BLACK LIVES MATTER: Bruce’s Beach legislation progresses through Senate

by Mark McDermott

The return of Bruce’s Beach to the Bruce family came one step closer to fruition Tuesday when Senate Bill 796, introduced by Senator Steven Bradford and intended to resolve deed restrictions, quickly passed out of the Senate’s Water and Natural Resources Committee with unanimous bipartisan support. 

Bradford, a Democrat from Gardena, is a member of the state’s Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans.  The Task Force was created last year in wake of Black Lives Matter protests and intended to develop proposals by 2023. But Bradford said that Bruce’s Beach is exactly what the Task Force, the first of its kind in the nation, was intended to address. 

“As a member of that Task Force and the author of this bill, let me tell you: SB 796 is what  reparations looks like,” said Senator Bradford. “This bill recognizes that if you can inherit  generational wealth in this country, you can inherit generational debts too. In the case of Willa and  Charles Bruce, the City of Manhattan Beach, the County, and the State owe a debt that has been  compounding for nearly 100 years.”

From 1912 to 1924, the Bruces operated a successful resort, one of very few places on the Southern California coast where Black people could come to the beach. It attracted a burgeoning African American community as a half dozen other Black families purchased adjoining land. The City of Manhattan Beach, concerned that what was known as “the Negro Problem” would “slow our progress,” as one city leader later wrote, condemned the land through the use of eminent domain. 

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, and specifically the Justice for Bruce’s Beach movement, which arose locally, Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn has led a legislative effort to return the parcels that belonged to the Bruces to their descendents. That land was given by the City of Manhattan Beach to the state in 1948, and then given by the state to the county in 1995. LA County Lifeguard offices currently occupy the former Bruce’s Beach, while a city park occupies the land formerly owned by the other people forced out in 1924, which included both white and Black property owners. 

The LA County Board of Supervisors last week unanimously voted to develop a plan to return the land it currently owns to the Bruce family and to sponsor SB 796. 

“LA County intends to return the property that was once Bruce’s Beach to the descendants of  Charles and Willa Bruce, but we cannot do that without SB 796,” Hahn said on Tuesday. “I  appreciate the committee’s unanimous support and I am hopeful that, with the leadership of  Senator Bradford, we will soon see this legislation signed into law and the restrictions on the land  lifted so that we can begin to right this century old injustice.” 

While one of the options being explored is returning the land to the Bruce family and leasing it for continued public use, Hahn has said that use of the land would be at the discretion of the Bruce family. She has been in discussions with Anthony Bruce, the lone direct descendant of Charles and Willa Bruce. 

“I think we’re really going to land on transferring the property and then entering into a lease with the Bruce family,” Hahn said in an interview earlier this month. “The County will pay to continue to operate the lifeguard administration building for however long, but it’s their property after that. They can do what they want.”  

Current and former Manhattan Beach officials have questioned whether the state or county has the right to change the use of the Bruce’s Beach land from public to private use. 

Mayor Suzanne Hadley said earlier this month that at the very least the City deserves to be part of the discussion about what comes next. 

“The residents and City of Manhattan Beach expect a seat at the table as the County discusses future uses of the property under the lifeguard station,” Hadley said. “It is our hope and expectation that the land would remain dedicated to a public use, such as a lifeguard station or passive park.”

At issue is the deed that in 1948 transferred the two parcels of land from the City of Manhattan Beach to the state of California. The deed included the restriction “for public beach and park uses.” 

“The City transferred the property to the State in 1948 for ‘use as a public beach or park only,’ City Attorney Quinn Barrow said. 

Former Manhattan Beach council member Mark Burton, who was an attorney for the City of Los Angeles for 32 years, in an Easy Reader letter to the editor took the argument a step further. 

“Such restrictions may ‘run with the land’ and may be enforced by our City or a resident of our City,” Burton wrote. “So, the County may be legally prohibited from giving these two lots to a private party for private use.”

Burton also argued that such a transfer would represent an illegal gift of public funds. 

“Our State has this essential public finance restriction to assure that taxpayer funds or taxpayer-owned land be for public purposes,” Burton said. “In a nutshell, that’s the significant legal and policy conundrum for our state, or any state, that wants to provide reparations. To amend our State Constitution to permit reparations, a ballot measure may be needed, not just a statute.” 

SB 796, which was co-authored by State Senator Ben Allen and Assemblymembers Al Muratsuchi and Autumn Burke, addresses the deed restrictions attached to the former Bruce’s Beach land. The language of the bill amends the state’s Public Resource Code to “except the requirement that the County of Los Angeles comply with all restrictions specified in the deed…” 

The bill, which is an urgency statute, also adds a new section to the code: 

“To ensure that the property located in Manhattan State Beach, commonly known as ‘Bruce’s Beach,’ is expeditiously sold, transferred, or encumbered upon terms and conditions determined by the Board of Supervisors of the County of Los Angeles to be in the best interest of the county and the general public, it is necessary that this act take effect immediately.”

The City of Manhattan Beach, in an analysis of the deed restrictions completed in 1987, suggested that the County Park Abandonment Law of 1959 requires not only a unanimous vote by the Board of Supervisors but also a public vote. “Should more than 200 voters of the City object to the abandonment of the park, the Board of Supervisors shall either terminate their proceeding to abandon the park or submit the question of abandonment to the voters at the next election,” the city’s analysis stated. 

The parcels in question, however, are not Bruce’s Beach Park, but rather the land occupied by the lifeguard building that was once Bruce’s Beach itself. No proposal has been made to change the park’s use. 

SB 796 will now go to the Senate Appropriations Committee before coming to the Senate floor to be voted on by the full Senate. The bill’s urgency clause  means it would go  into effect immediately upon being signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom. If successful, the legislation would represent one the most significant acts of reparations —  also known as restorative justice — yet undertaken by any elected body in the United States. The Bruce land has an estimated value of $70 million. The only other large reparations thus far approved were for the property taken from Japanese-Americans during WWII, as well as for their internment. 

The Japanese American Evacuation Claims Act of 1948 compensated 26,000 claimants for lost land a total of $37 million, and then in 1988 Congress went a step further and issued an apology and $20,000 to each surviving victim of interment, resulting in $1.6 billion paid to 82,219 claimants. 

Since the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, reparations have entered the national discussion regarding the systemic inequities faced by Black Americans. Reparations have begun to enter the political mainstream, as evidenced by the bipartisan support for SB 796 thus far. 

“It is a tenet of conservatism that a level playing field is all we should guarantee,” wrote conservative columnist Gary Abernathy in the Washington Post this week. “But that’s meaningless if one team starts with an insurmountable lead before play even begins.”

LA County Supervisor Holly Mitchell, who along with Hahn authored the motions at the county level to return the land to the Bruce family, said Tuesday that SB 796 does not represent a gift of public funds. 

“I want us all to think about the courage and bravery it took a Black family in 1912 to earn their  piece of the American Dream,” Mitchell said. “The Bruce family bought and owned the property and used it to build a safe haven for Black families to enjoy, when other facilities denied them access. The City of Manhattan Beach in the 1900s abused eminent domain as a  way to refuse access to the ocean for Black people. I want to make clear that this is not a gift of  public funds. This bill is returning property to the rightful owners.” ER 

 

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Written by: Mark McDermott

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