JUNETEENTH: Justice for Bruce’s Beach founder to take effort nationally

by Elka Worner

Since starting her restorative justice work last year, community activist Kavon Ward has fielded calls from Black families from around the country who want to recover their stolen land.

The founder of Justice for Bruce’s Beach has been instrumental in efforts to return a Manhattan Beach, beachfront property, now occupied by a Los Angeles County Lifeguard training center, to the descendants of Willa and Charles Bruce. The land was taken by eminent domain from the Black resort owners in the 1920s.

“I think this is going to grow into a bigger movement,” Ward said. “It’s going to set a precedent.”

Ward’s online petition and education campaign has garnered both national and international media attention. Her goal, she said, has always been to right a past wrong.

“Black people owned here and were pushed out,” she said. “It wasn’t right.”

Ward is hopeful that State Senate Bill 796, authored by Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena), which lifts restrictions on returning the County-owned land, will be signed into law by the end of the summer. The Senate unanimously approved the bill on June 2, and it now moves on to the Assembly.

The Harlem-raised Ward said she knew nothing about Bruce’s Beach when she moved to Manhattan Beach four years ago. A local resident sent her a blog post about the history of Bruce’s Beach.

“Let’s not forget, Charles and Willa Bruce were entrepreneurs,” Ward said. “They lost the opportunity to pass down the land and potentially buy more land here.”

The 39-year-old activist said she has always been interested in making “true change” in the world.  After a stint in the corporate world, Ward took a fellowship with the Congressional Black Caucus and worked as a lobbyist for the national YMCA in Washington DC. After that, she began performing as an activist-poet, focusing on the subject of Black people killed by the police.

After moving to Los Angeles to seek acting work, she started a vending machine business. But when George Floyd was murdered, she said, “the whole fiery justice thing started boiling up in me, again.” Instead of focusing on police brutality, she channeled her activism to exposing the injustice experienced by the Bruce family.

Last year, she organized a picnic on Juneteenth (June 19th Emancipation Day) at Bruce’s Beach to educate the community about the history of the property, and to demand the land be deeded back to the family. (A second Juneteenth picnic at Bruce’s Park is planned for next week).

“That was essentially me putting out into the universe what I thought was justice,” she said. “And here we are a year later and it looks like it’s going to happen.”

Her volunteer organization demanded Manhattan Beach return the property to the Bruces’ descendants, pay them for the potential lost revenue from the past 95 years, and pay monetary damages for the civil rights violations Willa and Charles Bruce suffered.

“She is the first one in many years to take up the banner for social justice and social change in Manhattan Beach,” said Bruce family representative Chief Duane Yellowfeather Shepard.

Ward’s use of social media, with its historical perspective of the events that led to the Bruces being stripped of their land, resonated with a younger generation, Shepard said.

Since she had policy experience, Shepard suggested Ward apply for a spot on the city’s 12-member Bruce’s Beach Task Force, formed to study the issues surrounding the land. Ward said her application was rejected.

“I knew at that point that they weren’t trying to do anything of substance,” she said. “It was just going to be some symbolic stuff like changing the plaque. I knew it was going to be a farce.”

Ward was also aware that many in the community did not support reparations for the Bruce family. She was impersonated on Patch and an excerpt from one of her poems about reparations was disseminated to instill fear in the community, she said.

“I don’t care what they have to say,” Ward said. “For me this is a spiritual fight. This is something I have been called to do.”

Her grassroots group has sometimes been confused with the national Black Lives Matter movement. Ward said that BLM co-founder Patrisse Cullors did reach out to offer support, helping her mobilize and strategize. But Justice for Bruce’s Beach is an independent movement. 

“We are not under the BLM umbrella,” Ward said. “We don’t get paid by them.” 

Her group ran a full page ad in The Beach Reporter, with 600 signatures from people demanding the city issue an apology for the taking of land from the Bruce family. “We support a just and welcoming Manhattan Beach that includes an apology,” the ad read.

The city adopted a resolution condemning the city’s action against the Bruces, but did not issue an apology.

“I don’t have to do anything to prove that the people of Manhattan Beach are white supremacists,” Ward said. “They are doing a good enough job proving that on their own.”

With her work on Bruce’s Beach largely finished, Ward said she will focus her attention on helping families whose land was stolen, nationwide.

She plans to move out of Manhattan Beach, she said. 

Justice for Bruce’s Beach is holding a Juneteenth celebration at Bruce’s Beach park 12 to 3 p.m. June 19. ER

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Written by: Elka Worner

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