MANHATTAN BEACH 2021 Year in Review: A city divided over matters of race and social justice
by Mark McDermott
The issues of race, social justice, and pandemic policies that roiled the nation came into sharp relief in Manhattan Beach in 2021. The city grappled with a century old racist episode that took on new resonance in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and then faced renewed attention when a racist incident occurred at the Manhattan Beach pier. Meanwhile, the Manhattan Beach Unified School District came under attack from both local parents and a national far-right media site for its allegedly “woke” educational policies.
Sometimes protests achieve what they set out to do. It happens only rarely, but in the case of the Justice for Bruce’s Beach protests, this is exactly what occurred. The result reverberated across the nation.
Activist and poet Kavon Ward launched Justice for Bruce’s last year as a sort of parallel, localized outgrowth of the Black Lives Matter movement. She had a very specific goal: to return the parcels of land that had been taken through the City of Manhattan Beach’s racially motivated use of eminent domain a century ago to the Bruce family. Willa and Charles Bruce purchased the land in 1912 and built a resort that catered to the African American community of Los Angeles, who at the time had few places where they could enjoy a day at the beach. From the outset, the Bruces faced opposition. City founder George Peck ordered the beach in front of Bruce’s Lodge roped off and installed “No Trespassing” signs, and two constables to enforce them on the Bruces’ very first Sunday in operation. The Bruces were unmoved.
“Whenever we have tried to buy land for a beach resort, we have been refused,” Willa Bruce told the LA Times. “But I own this land, and I am going to keep it.”
The Bruces held on for 15 years until the City finally was able to use the law against them. But the protest launched by Ward finally allowed Willa’s vow to come to full fruition. LA County Supervisor Janice Hahn heard the protesters, and investigated the matter. When she realized the County now owned those two parcels, where a lifeguard administrative building now sits, she started a legislative effort to give the land back to descendents of the Bruces.
“Kavon Ward had been calling for justice for Bruce’s Beach,” Hahn said. “I finally heard her clarion call for justice, and realized that the County indeed owned the very parcels which were once Bruce’s Resort. I knew there was one thing to do, and that was to give the property back.”
The Board of Supervisors unanimously backed Hahn’s efforts, and she built a legislative coalition headed by State Senator Steve Bradford, which included local representatives Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, and Senator Ben Allen, and resulted in the passage of S.B. 796, which removed deed restrictions and paved the way for the County to give the land back. Governor Gavin Newsom came to Manhattan Beach in July to sign the legislation into law at Bruce’s Beach.
Ward marveled at how quickly the Justice for Bruce’s Beach movement had achieved its ends.
“Now we stand here a year later,” she said. “A year later alongside the Governor, witnessing it manifest for us.”
“I am proud as a son of this state, as the governor of the most diverse state in the world’s most diverse democracy…to be here not just for the descendants of the Bruce family, but for all of those families torn asunder because of racism,” Newsom said. “…What we’re doing here today can be replicated anywhere else. There’s an old adage, ‘Once a mind is stretched, it never goes back to its original form.’”
Newsom also pointedly issued an apology to the Bruces, and other Black families removed by the City’s actions, something the City Council had considered and then refused to do earlier in the year. Then-mayor Suzanne Hadley said she did not want Manhattan Beach to have “a scarlet R” emblazoned on its chest, denoting it as a racist town.
By year’s end, the Board of Supervisors formally moved to give the land back to the Bruces. Though a lawsuit has been filed against the effort, the transfer could be completed within a few months.
Reparations are not unprecedented. President Ronald Reagan presided over reparations totalling over $1 billion to Japanese Americans interned during WWII. The Bruce’s land is believed to be worth about $70 million, which represents perhaps the most significant act of localized reparations.
Hahn realized this from the outset, last April, when she began the legislative effort. She said at the time that she took inspiration from her father, Kenneth Hahn, who was a County Supervisor for four decades. In 1961, Hahn was the only elected official to meet with Dr. Martin Luther King when he visited LA. What Janice Hahn took from this is that being on the right side of history sometimes means getting ahead of precedent. The question often asked about reparations, she noted, is “Where does it stop?” The question is where in history do we demarcate an injustice that occurred too long ago to now justly repair. But Hahn turned the question on its head.
“Where does it start?” Hahn said. “Someone was interviewing me and they said, ‘Are you afraid to start a precedent?’ And I said, ‘I hope it does.’”
Incident at the pier
On President’s Day morning, February 15, a middle-aged white surfer hassled two, young Black surfers in the line-up at the Manhattan Beach Pier. He told them to go surf in El Porto. Then, more pointedly, he told them to go surf Bruce’s Beach, a Blacks only beach in the 1920s. He repeatedly called them the N-word, and paddled up close enough to one of the Black surfers to splash him in the face.
The incident was photographed by local resident Rashidi Kafelle. The two Black surfers were Justin Howze and Gage Crismond, founders of BlackSandSurf, an arts collective focused on design and social media. Howze is also a DJ who goes by the name Brick who has 78,000 Instagram followers. The night after the incident, Howze and Crismond posted Kafelle’s photos on Instagram, accompanied by a 37 minute video in which they described what happened. The post received 129,000 views, and captured the attention of local and national media. The following Sunday, the two surfers organized a “Peace Paddleout” at which dozens of surfers, Black and white, joined them in solidarity at the Manhattan Beach pier.
On the beach, after the protest, Shanie Tennyson, a Master SCUBA diver, who is Black, thanked Brick for inspiring her to return to SCUBA diving.
“I love teaching diving. But I backed away from it after someone told me I don’t belong. Because of today, I’m going back,” she said.
“This isn’t just about surfing,” Brick told her. “It’s about any predominantly white space where Black people are made to feel they don’t belong. The way Gage and I were talked to in the water wouldn’t be tolerated in a Walmart. It shouldn’t be tolerated in the water.”
In March, the LA Times ran a full page photo of the two surfers on its front page, with the headline, “If Everybody Had An Ocean.”
Parents vs. MBUSD
The pandemic has been devastating for public schools throughout the nation. Students lost the end of the 2019-2020 school year, and most of the 2020-2021 school year took place via Zoom. Parents felt the pressures of having restless and sometimes depressed kids at home, and school districts scrambled to deliver education in a way it had never been done before.
The fissures within the Manhattan Beach Unified School District started to appear as the pandemic wore into its second school year, and then began to erupt in 2021. A parents movement called Kids Need Classrooms held a rally in late February outside City Hall, at which organizers held placards aloft that were stamped with headshots of four Manhattan Beach Unified School District board members, Superintendent Mike Matthews, and teacher union leader Shawn Chen. Rally organizer Tiffany Wright told the crowd of about 100 that those six people were responsible for kids not being in classrooms.
“Those people are the red lighters,” Wright said. “We’ve got Shawn Chen, the teachers union….Mike Matthews, superintendent of our school district here.”
The crowd erupted in boos at each name, especially Matthews.
“So when your CEO doesn’t want to open, it’s kind of hard to open, right?” Wright said. “He continues to give us a bunch of misinformation, misinform our board so that they can make the right decisions. So we’re here today to call them out.”
Local education leaders did not have the legal authority to reopen classrooms. That authority rested with state and county officials, and COVID-19 guidelines. But local leaders bore the brunt of parent frustration. MBUSD school board president Jen Fenton had, only weeks earlier, joined with six other area school board presidents in authoring a letter to county officials insisting that teachers have priority access to vaccines in order to safely reopen classrooms.
“We are trying every day,” Fenton said at the time. “We’re advocating for the students, and we’re advocating for the teachers, just trying to get back.”
In April, just as students began returning to classroom instruction, Matthews announced that he would step down as superintendent at the end of the school year, ending an 11 year tenure at the helm of MBUSD. John Bowes, the superintendent at Davis who had South Bay ties, took over at MBUSD in July. The new school year promised a return to normalcy as students returned to school in full force and high local vaccination rates appeared to mark the beginning of the pandemic’s end. That optimism took a bit of a hit when eight students and a teacher tested positive at Pacific Elementary, an outbreak that the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health responded to with a specific order requiring that masks be worn throughout the campus, even outdoors.
But even as schools remained fully reopened, MBUSD leaders faced criticism on another front — a largely anonymous group called We the Parents MB who sent out newsletters accusing the district of teaching Critical Race Theory, an obscure college-level concept, which posits that racism is embedded in legal systems and policies. The group in October sent out a newsletter that accused Fenton of abandoning the district’s goal for academic excellence and intending to hire “race and gender police” to do classroom walkthroughs, among other unsubstantiated claims. Three of the leaders of the group were subsequently featured in a series by RedState.com, the national pro-Trump website, in which they were not anonymous. MBUSD lawyers then issued cease and desist letters to the three parent leaders. Things came to a head when a boisterous group of We the Parents MB supporters came to the November 30 school board meeting, booing Bowes when he gave a report on MBUSD vaccination rates and masking policies, and then tearing into the board for allowing the cease and desist letters to be issued.
“You guys didn’t have to do this. You went overboard,” Taylor said. “For months, our grievances have been ignored, and now you’ve attempted to intimidate us with law-threatened government force.”
At the last meeting of the year on December 15, Fenton’s tenure as president ended and she handed the gavel to fellow trustee Sally Peel. In doing so, she remarked upon the difficulties she and MBUSD leaders had faced this year.
“I think it’s fair to acknowledge — challenging is probably one of the first words that comes to mind,” Fenton said. “…As a group of MBUSD leaders, we have seen the best in our community…and the worst. Whether it’s lack of civility or name calling, or just the dissemination of lies, there’s a divisiveness within our community, and it’s really hard to watch.”
Late in the summer of 1982, Ron Gueringer, an assistant football coach and defensive coordinator for Inglewood High School, noticed during the team’s first practices that one of his best players was wearing a pair of cleats held together by athletic tape.
Derrick Abell was a defensive back and sometime wide receiver for the Sentinels. He wasn’t a particularly big kid, nor was he an elite athlete, but he possessed special qualities. He worked hard, looked out for his teammates, and always kept his head up. The other kids all looked up to him; he was a natural leader. He was also a heady player who utilized every last ounce of his abilities.
Abell was the player the entire defense counted on. When the Sentinels really needed a stop, they’d invariably call what’s known as a free safety stunt — basically, letting Abell make a play, one that often resulted in a harried quarterback and a sack or an interception.
Abell was known as the kid who always stepped up to the occasion.
“You have to be athletic to play defensive back,” said Sam King, his cousin, who went on to become a star quarterback at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. “But what was on the inside of him you can’t measure. His heart. His drive.”
On that summer day before the season began, Coach Gueringer asked Abell to take a ride with him after practice.
“Why, coach?” Abell asked.
“We are getting you some new cleats,” the coach said.
Abell was too proud to accept the help.
“No, coach, I’m good,” he said. “These cleats are working just fine for me. I’m okay.”
This time the coach didn’t ask.
“Get in the car, son,” he said. “We are going to the mall.”
They drove to the Fox Hill Mall, walked into a shoe store, and walked out with a brand new pair of cleats.
“You are a kid at that time, you don’t have a lot, you take those cleats and you polish them, look at them all night long,” said Abell. “It’s like gold. Compared to maybe others who received things all the time, I didn’t get much, so those cleats meant a lot to me, and helped me through my high school football career. It’s wonderful what they did for me.”
What he did in those cleats would take him far. Abell’s stellar play earned him a scholarship to Montana State University, where he would again emerge as a leader, this time for a team that won the national Division I-AA championship. In Montana, he also met his future wife, Jodi, with whom he’d have two children.
On a January morning four years ago, moments after he was sworn in as the first African American chief in the history of the Manhattan Beach Police Department, Abell could not help but think back to that summer day in 1982. As he officially took the helm of the department he’d served 27 years in front of a packed room at the Joslyn Community Center, Abell told the story of those cleats.
“I will tell you, that was one of the greatest, most profound moments in my life, when a coach took an opportunity to reach into his pocket and do something besides the Xs and Os, teaching not only the life skills, but paying it forward, serving others before self,” Abell said. “What I would say to you today… It’s not about Derrick Abell. It never has been. It should be about us. Everyone in this room has an opportunity, has a gift — the ability to give, and the ability to serve others before self….Uplift someone; build that self esteem, if at all possible. Last but not least, you have the ability to reach into your pocket, buy that young man or young woman a pair of cleats that you may not realize will change their life forever and have a profound impact, such that maybe one day they will lead a police department, and become a chief of police.”
Abell announced his retirement at the end of 2021. His four years at the helm of MBPD were unlike any tenure of the chiefs before him. When the Manhattan Beach Fire Department found itself in crisis and without a chief, Abell served as chief of both the MBPD and MBFD. His leadership during the swelling Black Lives Matter protests — when he recognized some kids whom he’d coached in football, who were organizing a BLM rally in downtown MB — helped result in a collaborative, peaceful protest. His steady hand throughout the pandemic, overseeing a shorthanded department that at times was reeling from within with its own COVID-19 cases, once again revealed Abell as an uncommon leader. Fittingly, his parting words were not about himself.
“There is no greater calling than serving others before self,” Abell said. “And I am forever grateful for the opportunity to serve so many throughout my career.” ER