On Saturday, July 21, 24-year-old Manuel Diaz laid face down in a pool of blood, shot dead by Anaheim police just ten minutes away from “the happiest place on earth.” Anaheim, long known as home to Disneyland, has in the last week come to be defined by police violence and civil unrest.
It all started Saturday afternoon, when Diaz and two others were approached by three Anaheim police officers. Diaz ran and one of the officers chased after him. According to a witness, Diaz was shot from behind, first in the buttocks, then the head. She also told reporters that police proceeded to handcuff Diaz before searching him, despite his body lying bloody and motionless on the ground. Several witnesses also accused police of trying to buy cell phone recordings of the incident.
Days later, the OC Weekly obtained a cell phone video that showed police standing over Diaz’s bloodied body, which appears to be twitching as if still alive, for over three minutes and doing nothing. One man can be heard pleading, “He’s still alive man!”
Diaz is just the latest in a long line of police shootings of unarmed people of color. His name has come to symbolize the ongoing struggle against police violence in poor black and brown communities, for which authorities are almost never held to account. In Anaheim, where tension between police and the Latino community has been building for years, Diaz is the match that lit the fire which has spread throughout the city.
His shooting sparked an immediate protest by area residents who demanded answers from police. When some in the crowd allegedly hurled bottles and rocks at officers, police responded by shooting rubber bullets and pepper spray and releasing (apparently by accident) a K-9 attack dog into the crowd of mostly parents and small children. The chaos was captured on video by a KCAL news crew showing screaming mothers and fathers shielding their children in horror.
The following day a second Latino man, 21-year-old Joel Acevedo, was shot and killed by Anaheim police, who said Acevedo was shot after firing at police during a foot chase.
These latest deaths bring the total number of Anaheim officer-involved shootings in 2012 to six. Families of the victims have been holding weekly Sunday protests directed at the Anaheim Police Department (APD), who in a court filing, they likened to “a death squad” that indiscriminately targets anyone they believe is a gang member.
They’re All “Gang Members”
Police violence is overwhelmingly limited to two groups of people: political demonstrators (i.e. Occupy Wall Street, Chicago #NoNATO protests etc); and poor communities of color.
At news conferences and in statements to the press, Anaheim police have repeatedly used the term “gang member” in justifications for the recent shootings and subsequent treatment of protesting residents.
Anaheim Police Chief John Welter has said that the firing of bean bags and pepper spray at residents protesting the killing of Diaz was in response to “some known gang members” throwing bottles and rocks at officers.
In a detailed statement released by the Anaheim Police Association on July 24, Kerry Condon, president of the police union, said the following:
“… we live in a dangerous world where there are too many violent gang members like Manuel ‘Stomper’ Diaz and Joel ‘Yogi’ Acevedo who spent their young lives wreaking havoc on their neighborhoods and the law-abiding citizens who live there. It was the actions of these gang members, not the police officers, who set these unfortunate events in motion.
“Even though there have been several death threats to Anaheim police officers in gang neighborhoods throughout the city of Anaheim in the last year, our officers continue to go into these areas to fight gang crime and protect the residents who continue to live in fear of these domestic terrorists.”
Gustavo Arellano, editor of Orange County’s alternative newspaper the OC Weekly, which has been closely reporting on APD brutality for years, told Truthout that identifying the victims as “gang members” is nothing new. “Police departments are notorious for never voluntarily offering information to reporters, but they’re quick to tell the media that ‘this is no angel, it’s a documented gang member.'”
The problem, he said, is, “The media only pays attention to what the police department has to say, as though that justifies the shooting deaths of these people.”
The reality is that “gang” is a racialized word that triggers images of violent black and brown criminal stereotypes in the minds of the public. When the words “gang” or “drugs” are thrown around in connection to victims of color, sympathy for the injured and/or dead comes to a sudden halt. By repeatedly using “gang member” to describe the people at the other end of police violence, the APD is soliciting racialized indifference toward the victims.
For confirmation of the success of the ploy, one may look to the lack of concern for Chicago’s latest scourge of gun violence. The more than 250 homicides in 2012 alone – up 40 percent from this time last year – have been blamed on guns, gangs and drugs, while the systemic problems created by the War on Drugs and police tactics have been largely ignored along with the victims.
Contrast the apathy at Chicago’s rising body count with the horrified reaction to the movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado. As politicians competed over who could pray harder for the victims and their families, the media saturated the airwaves with detailed stories about the lives of those who were killed. President Obama even traveled to Aurora to meet with survivors. Meanwhile, Chicago’s victims and their grieving families have yet to receive any public level of sympathy and concern.
At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, an Anaheim attorney, James Segall-Gutierrez, told the council members, “The dehumanization of a man by calling him a gang-banger is wrong. He is a human being.” He went on to argue that the deaths of Diaz and Acevedo were the “end result” of this dehumanization, adding, “it will continue until you change it.”
While Arellano recognizes race as a component of police harassment, he believes economic inequality is at the heart of police violence. “The Latino community is being most affected by police harassment because they live in the more working class communities, which naturally have more crime. Police are more likely to look for people to arrest in those communities. It’s a class issue that goes beyond the Latino community.”
Atef A., an Anaheim student at Chapman University, told Truthout that the latest police violence in Anaheim has exposed the true face of Orange County. He said that television shows like “Laguna Beach” and “The OC,” which portray Orange County as “leafy, upper middle class” are an “illusion.” “We have economic apartheid in Orange County,” he said.
“There is gang violence,” admitted Atef, “but it has to do with the social system not providing for impoverished neighborhoods.”
In one of the only articles to address Anaheim’s economic inequality, The Los Angeles Times reported:
“Of the city’s estimated 340,000 residents, 53% are Latino and the protests have occurred in the city’s flatlands, where many of those residents live. Most City Council members hail from the more affluent Anaheim Hills neighborhood to the east. The American Civil Liberties Union recently filed suit claiming the current at-large system of electing the council leaves Latinos poorly represented. The suit said that Anaheim has had only three Latino council members in its history.”
Arellano believes the City Council is to blame even more than the police department for the violence afflicting Anaheim. “They’ve been giving billions in subsidies to developers, the 1%. When the city council pays attention only to developers the rest of city crumbles.” He said that the City Council has diverted resources to hotels, resorts and sports convention centers to the detriment of the city’s working poor, who are already suffering from unemployment and a spike in crime.
Anaheim resident Steve Sevada echoed Arellano’s sentiment at Tuesday’s City Council meeting. “Maybe if you didn’t give all the money to developers, you wouldn’t have kids involved in gangs,” Sevada said. Another Anaheim resident suggested that the City council “Invest in Anna Drive and Ponderosa Park as if they were resort districts,” referring to the neighborhoods where Manuel and, in March, Martin Angel Hernandez, were killed by police.
A War Zone
On Tuesday, July 24, Anaheim residents converged in front of City Hall to demand accountability for the police violence plaguing their community. After seven hours of protest, the night ended with 24 arrests, several injuries, and streets littered with used beanbag rounds and pepper-ball casings.
The tension between police and demonstrators grew with each passing hour. Swarms of riot police immediately lined up along the front of the Civic Center building to block protesters from entering. After attempting to break through, only to be pushed back by heavily armed officers, protesters took their march down the streets of Anaheim, chanting, “Fuck the Police” and, “No justice. No Peace. No racist police.”
Meanwhile, inside City Hall, one Anaheim resident after another addressed the council members about the latest round of police-involved shootings. “I’m a mother with small children. This city used to be calm. Now we have to be afraid of people that are supposed to protect us,” a local woman told the council. “We would like to have greater access and transparency to what police do in our community,” added a local man who identified himself as Arturo Ferrerez.
Throughout the evening, the APD was joined by five surrounding police agencies for the dispersal of protesters. and it was observed that the police more closely resembled a military special operations unit on a mission in Iraq than American law enforcement containing a demonstration. The Associated Press reports there were as many as 250 police officers in total throughout the night.
As the evening progressed, protesters hurled rocks and bottles at police while police shot at protesters indiscriminately with beanbags and pepper balls. It’s not clear which side initiated the exchange, however, nearly every media report has pinned the blame on violent and unruly protesters.
Several people were seen with large bloody welts on their bodies, one man hit in the back of the head as he tried to run for cover. Journalists were shot at as well, including well-known live-streamer Tim Pool, investigative journalist Amber Lyon and members of southern California’s KFI News staff.
“Do We Need to Start a Riot?
The history of police violence toward Latinos is not isolated to Anaheim. Similar stories of police violence can be found all across the country in areas populated by poor people of color.
During Tuesday night’s protest, an unarmed black man in Dallas, Texas, was shot and killed while running away from Dallas police. Riot police from seven Dallas substations were called in to subdue the crowd of 300 residents that gathered to vent their anger at police.
The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) recently published an investigation, which found that 120 black men, women and children have been killed by police, security guards or self-appointed law enforcers in the first half of 2012, the majority of whom were unarmed. That’s one black person killed every 36 hours. Given the string of Latinos killed by police in Anaheim alone, the number would possibly have risen dramatically had the MXGM report counted all people of color.
One of the report’s most damning findings is the sheer lack of accountability for these killings. Thus far, less than 9 percent of those responsible for the deaths have faced charges (four police officers and six security guards and self-appointed law enforcers).
The report’s authors go on to describe the common pattern of events that take place in the aftermath of a police shooting:
“The standard procedure in most jurisdictions is for police involved in fatal shootings to be given paid ‘desk-duty’ while the department conducts an investigation of itself. The press applauds their fine records while it screams about the criminal records of the deceased. Almost all killer cops are routinely exonerated and quickly return to the street. Grieving families who invariably ask the modest question, ‘why did he have to die?’ are ignored. If there is some demonstrated community outrage the case may be further investigated. The legal system almost never charges these executioners and even if they do, the killing continues.”
Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait has promised a transparent investigation into the death of Diaz. He’s also requested that the state attorney general and FBI assist in the investigation. However, to date, not a single Anaheim police officer has been prosecuted for the rising number of fatal shootings.
In response to the MXGM report, rapper Jasiri X took to the microphone to ask, “Do We Need to Start a Riot?,” the title of his recently released song and video, which address the lack of justice for the deceased.
If city officials continue to excuse and ignore the persistence of deadly police violence, the streets of Anaheim, desperate for justice, may soon be asking the same question: “Do we need to start a riot?”