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Deadly shootings reveal divisions of Anaheim

Posted: July 27, 2012 7:00 a.m.
Updated: July 26, 2012 10:01 p.m.
 

ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — As police around City Hall tried to quell rock-hurling protesters angry over two deadly police shootings, the night sky exploded with splendid bursts of green and orange from Disneyland fireworks a few miles away. Pyrotechnic booms trailed popping sounds as officers in riot gear fired pepper balls and bean bags at protesters.

The contrasting scenes were reflective of the two Anaheims that were on display this week. One is a magical tourist destination, and the other is a place where shifting demographics have left a large segment of the population feeling like second-class citizens.

"This is not quite 'The Happiest Place on Earth,' and now the world knows it," said Joese Hernandez, referencing Disneyland's motto. "It's great if you live in the hills, but if you live right around the corner from 'The Happiest Place on Earth' you realize it's a whole different ball game."

The 27-year-old community organizer, who grew up in Anaheim, made the statement to the City Council as raucous protests raged outside Tuesday night.

Two fatal police shootings last weekend — one of an unarmed man police say was a known gang member— roiled the city and exposed its divisions. Demonstrators took to the streets four nights in a row.

Tuesday's was the largest and most violent protest, with some of the nearly 600 demonstrators hurling rocks and bottles at police, who made two dozen arrests. About 20 businesses were damaged.

The city has asked federal authorities to investigate the shootings.

Both victims were Hispanic, as were most of the demonstrators. The city, about 90 percent white in 1970, now has a population that is 53 percent Hispanic.

Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the city, alleging that Anaheim's at-large elections have weakened Latinos' voting power. The suit claims only three councilmembers in the city's history have been Hispanic. Most of the City Council currently hails from the city's upscale neighborhoods to the east.

"So much attention has been paid to building up the resort district and somehow those resources would trickle down to the rest of the city and we're just not seeing it," said Jose Moreno, president of Los Amigos of Orange County and a plaintiff in the lawsuit. "A lot of us are saying enough is enough and this police shooting is really just emblematic of something more systemic in the politics of the city."

While it's known worldwide as the home of Disneyland, the reality is Anaheim is much more than a theme park. It's a big city — the population is 336,000, about the same as Tampa, Fla., and Honolulu — and it has big-city problems. There is great wealth for some, but a large segment of the population lives in or at the edge of poverty.

Those differences can be seen in the tony, hilltop homes in the east to the rundown areas like Anna Street, where some residents shrug off the presence of gangs so long as they're left alone. It's a far cry from the place filled with orange groves that Walt Disney chose for his theme park in the 1950s because it had so much open space.

Since then, the city has been a magnet for tourists flocking to see Mickey Mouse or attend an event at the massive convention center touted as the largest on the West Coast. There is professional baseball with the Angels and pro hockey with the Ducks, whose original name Mighty Ducks name came from — what else? — a Disney film.

More than 17 million people visited Anaheim last year and spent nearly $4.6 billion. Few ever see much of the city, however. Visitors to the neatly manicured theme park or Angel Stadium can reach their destinations by zipping off the freeway and into a parking lot without passing through the city's residential neighborhoods.

Tourism officials have been in close contact with the city since the unrest. On Wednesday, the Anaheim/Orange County Visitor & Convention Bureau was quick to reassure visitors the city is safe and pointed out the recent police incidents didn't take place in the area where Disneyland and the convention center are located.

Gene Jeffers, executive director of the Themed Entertainment Association, said some area residents might put off visiting the resort in the next few days but he doesn't see any real effect on tourism — especially not on those who hail from out of town.

"There's a pretty big buffer zone around the park," said Jeffers, whose organization represents theme park designers and developers.

Mayor Tom Tait warned the city would take swift action to stop any additional violence. He also noted the violence occurred far from tourist hubs.

Local activists have complained that officials spend too much time worrying about image for tourists and on big-time developers, but not enough on housing and services for its people.

Critics have blasted city officials for extending a tax break to a Disneyland-area hotel developer and want to change elections in Anaheim to make officials more accountable to local districts.

They have also demanded an independent investigation into recent police shootings — which officials had agreed to seek even before the weekend's events pushed the total number of fatal police shootings to five this year.

On Saturday, a police officer fatally shot Manuel Diaz outside an Anna Street apartment complex. Officers say Diaz, who had a criminal record, failed to heed orders and threw something as he fled police. The city's police union said Diaz reached for his waistband, which led the officer to believe he was drawing a gun.

Diaz's family, which is suing for $50 million in damages, says he was shot in the leg and the back of the head. During a protest the night of the shooting, a police dog escaped and bit a bystander.

On Sunday night, police shot to death Joel Acevedo, a suspected gang member they say fired at officers after a pursuit.

Veronica Rodarte, a 25-year-old social services program coordinator, said she is well aware of the problems with gang violence and police in the city where she's lived her entire life. But she doesn't like how residents' outrage, even if justified, has turned violent.

"We are very upset with the portrayals our city is getting and the violence that is erupting in our city," she said. "Throwing rocks and rioting and setting trash bins on fire is not going to help us move forward."

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