CITY COUNCIL: Mira Costa students argue for Juneteenth event

Dancers from the Debbie Allen Dance Academy celebrate the transfer of the land deed at Bruce’s Beach in 2022. The City of Manhattan Beach intends to host a Juneteenth celebration featuring a gospel choir and speakers at Bruce’s Beach in 2024. Photo by Kevin Cody

by Mark McDermott 

The City Council deferred a decision Tuesday night on whether to go ahead with a Juneteenth event at Bruce’s Beach Park, but expressed support for a small celebration of the new national holiday at the park and a larger, festival-like gathering at Polliwog Park on June 22. 

Juneteenth, officially known as Juneteenth National Independence Day, celebrates the final enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation, the freeing of enslaved people in Texas, on June 19, 1865. It has long been an informal holiday among African Americans, and was officially made one of six federal holidays in 2021. Locally, Juneteenth has special resonance, because its celebration in 2020 marked the beginning of the Justice for Bruce’s Beach movement that eventually resulted in LA County’s return of property that was historically an African American resort to Bruce family descendents. 

Due to Juneteenth’s association with Bruce’s Beach, however, it has also faced some opposition locally. The City Council paused the celebration last year. Councilperson Steve Napolitano last April made a successful motion that tasked the Parks and Recreation Committee to work towards organizing an event in 2024. He acknowledged that the City had momentum given all its recent progress in redressing the historical wrongs of Bruce’s Beach.

“But I also want to separate Juneteenth from the whole Bruce’s Beach history, as well because it’s separate, it’s not tied to it —  it’s representative, but it’s not the same thing,” Napolitano said at the time. “It deserves celebration. I think it also demonstrates our inclusivity in Manhattan Beach, and we want to send that signal out far and wide.” 

Given its checkered history, just the fact that Manhattan Beach was planning a Juneteenth celebration sent a signal far and wide. The council’s announced intention to officially celebrate Juneteenth was reported in media outlets nationally last April, including as far afield as Travel Noire magazine and the Miami Herald. “Manhattan Beach will be the place to be next summer,” Black Enterprise magazine reported at the time. 

The Parks and Recreation Commission did extensive work in investigating a new Juneteenth celebration locally, and specifically formed an ad hoc community to work towards recommendations. In keeping with Napolitano’s wishes, they separated the larger celebration from Bruce’s Beach Park. Their tentative proposal was for the City to host a small, hour-long community celebration on June 19 at the park, featuring a few speakers and possibly a gospel choir, followed by a procession down to the beach.  The following Saturday, June 22, the City would host a Juneteenth Festival at Polliwog Park, featuring music, food, and vendors. The entire budget for both days would be no more than $30,000. 

“For the Bruce’s Beach Park event, we were looking at a very small morning event that’s a gospel choir maybe singing a few songs, a couple speakers, and then just walking to the beach,” said Kari Bell, the City’s senior recreation supervisor, who is new to the job. She helped organize a Juneteenth celebration at her previous job for the City of Pasadena. 

Additionally, the Commission held two community input public meetings, and conducted an informal online survey in which more than 1,730 people provided input. Over 76 percent supported a Juneteenth event, listing vendors, visual arts, and performing arts as elements they’d like the celebration to include. 

Bell stressed that the survey was not intended to be “statistically valid” since it was online for five months and open to anyone. 

 “The intent was to use it as one of the several tools to gather community input,” she told the council. 

The survey came under some fire Tuesday night, largely because its results included a campus-wide survey at Mira Costa High School. The idea was to gather as much input as possible, senior recreation manager Melissa McCollum told the council. 

“The ad hoc committee was really just so grateful that 1,300 youth and over 400 adults participated in the survey,” she said.  “That really is quite a bit for a survey that was administered by staff and by commissioners, as opposed to a paid survey consultant.” 

Among the adults who took the survey, 59 percent approved of a Juneteenth celebration. Mira Costa’s Black Scholar Union student group also participated in the second community input meeting. 

Resident Michael Michalski, during public comment at the outset of Tuesday’s meeting, said no such survey should help determine policy. 

“I categorically reject any survey that’s rigged in this fashion so that over 76% of the respondents are non-tax paying children 17 and under telling the adults how to conduct City-sponsored events when those events are paid for with our tax dollars,” Michalski said. “The solution is simple. Don’t use our tax dollars. Why are we potentially spending so much on this holiday, while other longstanding traditional holidays go begging for attention, like Veterans Day and Memorial Day? What about Martin Luther King Day?” 

Unusually, Tuesday night the council chambers were filled Tuesday night with such non-tax paying teenagers. Several later spoke, passionately, in favor of celebrating Juneteenth. 

Donnè Ward, president of the MCHS Black Scholars Union, said it was imperative that the city celebrates Juneteenth. 

“It may be…the assumption that people within this community will not deem the incorporation of this holiday essential, but I can assure you it is” Ward said. “The youth standing before you are a testament to that fact. We care. We want everyone to acknowledge the things we have gone through as a culture. We want our ancestors to be recognized for the hardship they endured for years on end.Celebrating Juneteenth offers a chance for everyone to learn about the struggles and triumphs of those who came before us, fostering a sense of empathy, awareness and a commitment to justice. This holiday commemorates the perseverance, strength and resilience of African Americans through much adversity. Opal Lee, a retired black teacher who is regarded as the grandmother of Juneteenth, once said, ‘We have simply got to make people aware that none of us are free until we’re all free. And we aren’t free yet.’ This holiday will open up space for conversations about diversity, inclusion and the beauty that arises when different cultures come together.” 

“These conversations are vital in cultivating a community that values and appreciates the richness of diversity, ensuring that the youth grow up with a profound understanding of the strength that comes from unity and diversity. This is especially important in these times where the broadcasting and awareness of the devaluation of African American lives have been at an all time high due to the vast reach of social media platforms, from George Floyd to Breanna Taylor to Tamir Rice. My people are scared and afraid that people won’t accept them for who they are, and will instead harm them for it. By recognizing and celebrating African Americans’ freedom, we send a powerful message to our youth that their backgrounds, no matter how diverse, are valued and essential to the fabric of our community, and our nation.” 

MCHS senior Sephtis Peters likewise urged the council to make Juneteenth matter more locally. 

“It is extremely important to me, not just as a young Black person, but as a student at Mira Costa High that Juneteenth is celebrated and acknowledged more greatly than it is now by the city of Manhattan Beach,” she said. “The people in this community and going through our school system right now deserve to know the importance of the holiday, not just because of the tragedy of what happened at Bruce’s Beach here, but because the youth of the city must have more.  As someone from a different city moving to a Manhattan Beach school, it was shocking to see how somewhat closed off the students around me were to exploring other cultures. I think that with education comes curiosity, and with curiosity comes admiration and empathy.” 

Dora Tuitupoa, a MCHS sophomore and vice president of the Black Scholars Union, said that she is of Pacific Islander heritage and not African American. She also argued that celebrating Juneteenth is essential. 

“Being a member of a generation where everything is polarized, I’ve observed a pattern. A dangerous one. Something that is especially evident in this area that we commune today, and shamefully is in all of us,” Tuitupoa said. “We feel a detachment to things that do not pertain to people who look like us. We lose all sense of obligation and sense of responsibility when we find out that a problem is affecting others and not affecting us. We feel safe. However, this surface level thinking has dug a deeper hole than we ever imagined. By not addressing, not acknowledging, and most importantly not celebrating the triumphs and achievements of Black people, we become complicit to the problem. To acknowledge our failures as friends, neighbors, and most importantly humans, we need to acknowledge our history…Black history is American history, and the celebration of Juneteenth is something to be commemorated by everyone here.” 

Several other Mira Costa students spoke, as did a handful of faculty members. English teacher Maddie Hutchinson said she is a Manhattan Beach native and took offense at the notion that students’ voices should not matter because they do not pay taxes. She urged the council to celebrate Juneteenth. 

“It is an opportunity to center and amplify a population that has been historically disregarded and mistreated, including in our own community, evidenced by events like the eviction of the Bruce family, the firebombing of the Clinton family, the use of the N word by middle schoolers at a football game last year, and more,” Hutchinson said. “…I am disappointed to hear that community members are pushing back with the argument that these young people’s voices are less valid because they don’t currently own property and pay taxes. So often I have heard that people move here because of our incredible schools. Yet when we see young people in those schools advocate for themselves, many are quick to disregard them. I’m not sure that makes sense. We are so lucky to have young people willing to learn just as we’re lucky to have these young people here tonight, willing to advocate.” 

Resident Heather Kim expressed skepticism of the students. 

“Do the kids run the show here?” she said. “Actually, the kids are just used as puppets sometimes for the loud vocal minority in many matters. For example, like the ethnic studies committee at Mira Costa.” 

But several other residents spoke in something close to awe of the dozen or so speeches by students they’d just witnessed. 

“This is what the future looks like,” said Julia Birkel. “It’s promising, it’s articulate, it’s impassioned, and it shows the benefit of what learning history can do for us. These kids are learning history and we cannot shy away from the fact that Manhattan Beach has a really horrible history. We are on the map because of that. Let’s turn that around.” 

“I want to first acknowledge these passionate and articulate young people who came here tonight to speak. We should be very proud of them,” said Michael Jenkins. “All of us. Make no mistake about it, notwithstanding the comment made at the outset of tonight’s meeting: their voices matter. They are part of this community…Last month I was here and you budgeted over $30,000 for American flags to be shown on Independence Day and Memorial Day. You’re being asked to budget less than $30,000 tonight, a modest budget for a celebration of a new federal holiday commemorating and celebrating the end of slavery. This is a leadership opportunity for you. This is a learning opportunity for our entire community.” 

All five members of the council expressed support for a Juneteenth celebration, but various concerns caused them to vote for a delay on the decision until its first meeting in the new year on January 16. Napolitano was displeased that parts of the staff report were not submitted until the day before the meeting and were thus not available to the public, including an expanded breakdown of the survey and a cost comparison to other holidays the City celebrates. 

Franklin expressed concerns about the survey, particularly how relatively few adults participated, and the $30,000 budget. But he said he supported a celebration of Juneteenth, recalling that as Mayor Pro tem he presided over the ceremony in Bruce’s Beach in which descendants of the Prioleau family —  who were also forced from their land a century ago — were given an official apology from the City. He suggested the City invite the U.S. Army’s 10th Calvary, the Buffalo Soldiers regiment of which Major George Prioleau was a part, to participate in Juneteenth. And he suggested a funding model similar to how the City handled its centennial celebration in 2012, providing a $10,000 stipend and challenging the community to raise the rest of the funds needed for Juneteenth. 

“This approach will create a program which could gather greater community support for an ongoing Juneteenth Celebration, with minimal need for the city to fund, and you would get buy-in from residents, sponsors, exhibitors, and the like,” Franklin said. “We should try this approach for 2024 and study the results to determine future events.” 

Napolitano said he was open to Franklin’s idea, but also questioned why anyone would oppose such a celebration. 

“It’s funny how we’ve gotten to where we are right now, because all we’re talking about here is a celebration, and celebrations are good,” he said. “They’re supposed to be good, they’re supposed to be fun….And Juneteenth is as American as they get.” 

“I see it as a celebration that is something people will learn from when they go to participate,” said Councilperson Amy Howorth. “We are not telling people how to think or behave, although I would think that the ending of enslaved people is a good thing, and I would hope they want to celebrate that.” 

In the end, the council deferred the decision, but strongly signaled Juneteenth will be celebrated in Manhattan Beach. 

“We don’t have to mirror our country in looking for issues that divide us. Let’s come up with a way where we can celebrate a federal holiday, which is important in its own right, together,” Councilperson David Lesser said. “I’m prepared to defer some of these decisions because the event is not still for six more months, but the goal is to try to come to a yes, to come up with something our community can be proud of, to show ourselves as the leaders that we are in trying to overcome some of the issues that are in our history here in Manhattan Beach.” ER

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