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  • Writer's pictureGabriel San Roman

Slingshot: Genevieve Huizar, Mother Turned Anti-Police Brutality Activist, Dies

Genevieve Huizar invited me into her Santa Ana home one day in the aftermath of the Anaheim Riots, a days-long conflagration that erupted in 2012 when a policeman killed her son. Before long, she pointed towards an urn by the television. "That's my son, right there," Huizar told me. I gazed at the cylindrical vase that read "Manuel A. Diaz" from my sofa seat in her living room, stunned in silence.

Within the urn laid the ashes of Huizar's only son, a life taken from her by Anaheim police six months prior on July 21, 2012. The fatal shooting followed by the police killing of Joel Acevedo the very next night touched off the largest police protests in Orange County's recent history and transformed Huizar's last remaining years into a long journey for justice.

When I learned that Anaheim lost a movement mother with Huizar's recent passing from Covid-19, I felt similarly unable to express myself. Earlier this month, she checked into a Fort Mohave, Arizona hospital before succumbing to the disease yesterday afternoon at the age of 64.

"My mother's passing was the hardest day of my life," says Lupe Diaz, her daughter. "But she's in heaven with the Lord and my brother now."

I first met Huizar nearly a decade ago outside of the Anaheim Police Department on Harbor Boulevard, the site of many anti-police brutality protests during the city's infamously long, hot summer of 2012. She found herself thrust to the forefront of those demonstrations, including many in the neighborhood where the shooting took place.

Back on that fateful day, Diaz leaned into a car stopped in an Anna Drive alleyway when Anaheim police officer Nick Bennallack pulled up in a patrol vehicle. He exited and chased after Diaz through an apartment complex. The officer gunned him down with a fatal shot towards the back of the head as the pursuit neared the black iron gates of a courtyard.

After the shooting, Bennallack frantically searched for a gun; Diaz, 25, was unarmed.

Residents gathered demanding answers in what turned into an impromptu, and increasingly angry protest. More officers arrived on-scene as backup. Anaheim police claimed people in the crowd threw bottles at them. Cops responded by firing less-lethal projectiles striking several residents. A police dog ran free through the chaos of men, women and children attempting to flee and bit a young man in the arm who was protecting a stroller. The footage aired on local news channel KCAL 9 that night, but soon circulated worldwide as a shocking glimpse into the gritty reality of a city known for amusement, not social unrest.

Video images of a motionless Diaz handcuffed face-down on the grass and the melee that ensued ignited days of rage in Anaheim that culminated with a downtown riot on July 24.

Huizar's activism continued on for years after that, always in the name of justice for her son.

Organizing with other grieving families, she helped form the United Survivors of Anaheim. Together, they marched in the city's various barrios where police shootings had claimed loved ones in past years. Their presence began to pierce through the hard feelings and rivalries that pitted neighborhood youth against each other, if only for a brief moment.

"Genevieve always kept me strong, even when I didn't want to fight anymore," says Donna Acevedo-Nelson, Joel's mother. "She was my hero."

The names of the groups she belonged to changed over time--from United Survivors of Anaheim to Young Survivors and, finally, Our Realities Fighting Police Brutality--but Huizar's fight remained much the same as more and more families joined it.

"She was just a real warrior," says Carmelo Castañeda, a close friend who helped establish the Young Survivors and Our Realities nonprofits. "Not only was she fighting for her son, but for other families and the kids left behind without a father or a mother due to police brutality."

It wasn't all about protests, either. The nonprofit helped take such children on monthly outings, including to Angel games.

But as Huizar organized in the community, she awaited future legal battles in the courtroom. I sat inside the Orange County district attorney's office when former DA Tony Rackauckas held a press conference in March 2013 announcing the conclusion of his agency's criminal probe into the police shooting of Diaz. Like all other similar cases before it during his tenure, Rackauckas said the shooting was justified.

Anaheim police and their "tone setters" in the community panicked about the possibility of another riot. Activists telegraphed a march from Anaheim city council to the police department knowing that authorities would be watching their livestream. Huizar and her legion of loyal activists shouted down the council meeting before taking to the streets in front of city hall, instead.

They shared a laugh together as an Anaheim police helicopter hovered over Harbor Boulevard in anticipation of an arrival of protesters that never came.

But with the OCDA's decision, the fight for justice pivoted to her civil lawsuit. Huizar remained adamant about wanting a trial instead of an out-of-court settlement. A jury struck an initial verdict against her in 2014 and sided with Bennallack. The federal judge improperly allowed Anaheim's attorneys to introduce inflammatory evidence about Diaz's gang affiliation when considering the question of liability.

"We were all devastated," says Castañeda, who first met Huizar as an investigator assigned to her case. "But she didn't give up no matter what."

After the trial, Huizar walked into a barbershop across the street from the federal courthouse in Santa Ana and shaved her head in protest.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals eventually threw out the verdict and ordered another trial where such evidence wouldn't be allowed during its liability phase. In 2017, an OC jury found Bennallack liable for excessive force and awarded $200,000 in damages. Before leaving Anaheim PD, Bennallack became a SWAT officer and fatally shot two other men after Diaz.

Huizar left Santa Ana and moved to Fort Mohave after the trial, searching for some semblance of peace in a change of scenery but always continued to lend herself to ongoing anti-police brutality struggles back home. Her last activist effort before passing came in joining a coalition calling for a United Nations inquiry into police violence in America.

A devoutly Christian woman, Huizar always spoke with a stirring, charismatic evangelism, even as heartbreak tinged her voice. Her most memorable oration took place during a special council meeting called by former Anaheim mayor Tom Tait at Anaheim High School’s Cook Auditorium in August 2012. Much of the surrounding businesses boarded up their windows rather than take chances with the possibility of another riot.

The summer heat that day proved unbearable but inside the more comfortable quarters of the historic auditorium, Huizar’s voice rose with a truth-telling timber.

“It’s time to make a change in Anaheim,” she pleaded to the mayor and all in attendance. “It’s time to make a difference in the neighborhoods of Anaheim. Give the children a chance to grow in a healthy environment. Give them a place to go in the summers of their young lives.”

Huizar wanted protests to continue in her slain son’s memory, but knew that justice must be broader in order for his death to bring a deeper meaning of the word to Anaheim.

“Most of all, I want the young children to have hope,” she said. “I want them to have peace. I want us all to have justice. If my son died to make a change, to help the children of the future, so be it.”

The work of bringing about a better Anaheim is now in Genevieve's memory, as well.

- Gabriel San Román

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#titoskickback / YouTube screenshot

Councilbro Chronicles

Editor's note: The Slingshot is happy to welcome "Councilbro Chronicles" as a new feature! Its focus is on one Mayor Bro Tem in Huntington Beach named Tito Ortiz and all his bumbling misdeeds. The contributor remains anonymous. Take it away, whoever you are!

Mayor Bro Tem Tito Ortiz campaigned on the promise to “Make HB Safe Again,” but, uh, can anyone remind me when it was? Huntington Beach is famous for its beautiful beaches, iconic pier, surf culture...and riots. In fact, if you put “Huntington Beach riot” into an internet search, you’ll find a decades-long history of alcohol-fueled debauchery and violence, including infamous incidents in 1986, 1993, and 2013.

Adrian’s Kickback, the viral TikTok party that trashed downtown HB last weekend, was pretty tame by comparison. Huntington Beach police arrested 149 people over the weekend; they cuffed more than 500 in one day alone on July 4, 1996. TikTok teens set off a few fireworks, but had nowhere close to the 45,000 fireworks confiscated on Independence Day 2003. A few pictures and videos surfaced of college-aged kids standing on top of lifeguard towers and police cars--a far cry from burning them, as people did in the ‘86 riot.

That’s not to say the #adrianskickback wasn’t destructive: people vandalized shops and looted the destroyed booths of local artists who sell their work in Pier Plaza. This damage will have a greater impact on businesses that have suffered from decreased revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many HB residents are looking for leadership right now, and four of our seven city council members immediately stepped up to the plate. They shared the Huntington Beach Police Department report, organized beach clean-ups, thanked city staff and police for their extra labor, and encouraged constituents to patronize downtown businesses.

Mayor Kim Carr has proposed establishing a $20,000 recovery fund program for the businesses impacted by the kickback and the City Council will vote on it at their June 1 meeting.

Ortiz? In the last several days, he’s shared sponsored content from various brands and events, his usual conspiracy theory junk, the controversial “Thin Blue Line” flag, photos of cops in riot gear at the Kickback, and a bizarre video of him standing in line at a mini-donut stand at Surf City Nights. On Monday, he deleted all of the posts from his “official” city council Instagram account, possibly in violation of the city’s new rule about preserving social media comments for the public record.

Councilmembers Erik Peterson and Mike Posey haven’t released any sweeping statements on social media either, but neither of them appear to have logged in for several days. Ortiz is the most actively online councilmember. By now, he should’ve explicitly condemned the rioting in downtown, promoted local businesses hurt by it, or assisted in recovery efforts.

Something! Anything!

Perhaps Ortiz is so busy focusing on his side hustles that he’s neglected his duties as a councilmember. Either that, or maybe his own debauchery-filledpast makes him reluctant to scold the kids for their bad behavior. Either way, Ortiz failed to step up for the city he promised to protect. Hopefully, the people who voted for him remember this in 2024.

Your Mouse Muckracker / Photo by Federico Medina

Mouse Muck

The famed Disney Animators Strike of 1941 turned 80 years old this weekend, but don't expect much mention from the Mouse House. The immaculate grounds of Disneyland are free from any reminders of past class struggles, save for one off-hand tribute, if folks know where to look.

A window on Main Street above the Book Rest bears the name of, perhaps, the strike's grandest villian: Gunther R. Lessing, Esq.

Like any good picket line, personalities clashed. Art Babbitt, once a company union man before joining the cause of his fellow animators, almost came to fisticuffs with Walt Disney, himself. Beyond those figureheads laid Lessing, a Yale-educated attorney hired by the Disney brothers in 1929 after Walt bitterly lost the rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

Lessing pinned the stirring unrest at Walt Disney Productions on Babbitt. In his hubris, he predicted the May 29 strike would last all of 24 hours before toasting Walt. The animators repaid Lessing in kind by hanging him in effigy. On another occasion, solidarity strikers from Warner Bros. arrived dressed as executioners and carried a mock guillotine that fell upon the head of a second Lessing effigy.

And it's Lessing who proved to be the most diehard anti-communist as he lambasted the whole picket as Pinko. He hammered home the point in a telegram sent in July 1941 to federal mediators who offered to negotiate an end to the then-seven-week strike.

"We believe the strikers' guild represents a minority and, according to the studio's pay roll record, the important and clear majority of our employees are represented by Animators Cartoon Associates," Lessing wired to Washington. "It appears to us that our employees have for many months made pathetic attempts at self-determination, apparently being convinced that the guild leadership is Communistic."

Walt's attorney added that the only arbitration should be between various union leaders seeking to purge "subversives" from the House of Labor in order to avert the commie takeover of the studio. Later than month, Lessing changed his tune and accepted federal mediation. But Walt later carried the charge of anti-communism along with him to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) where he testified that labor unions should remain "clean."

The animators strike left Walt so soured that his imagination started to drift elsewhere, away from film and towards an amusement park that would bear his name.

Eighty years later, the only hint of its history is in a window on Main Street that bears Lessing's name. But it doesn't have to be.

"Gunther's Guillotine" would make a nice attraction--it even fits with California Aventure's Buena Vista Street theme! Mouse House execs, my inbox awaits!

Naranja Notes

Juneteenth, the annual celebration of Black emancipation from enslavement, gained prominence during last year's racial reckoning.

Observed on June 19, the holiday's history dials back to 1865, when Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas and the state's more than 250,000 enslaved Africans were declared free under Abraham Lincoln's emancipation proclamation issued three years prior.

Known alternately as "Jubilee Day," it's routinely recognized by city councils without much fanfare. Besides, Juneteenth is only derisively "woke" if you're a neo-Confederate!

The Buena Park City Council considered formal recognitions at the end of its meeting last week when Juneteenth arrived before the dais. Councilmembers already affirmed support for Harvey Milk Day (3-2), Pride Month (4-0-1) and flying the Rainbow Pride Flag at city hall (3-2) when assistant city manager Eddie Fenton, an African American, brought up the holiday.

Mayor Connor Traut counted four affirmative thumbs up in favor of city recognition. Councilwoman Beth Swift, the sole Republican left on the dais, didn't appear to lift her arm for either a thumbs up or down.

For that abstention, the Slingshot gives Swift two big thumbs down. Man, what happened to the Party of Lincoln?

Lead photo: Lupe Diaz and Genevieve Huizar. Huizar holds a sign with her son's image at a 2013 protest / Photo by Gabriel San Roman

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