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At a small apartment yard sale recently on Guinida Lane, a working-class Latino neighborhood in Anaheim, Antonia Bustos talked about the troubles her children have faced. Two of her sons were in jail and another was killed by a gang member after being released from jail, she said.
Bustos, who moved to Moreno Valley six months ago but remains active in her old neighborhood, said she would do the hard groundwork — door-to-door visits and phone calls — if activists would organize a movement to challenge the Anaheim Police Department, which she said treats everyone on Guinida Lane like criminals.
But as Gloria Aguayo, another Guinida Lane resident, said: “Nobody comes here, because they’re scared.”
It was a year ago that back-to-back police shootings led youths from Guinida Lane and other neighborhoods in Anaheim’s flatlands to the streets for protests that turned into a riot outside City Hall.
The unrest had the effect of peeling the veneer off the city’s Disney-dominated image, revealing a sharply divided populace and an angry Latino community fed up with being mistreated by police and disenfranchised by city leaders.
For a time it seemed that the riot’s aftermath would bring a more honest conversation and a platform from which activists could demand change in a system seen as a failure to their community. It was a conversation that Mayor Tom Tait began with a State of the City speech that described the current reality as a “tale of two Anaheims.”
“It is important for our reputation that there not be two Anaheims,” said Tait. “But even more important, on a human level it’s just not right.”
But Tait’s sentiments have yet to be translated from the speakers podium to the council chamber, much less to the neighborhoods. One after another — whether by giveaways to hotel developers, defeat of a proposal to change the city’s electoral system or efforts for more police oversight — Anaheim’s City Council, from the perspective of a majority of its residents, went back to business as usual.
The City Council has repeatedly shot down district-specific elections, which activists say will give Latinos adequate representation on the currently all-white council in this majority Latino city. A proposal for civilian oversight of police has so far gone nowhere. A highly controversial $158-million tax subsidy for a politically connected hotelier was approved almost unanimously. And a promise from Councilman Jordan Brandman to push for an ordinance requiring living wages in the city has yet to be kept.
A Controversial Strategy
The city’s activist community, lead by progressives, labor leaders and longtime Latino activists, say they have done the hard work of street-level organizing and public policy pressure that should produce positive results in a working democracy facing such public challenges.
And they point to some successes in uniting residents on the key issues of council districts and opposition of hotel subsidies. But the results have been slow in coming.
Consider that it took 18 months of persistent activism in the Ponderosa neighborhood just to force the city to keep its promise to open a library, said Eric Altman, executive director of Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development or OCCORD.
“That shouldn’t have to happen. That’s just not how representative government is supposed to work,” Altman said.
Altman and others argued that overcoming the city’s mostly white, pro-resort power structure takes much more than aggressive activism, and they have stepped back in some respects from direct confrontation.
In recent weeks, OCCORD and other groups made a significant change in strategy by boycotting an Anaheim City Council meeting rather than attending to protest the council majority’ striking down a proposal to create a district-based electoral system.
“Is it better to talk to a council that never listens? Or is it better to talk to one’s neighbors, friends and family, all those people who can make a difference?” Altman said. “I think everybody ought to respect that choice. Ultimately there isn’t going to be any change in Anaheim without even larger numbers of folks coming out and demanding it.”
This viewpoint, however, is not without its critics.
Among them is Carlos Muñoz Jr., a professor of Chicano and Latin Studies at UC Berkley and a founder of the Chicano movement, who spent time in jail after leading a walkout of thousands of Los Angeles students in 1968.
“I don’t think not showing up is an effective tactic,” Muñoz wrote in an email to Voice of OC. “I think it’s important to hold the power structure accountable, if they listen or not.”
Nick Berardino, general manager of the Orange County Employees Association, which provides funding for OCCORD, said the meeting boycott was a “fundamental error,” because “if you want your voice to be heard, you have to be really vigilant in terms of keeping the issue in front of policy makers.”
Others call the strategy brilliant. Gustavo Arellano, editor of OC Weekly and author of a book that chronicles his upbringing in Anaheim, said it clearly identifies the activists with the issue.
“It’s the good old Saul Alinksy school of rules for radicals,” Arellano said. “Even though they’re not there, the activists are still the center of attention.”
Some Help, But Not Enough
Meanwhile, residents of some of the city’s most disaffected neighborhoods said they have not seen enough of an activist presence.
Altman said he was surprised to hear reports from residents of Guinida Lane regarding the lack of community organizers. “We’ve definitely worked with a lot of folks on Guinida. We’ve definitely talked with a lot of folks in that neighborhood.”
Yet a similar story was told on Anna Drive, the neighborhood where the shooting of 25-year-old Manuel Diaz helped spark the civic unrest.
Yesenia Rojas, regarded as a key community leader on Anna Drive, said her neighbors experienced an awakening after the shooting. They wanted to know how to protect themselves from police officers but also how to change their government so the shooting wouldn’t happen again, she said.
And for a while there was some help.
When Rojas wanted to organize an event, the grassroots Latino group Los Amigos of Orange County chipped in some money. Leaders with the Orange County Labor Federation visited Rojas’ neighborhood, helped her with flyers and advised her on organizing her community into a political force, she said.
But after the November election, the labor federation stopped coming around, Rojas said.
That experience, among others, left Rojas jaded about outside groups. OCCORD started communicating with her only about two months ago, Rojas said, and the demand she made was that OCCORD stay with her for the long haul.
Rojas said she is happy about a July 13 meeting, dubbed the Anaheim Leadership Convention — convened by unions, Los Amigos, OCCORD, Orange County Congregation Community Organization (OCCCO) and Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE-OC) — to educate residents about issues like district elections, as something that should have happened long ago.
And Rojas said that the door-to-door work so important to community organizing has been done only by her and a handful of neighborhood children. She said that other activists and the labor community should join her in that effort.
“They got to go neighbor by neighbor, street to street, the same thing they do for elections …” Rojas said. “It’s a lot of work, but at the end of the day, it works.”
A Missed Opportunity?
Arellano, however, thought the issue might not be the efforts of the activists but the activists themselves. He said OCCORD is too narrowly focused on union interests and ignores business owners large and small, like the Latino but not union-friendly supermarket chain Northgate Gonzalez.
“It’s a compromised activist community,” said Arellano, who’s father works for Northgate. “They won’t take donations from Northgate, the ultimate Latino business in Anaheim. … It obviously shows your particular agenda, and that’s OK, but be up-front with them.”
Arellano also said that the main focus now on elections by district as a civil rights struggle doesn’t resonate with many Democratic Latino moderates living a middle-class life. OCCORD and others are missing a massive organizing opportunity, he said.
Arellano pointed to a residents group that formed after the riot — We Are Anaheim, Somos Anaheim — that helps children in poor neighborhoods. It’s an example of the civic-minded Latino residents who don’t like OCCORD’s agenda.
“By ignoring them, that’s where they dilute the vote,” Arellano said. “That is a true sleeping giant.”
Altman acknowledged that OCCORD would refuse donations from Northgate Gonzalez because they are nonunion. But he said that’s an across-the-board policy toward all corporations in Anaheim that “already have so much sway.”
And Altman dismissed Arellano’s contention that OCCORD’s focus is too narrow, saying that the organization’s initiatives are for working families.
“I don’t know what he’s talking about,” Altman said. “I don’t think it’s narrowly focused at all.”
A Broken Democracy?
There is a sense that the problems facing Anaheim’s Latinos go beyond activism. For Anaheim Latinos there is little civic infrastructure or civic outlets for residents to approach their government.
Los Amigos of Orange County holds weekly breakfast meetings and often brings in local politicians as guests, but the older, white, business establishment in Anaheim has various neighborhood councils and associations, a historical society, the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary Club and others. Latino residents simply can’t compete.
But building a civil society takes money. Orange County and groups like OCCORD that engage in political “advocacy, ” aren’t palatable to mainstream funders, according to Anne Olin, chief executive officer of The Olin Group.
“Orange County has a horrible brand,” Olin said, “It is very hard to attract dollars into Orange County because of that assumption that we don’t have poor, … just pockets of it. … We have a lot of wealth here.”
Others argued that the Latino civil society will come after district elections are in place. Once the community feels it was representation in its government, Latinos will rally behind candidates and form the kind of grassroots groundswell that leads to civic institutions.
That’s at least part of the reasons for activists backing an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit alleging that Anaheim’s at large elections violate the California Voting Rights Act, according to Tefere Gebre, executive director of the Orange County Labor Federation. He argued that Anaheim’s democracy is broken and that thousands of activists picketing for district elections wouldn’t have changed the council’s vote.
“Only in democracy do people fear anything,” Gebre said. [Council members] only fear [Anaheim Chamber of Commerce President] Todd Ament, the chamber, and the Disney people.”
With district elections, Gebre says, people will have enough confidence in the rules of their civil system to come together and participate in building a society. The backers of the lawsuit are confident it will be successful, and Tait has all but said that they are right.
“You have to give them confidence about the political system for them to think it’s going to fix their lives,” Gebre said. “Justice is going to prevail, I will guarantee you that.”
Berardino also has hope. He said he has observed signs that the movement he described as immature last year is now gaining momentum. He cited as evidence a recent community forum and the leadership event attended by Rojas and more than 100 residents.
“This group is getting organized, they’re picking up steam, and if they stay on the trajectory they’re on, they’re going to be a force to be reckoned with,” Berardino said. “But you have to keep in mind, this is a grassroots group of people that effectively are fighting a multibillion-dollar international Disney corporation that wants to be sure that this group doesn’t pick up steam.”
Clarification: A previous version of this story stated that OCCORD adopted a strategy of boycotting multiple City Council meetings. Rather, the group only boycotted one meeting.