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Terror in Anaheim

Last weekend, news cameras zoomed in on a theater in Aurora, where many moviegoers were shot down, apparently by a gunman trying to act out a crazed fantasy. While the mass killing reignited a nationwide debate on gun control, a different, but similar, tragedy unfolded not too far away in Anaheim, California. The difference was that this time, the cops did the shooting. And while the victims of the violent outbreak were also ordinary community members, unlike the Aurora residents, they had placed themselves in the line of fire by confronting a police force that works above the law.

It started when police shot an unarmed man while chasing him down an alley. The circumstances surrounding the incident remain unclear, but we know the young man’s name:  Manuel Angel Diaz, 25, pronounced dead that night at a local hospital.

Police had profiled Diaz as a “documented gang member” and said they approached what seemed like a suspicious gathering of three men near a car. The OC Register reports:

The dead man’s sister, Lupe Diaz, said Sunday that her brother was “just hanging out with friends” before the shooting.

“There is no explanation,” Diaz said. “It’s not fair.”

Even more inexplicable is the clash that ensued afterwards. Community members gathered at the site and confronted police in protest–an action characterized by local press as “near rioting.” The scene, caught on video, shows a gathering of residents, including women and children, being threatened and shot with crowd-control bean bags and pepper spray. At one point, a dog attacks the crowd. A man shows glaring welts in his back. A mother sobs while recounting the animal racing at her and other bystanders.

The police explained the incident as just a typical day’s work, according to the OC Register:

On Saturday, as demonstrators gathered at the scene of the shooting, Anaheim officers fired bean bags and pepper spray into a crowd of protestors. Welter said Sunday the move was in response to “some known gang members” who had begun throwing bottles and rocks at officers.

Also, Welter said a K-9 police dog accidentally escaped from an officer’s vehicle and rushed into the crowd, biting demonstrators in an attack caught on video.

At least one person received medical treatment; it was unclear if anyone else was injured, the chief said Sunday.

“Officers in this situation can’t retreat,” Welter said, defending the officers’ decision to fire at the demonstrators. “If we would have abandoned the scene, we would not be doing our job.”

Now the next job for the police is to ensure that this is presented in the media as a matter of public safety and self-defense for the officers. They’ve arrested several people already, including more “documented gang members”  (another interesting application of the ”documented” designation) and one person accused of “the forceful taking of an individual from the custody of an officer.”

The community viewed the Anaheim police’s “duty” from a different angle. The sight of a dog set upon a panicked crowd evokes grim memories of the canines deployed to suppress civil rights protesters in Birmingham under Bull Connor’s reign. (The bad optics weren’t lost on the police department, either: According to the Register, they expressed regret that the dog had “escaped” and promised that “The city will be responsible for all medical bills associated with the dog.”)

The criminalization of the crowd’s resistance contrasts with the paradox captured on video: in Anaheim, as in other communities where immigrants and people of color live under a heavy law enforcement presence, the police themselves can seem like a worse public threat than the crime they’re supposed to be policing. These scenes play out on seemingly endless loop in OaklandMaricopa CountyNew York CityNew Orleans… every block in the country where kids take a mortal risk just by stepping out on the sidewalk.

In the aftermath, a girl who came forward as Diaz’s niece explained to the Register why her uncle might have run:

Daisy Gonzalez, 16, identified her uncle as the man shot by police. She and others said his name was Manuel Diaz. She said he likely ran away from officers when they approached him because of his past experience with law enforcement.

“He (doesn’t) like cops. He never liked them because all they do is harass and arrest anyone,” Gonzalez said after lighting a candle for her uncle.

She cursed at the police who were nearby and a police helicopter that hovered above, flashing a spotlight on the neighborhood.

Protesters marched from the scene of the killing to the police headquarters on Sunday. Sunday protests have become a regular ritual for the community over the past two years, in response to other fatal shootings by the Anaheim police. Doug Kauffman, a local organizer with the Campaign to Stop Police Violence, told the Register, “I think when you see a community act up like that and lose their fear of police, it’s a clear sign that they are angry over an injustice.”

The paper also quoted nineteen year-old Elizabeth Aguilar, who displayed a scar on her arm from a projectile shot by police and said, ‘”I used to look up to the police when I was a kid… But now I have no respect.”

This would not be the last Sunday of fear and frustration. Before the community even had time to calm down, there was news of another man shot and killed by the cops on Sunday. Smoldering trash bins in the street foreshadowed more resentment simmering below the surface.

While the current conversation around mass gun violence sheds much-needed light on the lethal consequences of our trigger-happy popular culture, violence committed by the state, often under the guise of protecting public safety, is a parallel threat that often goes unquestioned.  The brutal impunity that reigns in Anaheim shows that the state’s monopoly on violence is woven into the social fabric, and the cycle of coercion and destruction is greased by the engines of the criminal justice system.

When community members face police brutality merely for protesting an unjust shooting, channels for effective civic action, and for brokering peace, rapidly narrow. The clashes in Anaheim lacked the cinematic spectacle of the Aurora shooting, but they too involved innocent people caught in a senseless crossfire. Many in America may not yet see the connection between these two scenes, but it’s coming to a community near you.

To take action and demand an investigation into the brutality in Anaheim, visit Presente.org’s campaign page.

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