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Anaheim's changes not enough for Latino community

A year after fatal police shootings prompted unrest in Anaheim, some residents express frustration over response to their concerns.

July 28, 2013|By Paloma Esquivel
  • Anaheim resident Jesse Murillo, left, was among about 50 people protesting Anaheim's council election plan July 23. The council approved a requirement that members live in specific districts but did not change at-large voting.
Anaheim resident Jesse Murillo, left, was among about 50 people protesting… (Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles…)

It began with violence: Anaheim police firing beanbags and a police dog breaking loose and lunging into a crowd of men, women and children, some of whom had confronted the officers over their fatal shooting of a Latino man.

When another fatal police shooting of a Latino followed, and the anger finally spilled over, people smashed windows, and police in riot gear rushed the street, even as the fireworks from Disneyland on the other side of town erupted in the night sky.

The unrest, and the street protests in the ensuing days, exposed long-simmering tensions in this resort city, not just over the police but because of a deeply rooted sense that those who live in Anaheim's densely packed core were being marginalized and excluded by the town's leadership.

Now, a year later, many of the issues that drove last summer's fury have again bubbled to the surface. The results of the shooting investigations have come in, and city officials — in response to calls for greater representation for Latinos — have altered the way voters select their leaders.

But to many who live in the so-called "flatlands" of Orange County's largest city, the investigations and decisions fall far short of what they've fought for. In some cases, they've only served to underscore frustration.

"They're not interested in working for our community," said Yesenia Rojas, an organizer who lives on the street where the unrest began. "We've gone, we've spoken with the City Council, and the reality is they have not responded."

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The midsummer rallies and protests were seen by some as evidence that Anaheim's Latino community was finally flexing its political muscle.

Once staid City Council meetings were packed with local activists calling for election reform, citizens' oversight of police, and increased spending in poor and working-class neighborhoods. People booed and applauded raucously and called council members out by name.

"They can be very aggressive," said Councilwoman Lucille Kring. "They'll be clapping and whistling and applauding, and they're giving us the finger ... I cannot believe there's no respect."

Juan Alvarez, a middle school teacher who began attending council meetings after the summer protests, saw it differently.

"These people who have been running the city politics are relying on the fact that citizens are ignorant about what's going on," Alvarez said. But, he added, "we're figuring out how broken the system is."

Latinos now make up about 53% of the 340,000 people who live in Anaheim, but there are no Latinos on the City Council. A census analysis by The Times showed the town is deeply segregated along ethnic and economic lines.

One major demand spurred by the unrest was a call to change the city's at-large voting system to elections by district. The issue is also the subject of an ACLU lawsuit.

But the push for change seemed to stall when the council put off a decision on council districts, appointed a committee and then put aside the committee's recommendation that the matter be put to a citywide vote.

Instead, the council approved a requirement that council members live in specific districts but otherwise left at-large voting intact. Local activists saw the change as little more than a slight variation of the status quo. Again, some said they felt tuned out.

Councilwoman Gail Eastman said she believes the council district model pushed by Latino activists would actually leave residents with fewer representatives to respond to their calls.

She said meetings have become a sort of "endurance thing."

"I have to sit there, because I can't respond. I can't explain anything, I can't clarify anything. All people do is come and yell and try and beat us into submission."

Eastman and others say the city has increased spending on struggling neighborhoods. They point to such projects as a new neighborhood center, a community center, increased library hours and a half-acre park near the site of one of the police shootings. Others say the spending pales in comparison with money spent on the city's glittering resort district — a grand train station, a proposed streetcar project and a $158-million tax incentive given to the developer of two luxury hotels.

In his State of the City address earlier this year, Mayor Tom Tait described a sense that two Anaheims now exist. Some called his language divisive. On key issues Tait, a Republican, often finds himself advocating for the positions of local activists and at odds with the rest of the council. He said that city leaders have been reluctant to embrace change and that people can feel it.

Those advocating for change have seen "some differences from the community," he said. "On the bigger political issues, they're still waiting."

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Balloons, flowers and a bottle of sweet red wine still stand as part of a memorial on Anna Drive marking the spot where Manuel Diaz, 25, was killed last summer.

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