Anaheim on edge: Community meeting called in wake of series of violent incidents

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Disneyland and two pro sports teams call Anaheim home, but in the wake of five fatal police shootings this year, this Southern California city is not the happiest place on Earth.

“We are the Tragic Kingdom, not the Magic Kingdom right now,” says Joanne Sosa, with Take Back Anaheim.

A major uptick in violent crime has police on edge. Latino gangs have taken over neighborhoods and, increasingly, say police, the gangs are using guns to settle disputes. Homicides doubled this year from 7 to 15. As police moved in to stem the violence, some gang members fought back.

Of the five police-related fatalities this year, police say four were documented gang members armed with weapons. After two shootings in late July, violent protests followed.

“These murders against our community are a systematic attack on our people,” Southern California Immigration Coalition chief Ron Gochez told 1,000 protesters who proceeded to break windows and ignite fires in a violent demonstration late last month.

Groups joining the protest included Occupy Los Angeles and Occupy San Diego, the Brown Berets, and the Mexica Movement. Police arrested more than a dozen people, some of whom they say were looking for an excuse to break windows and did not represent community concerns.

“These are the issues -- money, safety, education,” says Sosa.

To many, Anaheim is a tale of two cities. In 1970, Anaheim was 9 percent Latino. Today the figure is 53 percent. The Flatlands are poor, Latino and unemployed. The Hills are white, older and wealthier. One rents, the other owns. For some, that picture bred resentment and feelings that the city’s success has not been equally shared.

“The city core that we are talking about is predominately Latino, predominately immigrant, many non-speaking English and a high level of unemployment,” says Rusty Kennedy, executive director of the Orange County Human Relations Commission.

Anaheim is the largest city in California that continues to use an at-large election system.

Currently, not one City Council member is a full Latino. The ACLU is challenging the city’s election system, arguing for a district system that would likely result in greater Latino representation.

“Our Latino population, our residents are saying we would like representation at City Council because we don't have someone who is speaking Spanish, we don’t have someone who is addressing our needs,” says Sosa.

For example, she says, recently the City Council said it could not afford to extend library hours in a low-income neighborhood, while giving away millions in tax breaks to developers of two high-rise hotels.

On Wednesday night, the City Council will consider two measures responding to the communities’ complaints.

The Council will consider a ballot measure that would expand the number of council members from four to six, and those positions would be elected by district, not at-large. Also, the council will consider a ballot a measure requiring a public vote on any tax subsidy to private developers.

The police shootings, while unrelated, sparked long-simmering resentments and provided a catalyst for tonight’s meeting.

“We would like to move forward, but not just a band-aid on the cancer that’s been festering for so many years,” says Sosa.

But police say Anaheim isn’t the same city it was a few years ago. Violent crime is up 10 percent this year. The police shootings are an outgrowth to that violent crime.

In four of the five shootings, police say the victims were armed, three with guns and one with a knife. In an incident July 21, police fired on 25-year-old Manuel Diaz after officers say he tried to pull something from his waistband after an apparent burglary attempt. No gun was found and his family filed a $50 million lawsuit. The following day, police shot Joel Acevedo after he allegedly fired at them during a foot chase. Acevedo was in a stolen vehicle, and earlier cops say he tried to run them over. Police say both men were documented gang members, a charge the Diaz family disputes.

Both the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI are investigating the shootings to determine if deadly force was justified.