The gap between rich and poor remains a central theme in Anaheim politics.

And a key driver of community organizing efforts around town. 

A set of written FBI corruption affidavits seemed to put that gap into new focus this year, alleging a shadowy city influence network where Mayor Harry Sidhu solicited campaign bribes, something he denies, and city leaders met at exclusive retreats with powerful resort interests — all while residents died of COVID-19, struggled to buy food, and shouldered rent increases at mobile homes parks. 

To read the affidavit, click here.

The ensuing scandal fueled a new wave of outrage among the most outspoken locals, turning City Council meetings into something like regular open mic nights.

Yet some around town openly wonder whether the controversy will trigger community turnouts comparable to the 2012 Latino police shooting protests and town halls, or the redistricting fight of the mid-2010s it later spurred.

So what will it take to wake Anaheim’s sleeping giant this time around? 

‘I’m Watching You’

Consider the city’s neighbor across the 5 and 57 freeways, Santa Ana.

It’s home to a breadth of community groups and organizers who will often unite as a singular coalition at public meetings on issues like rent control – and where their presence is affecting enough to help steer policy decisions. 

That’s not to say it doesn’t happen in Anaheim. 

Arab American business owners and residents won last month with a partial city recognition of Little Arabia, along Brookhurst Street in the west end of town, due largely to the community’s overwhelming turnout at the council’s Aug. 23 meeting, and past ones like it.

Still, “It’s hard to not feel discouraged,” said Penelope Lopez, an Anaheim resident and organizer for the Latino activist group called Chispa. 

She’s one of several young Latino activists who have spoken out at recent council meetings and now look to strengthen their organizing networks in town. 

Lopez notes the stark ideological differences between Santa Ana and Anaheim. 

After decades of city leadership under the same former mayor, Miguel Pulido, Santa Ana’s local 2020 election saw a more progressive faction take power on the City Council – one more receptive to activists’ demands. 

Where advocacy in Santa Ana can feel rewarding, Anaheim is “humbling,” Lopez said.

For instance, a majority of city council members last month rejected calls for a Disneyland gate tax to shore up a structural budget deficit, despite alarming statistics presented at that meeting on the number of housing-insecure Anaheim kids living on food stamps.

And Little Arabia’s milestone recognition is still an incremental win, says Mirvette Judeh, a Palestinian American realtor who lives in Buena Park but would make the case for Anaheim as a truer home over her cultural ties. 

“Somebody was telling me, after that night, ‘Oh, you guys won! You guys won!’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, at one step,’” Judeh said in a Tuesday phone interview.  

The council majority’s decision only recognizes a portion of what locals argue to be the entirety of Little Arabia’s cultural jurisdiction. Meanwhile, an upcoming city study requested by the area’s council member, Gloria Ma’ae, has murmurs of gentrification sweeping through the area’s strip malls.

“We can unwin that step next year. You understand? We won. We made history. Perfect, great.  But we gotta keep going,” Judeh said. “History isn’t made by just stopping. You gotta keep moving forward. You gotta keep holding them accountable. You gotta keep the narrative up to date. You got to keep people engaged. Right? You gotta let the people that are making the decisions know that you’re still there. ‘I’m watching you.’”

And despite the FBI’s public naming of ousted city government and business leaders, most efforts at reforming City Hall – like campaign contribution restrictions – have sputtered repeatedly in the face of what’s still a resort-friendly council majority. 

But where there are neglected neighborhoods and underserved housing tracts in Anaheim, some assure there are plenty of residents brimming with frustration – an activist fervor waiting to be activated.

Just ask the school parents living in Anaheim’s Edison neighborhood. 

‘It Depends on What You Call Organizing’

The July killing of a 17-year-old varsity football player named Juan Carlos Reynaga, walking home from work on a dimly lit street at night, seemed to push the neighborhood’s years-long frustrations about the area’s lackluster community investments over the edge.

As residents marched past their homes with flashlights and signs last month, they asked how a neighborhood just four miles off the resort district’s main drag could struggle to provide services for at-risk youth and families. 

Loreta Ruiz is the director of strategic operations for the COVID 19 response program at Latino Health Access, which is based in Santa Ana. 

She hardly considers herself an organizer, she said in a Tuesday phone interview, but when she was asked to review Edison parents’ draft flyers bringing awareness to the area’s issues this year, she got an up-close look at what makes one. 

“It depends on what you call organizing,” Ruiz said. “Let’s say you have your child at a certain school and your neighbors have children there also, and you might form a group while, at the same time, not noticing that you are starting to organize in some way, right there. People just start making groups — either exercise-oriented or socially-oriented – and this is when the seeds start germinating,” Ruiz said.

You might share the same concerns and many of the same values – you might share in the suffering from the same day-to-day inequities  – and around these issues, existing networks in the community might grow stronger, Ruiz said.

“Then a group like Latino Health Access comes along,” Ruiz said, though not to give these existing networks a structure – “we believe the community is the expert in its needs.” 

Rather, Ruiz said these existing community networks just need a little push – a sense of empowerment from an organization that’s qualified to help them strategize their next moves. “What is it that we want? Who do we have to contact?”

For Karen Romero Estrada, the main barrier to organizing lies in the city’s urban layout.

Roads that favor cars can, for those without one, become walls of isolation.

To walk to the nearest community center, for instance, you’ll first have to go through wide streets, unshaded sidewalks, maybe a few large parking lots, and even fewer green parks.

And that, in turn, might explain why few even bother in the first place: 

“Even around my dad’s apartment, the neighborhood, people just don’t walk,” said Romero Estrada, a West Anaheim resident and policy aide to City Councilmember Jose Moreno. “Our infrastructure is so spaced out. It’s not inviting us to congregate.”

Local political experts are looking to the upcoming November election for a referendum by voters: Will they oust people seen as affiliated with the scandal, or vote in favor of maintaining that kind of a one-sided, big business bond? 

This November, three council members’ seats are up for grabs, along with the mayor’s. 

For more information on who’s backing them, click here.

But Judeh warns against leaving your political faith just in November. She was an advocate for district elections in Anaheim in the 2010s while volunteering for Orange County Communities for Responsible Development (OCCORD), an organizing group based there.

Judeh recalled an immense sense of victory that came with the city’s eventual switch in 2016. Then Disney spent a record amount of money on the following election cycle in 2018, which saw the election of a resort-friendly council majority with Harry Sidhu as mayor. 

“It seemed like a lot of that work kind of got undone,” Judeh said, adding that, in the early days of the new city administration, she stepped away from advocacy around Anaheim for some time. 

But it goes without saying she came back. When calls for the Little Arabia designation kicked up new momentum in 2021 – and even more so in wake of the FBI probe –  “I got reengaged again.”

Policy vs. Tomorrow

For some, policy issues take a backseat to more urgent and immediate needs: Basic necessities. 

“A five year plan is not going to help me with the groceries next week,” said William Camargo, a photo-based artist and college lecturer who does another type of community activism around town: 

Direct assistance. 

That approach does have a long history in Anaheim with the community group Los Amigos, once chaired by the late longtime activist Amin David, and now by Councilman Jose Moreno.

The group, which often uses the moniker “we like to help,” and used to meet weekly at the now-shuttered Jaegerhaus German restaurant, for years has specialized in connecting those in need with ready local activists, eager to help.

There’s also Madres En Acción (Mothers in Action) in the Ponderosa neighborhood. 

But Camargo and other volunteers don’t exactly work within in a formal group or nonprofit – it’s more of a network of people who happened to pool funds together to help out on things like late bills and rental assistance. 

It really took off at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Camargo said.

Rather than waiting for top-down help from philanthropists or the government, “we began collaborating with a lot of señoras from Ponderosa, doing grocery popups and food distributions,” Camargo said.

“We do a neighborhood flea market every 3 months in the Ponderosa neighborhood to raise funds for rent, light bills, etc.”

It wasn’t charity as much as community self-sustenance. 

“We’re just folks from Anaheim,” said Camargo, who added that a more robust civic engagement in Anaheim starts with mutual aid. 

“Try to get people clothed, fed and housed,” he said. “And then, hopefully, they can work toward the policies they do want and can help advocate for.”

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