are Latinos and Black people,” while the police officers are mostly White, he said.

    “It’s a badge of honor to shoot gang members so [the police] go out and shoot people who look like gang members,” Prysner said, giving the example of 34-year-old Rigoberto Arceo, who was killed by police on May 11.

    According to a report from the Los Angeles Times, Arceo, who was a biomedical technician at St. Francis Medical Center, was shot and killed after getting out of his sister’s van. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department says Arceo “advanced on the deputy and attempted to take the deputy’s gun.” However, Arceo’s sister and 53-year-old Armando Garcia — who was barbecuing in his yard when the incident happened — say that Arceo had his hands above his head the entire time.

    “It was about five seconds and they shot, and Rigo fell,” Garcia said. “I got really nervous, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”

    When asked what ANSWER thinks needs to be done to get Anaheim residents and police to work together, Prysner said the relationship between the two needs to change.

    “What needs to happen is real community oversight and control over what police are doing,” he said, adding that when police shoot an unarmed person with their arms in the air over their head, the officer should be punished.

    “You cannot have a police force that is investigating and punishing itself,” Prysner said, adding that taxpayer money should be invested into the community instead of given to police to buy more guns, assault rifles and body armor.

    This article originally was published July 11, 2013.

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