I knew something was horribly amiss in Anaheim—my beloved hometown, where my family has lived on and off for over a century—a couple of years ago, when someone approached me to do a positive story. The person’s name escapes my memory, but she was a bigwig in the city. She thought that since I was such a proud Anaheim High School graduate, I’d be delighted in writing a story about a proposed multimillion-dollar renovation of the school’s Cook Auditorium, to return it “to its glory days,” as the person told me, whatever the hell that meant.
I laughed at the woman. I told her the last thing my alma mater needed was to refurbish the WPA-era building. Sure, it needs some TLC, but far more pressing were the needs of the students—better teachers, better programs, better graduation rates, better everything except for a pinche auditorium used only for assemblies. And far more needed for Anaheim were youth programs to steer them away from trouble, investments in our libraries, job opportunities—I went off on the lady, flabbergasted at how clueless she was about the needs of residents. Unsurprisingly, the woman never contacted me again.
This anecdote is emblematic of the real problem that’s currently destroying the city. The shooting deaths over the weekend of 24-year-old Santa Ana resident Manuel Diaz and 21-year-old Joel Acevedo by police officers (the eighth within a year) has brought national attention upon Anaheim—not on the preferred façade of Disneyland, the Anaheim Convention Center and our sports teams, but on burning dumpsters in the middle of streets, angry protests, and video footage of terrified parents shielding their children from rampaging police dogs and the firearms of the riot squad. It’s an easy story to tell: chaos in the land of Disney. Racist cops. Oppressed Latinos.
The national media is already running with this narrative, and that’s okay. But they’re ignoring the full, more-telling picture. For it’s not the police, but rather the lack of city leadership that has allowed a once-proud city to decay, to create the tense situation Anaheim is in today. Actually, scratch that: there has been city leadership, one so deluded that it set the conditions that allowed Anaheim’s long, hot summer to finally explode.
I try not to write about Anaheim politics, mostly because I have kith and kin who work for the city and want to shield them from any retribution caused by my rants, but mostly because—for once—the anger that accumulated over the years about what’s going on rendered me silent. Not anymore. My beloved hometown has turned into a joke, and it’s about damn time residents rise up.
Anaheim was never a perfect city, but it was one that worked—not a corrupt nightmare like Santa Ana, not a Stepford community like Irvine, but a living, breathing mini-metropolis of diversity, distinct neighborhoods and a shared sense of civic pride. Yeah, the city council constantly preferred developers over residents, but at least prior incarnations understood the importance of caring for the whole city instead of just parts.
But over the past decade, the city council (led for years by former mayor and the eternal Great Whore of OC Politics, Curt Pringle, and over the past two years by a majority bloc that consists of Gail Eastman, Kris Murray, and Harry Sidhu) have done their best to impersonate—take your pick of metaphorical elite ignorance—Marie Antoinette, Nero, or the One Percent. They have awarded millions of dollars in subsidies to hotel and retail developers and dumped even more millions on the so-called Resort District, the area around Disneyland and now slowly budging into Angels Stadium. Within City Hall, staff has been directed to favor the well-to-do at the expense of the hoi polloi, all with impunity when it’s not conducted in secret.
Meanwhile, the rest of the city has slowly crumbled. Residents have no faith in the city council anymore, mostly because four of the five councilmembers live in Anaheim Hills, the ritzy neighborhood isolated from the rest of the working-class city, and the council’s attention is skewed toward that area. The Great Recession has left a generation of jobless youth that councilmembers easily ignore because they don’t live among them; the rest of us are suffering through a crime wave that, in my 33 years living in Anaheim, has left the public fearful of our streets in a way I’ve never experienced.
The City Council’s reaction? Recently, they approved the placement of “In God We Trust” over the city seal in their chambers. Now that’s leadership!
Something is amiss in the Anaheim Police Department—a PD that cares more about confiscating witness video than tending to the still-twitching body of Diaz just moments after they shot him in the head (as seen in video exclusively obtained by the Weekly) is one with serious problems. But police will be police (and a good force is desperately needed at a time when actual crimes plague Anaheimers). Far more nefarious are Anaheim’s uncaring bureaucrats and politicians, and all the protests in the coming weeks, while necessary, won’t amount to anything unless activists target City Hall. Burning small fires and chanting rattles the lords, but it does nothing to tear down the castle.
There’s already a movement of sorts toward a more substantial, productive attack. A lawsuit filed by the ACLU against the city on behalf of Los Amigos, the longtime Latino grassroots group, seeks to end at-large elections in favor of a ward system, in the idea that better representation will lead to a better City Council and, by virtue, a better city (I don’t agree with their Latino-centric argument, but that’s another column). The fine nonprofit Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development (OCCORD) has highlighted the cancer within City Hall through studies. Mayor Tom Tait asked for the California Attorney General Kamala Harris and the U.S. Attorney General’s office to conduct an independent investigation of not only the deaths of Diaz and Acevedo, but the police department as a whole.
And there is precedent in Anaheim for people power. In 1978, Anaheim police broke up a football game in Little Peoples’ Park; when community members complained, they brutalized them. The ensuing furor led to police reforms, an Orange County Grand Jury investigation, and the creation of Los Amigos. But activists didn’t overtake City Hall then, because it was somewhat receptive to their concerns. Now, after a rambunctious City Council meeting this past Tuesday attended by hundreds, and protests outside by over 1,000 let’s hope city leaders realize that the masses are seething and reform themselves. Otherwise, we might see an Anaheim that personifies an old French curse wishing that the cursed be like a chandelier: hanging by day, and burning by night.
Gustavo Arellano is the editor and columnist at the OC Weekly as well as an NBC Latino contributor.