Friday, August 3, 2012

Strife in 'the Happiest Place on Earth': violence in the shadow of Disneyland

Anaheim, the US home of Disneyland, has been torn by violence provoked by racial tension and police shootings. Nick Allen reports.

A line of police block a road in Anaheim leading to Disneyland during a demonstration

Visitors to the theme park, built on 160 acres of orange groves in the 1950s, see nothing of the violence on its doorstep

In the shadow of Disneyland, the self declared "Happiest Place on Earth," the people are far from happy. Little over a mile from the gates of the magical kingdom violent unrest has erupted, with protesters throwing chairs through the windows of Starbucks, looting mini-markets, and hurling rocks at police in riot gear.

On one recent summer evening, as the theme park's usual fireworks extravaganza exploded overhead, police shot bean bags and pellets at an angry, hundreds strong mob attacking a nearby City Hall with bricks.

Last Sunday 200 demonstrators marched towards Disneyland itself chanting "Whose streets? Our streets" before being stopped half a mile away by heavily armed officers blockading roads.

Jose Hernandez, 27, a local community organiser, said: "This is not quite 'The Happiest Place on Earth,' and now the world knows it. If you live right around the corner from 'The Happiest Place on Earth' you realise it's a whole different ball game."

Disneyland sits in Anaheim, a city of 336,000 people in California's Orange County.

But the area has changed markedly since Walt Disney purchased 160 acres of orange groves in the 1950s to build his elaborate dreamland.

Anaheim is now a simmering cauldron of racial tension. Having been 90 per cent white in 1970 the population is now 53 percent Hispanic, and many of them feel like second class citizens, disenfranchised by a local voting system that has seen only three Hispanic people ever voted on to the city council.

Disneyland itself has been caught in the crossfire, with its wealth and allure becoming a focus of discontent for those who live on gang-ridden streets nearby.

The tipping point which led to violence occurred on July 21 when Manuel Diaz, 25, was shot dead by police. Officers said Diaz, who had a criminal record, failed to stop and reached for his waistband before being shot dead in an alley three miles from Disneyland.

His family say he was shot in the back of the leg, and the back of the head, and are suing for $50 million in damages.

The following night police shot dead Joel Acevedo, a suspected gang member they say fired at them. It was the fifth fatal police shooting in Anaheim this year. The FBI is considering an investigation of the local police force.

Nine days of protests followed and on one occasion a crowd of 600 stormed through downtown Anaheim, smashing windows at 20 businesses and setting fires as police with shotguns guarded shops. Around 300 police, including sharpshooters, were called in, two dozen people were arrested and six injured.

At an emotional news conference Manuel Diaz's mother called for a halt to violence. Genevieve Huizar wept as she said: "I watched as my son took his last breath. Please, please, please stop the violence. It's not going to bring my son back."

Visitors to Disneyland are brought straight there on a freeway and see nothing of the trouble on its doorstep. There is not expected to be any impact on tourism.

Gene Jeffers, executive director of the Themed Entertainment Association which represents theme parks, said: "There's a pretty big buffer zone around the park."

But outside the gates frustration continues to boil. One protester outside a Disneyland entrance said: "I thought the tourists coming here should hear about what's going on in Anaheim," The American Civil Liberties Union is suing Anaheim over what it claims is the political disenfranchisement of Hispanics.

Jose Moreno, president of Los Amigos of Orange County, a Hispanic community group, said: "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."

No comments:

Post a Comment