The news spread quickly among neighbors, family members and organizers in this working-class city that for months has been thrust into the national spotlight. Some phoned each other or chatted on the street, while others headed to City Hall to spread the news: eight former and current Bell officials had been arrested.
Among residents, many of whom rose up in angry protest amid revelations about a huge salary and loan scandal, there was a sense of celebration and relief. Some saw the arrests as a pivotal moment that would finally allow the city to move forward, while others wondered what would happen next.
Even before Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley officially announced that he had filed charges alleging that the eight officials misappropriated $5.5 million in public funds, residents flocked to City Hall buzzing with news that arrests were underway.
They were ebullient, shouting “si, se pudo!” (yes, we did!) amid cheers. One man used a bullhorn to broadcast the Queen song “Another One Bites the Dust.” Another held up a cardboard sign with illustrations of City Council members looking like movie mobsters in dark overcoats and fedoras. “Stealing us blind since day one!” it read.
Across the street at Pacific Furniture, owner Enrique Martinez watched on one of his big screen TVs as the district attorney announced the charges.
“The lid finally blew off and they’re starting to fall,” Martinez said, smiling and pointing at mug shots on the screen. “One by one they’re going to fall until this city is clean again.”
On his desk sat a stack of blue fliers calling on business owners to organize and fight corruption in this city of 39,000. He planned to pass them out later in the day, he said.
Down the street, Jose Vazquez, owner of Savas Tires, said he saw the arrests as the beginning of a new era.
“We’re going to make something positive of this,” he said. “Before this nobody — not even people in other parts of the county — knew about Bell. Now everyone does…. So what do we do with that? It’s up to us to say, here we are, and we’re not leaving. We’re going to stay here and lift up our city.”
But a few blocks from City Hall, Leticia Gonzalez, 22, a lifelong resident, said she was not sure the arrests and all the scrutiny of Bell’s officials were warranted. She said she would never move from the city and plans on raising her young son there, where her parents also live.
“They were making a lot of money, but I don’t have an issue with it because they were taking care of us,” she said. “We have a clean city, good parks, no graffiti. It’s very safe…. I’m not saying the salaries and other things that were going on were fair, because they weren’t, but it’s not like they were getting paid a lot and not doing a good job.”
Dr. Mary Romo, an obstetrician and gynecologist who practices in Bell, had a different view. Not only were the arrests merited, she said, but more were probably needed.
“This is a small step to justice,” she said. “And the community can celebrate this. But there are still other links in this investigation — the Police Department, the towing of vehicles, the way they were treating businesses. There’s much more.”
When community activist Marcelino Ceja arrived at City Hall, residents cheered and gathered around.
“We will make this a better place!” said Ceja, a 17-year resident. “I was waiting for this moment so I can celebrate together with all my residents.... Together we will get these guys out and will go ahead and be successful.”
“We did it!” shouted another.