Jen Ezpeleta

Manhattan Beach an improbable focal point for protests in 2020

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Joe Franklin leads a May 18 rally at the Manhattan Beach City Hall of protesters demanding that businesses be allowed to reopen. In November, Franklin was elected to the city council. Photo by JP Cordero

by Mark McDermott

The pandemic in Manhattan Beach was met with an uneasy mixture of community cooperation and outright defiance in a year in which the city’s conflicts would mirror the nation’s. 

Manhattan Beach by year’s end will have experienced four deaths and more than 750 COVID-19 cases, a lower incidence than most of Los Angeles County and much of the United States, but by global metrics a higher incidence rate than India, Russia, and Peru. Yet the city found itself in the regional and sometimes national spotlight as the pandemic progressed, first when a surfer was fined for defying a public health order not to surf, then when Mayor Pro Tem Suzanne Hadley downplayed the pandemic on MSNBC, and finally when the City of Manhattan Beach helped its restaurants evade county and state health orders by taking over outdoor dining decks. Manhattan Beach also found itself in the spotlight for the other crisis roiling America, the Black Lives Matter protests. BLM activists staged a protest at the Manhattan Beach pier and the city’s own tortured racial history at Bruce’s Beach came under renewed scrutiny. 

The novel coronavirus arrives 

At the beginning of March, Dr. Anita Sircar, an infectious disease specialist at Providence Little Company of Mary, matter-of-factly told Easy Reader that novel coronavirus would soon arrive in the South Bay. 

“It is more a question of when it will come and not if it will come,” Sircar said in a March 4 cover story. “But this is not a reason for alarm, but a call for preparedness.” 

Less than a week later, on March 11, two cases were reported in Manhattan Beach. They were the first COVID-19 cases reported in the South Bay. In those early days of the pandemic, it was little understood how exactly the virus spread, or how it could be present in people without symptoms. So on March 7 there didn’t appear to be anything particularly dangerous occurring when American Martyrs hosted the 12th Annual Mulligan fundraiser, in which 250 guests were closely packed in O’Donnell Hall. Two people tested positive from the event immediately afterwards, and a week later Monsignor John Barry, American Martryr’s beloved 82-year-old spiritual leader, came down with COVID-19. 

On March 12, even before LA County had confirmed the two cases in Manhattan Beach — which a resident had reported directly to City Hall — Manhattan Beach Unified School District Superintendent Mike Matthews announced all campuses would close at the end of the next school day, which happened to be Friday the 13th, in order to be “proactive in doing everything we can to protect the health of our students and staff.” Matthews’ school would move to online instruction that Monday. “This move to online instruction will remain in effect for at least a week,” Matthews said. 

By March 19, both the state and the county had issued Stay At Home orders as cases of COVID-19 spread. The order closed indoor malls, shopping centers, playgrounds and nonessential retail businesses and prohibited gatherings of more than 10 people in indoor or enclosed places. Also on March 19, Mayor Richard Montgomery announced the closure of all city recreation facilities and the Manhattan Beach Pier. 

“It is clear to me that our community is not grasping the serious nature of this pandemic nor following social distancing protocols,” Montgomery said. “Public health and safety is at risk, and if we don’t all do our parts to reduce the spread of COVID-19, it will get much worse, and will have even more serious effects for us all.”

It was the first taste of lockdown anyone locally had experienced, and it was just the beginning. 

During the first weekend of April, the city issued 129 citations carrying $1,000 fines for violation of the city’s social distancing orders. Photo by Kevin Cody

COVID enforcement/defiance

On March 24, after a weekend in which big crowds arrived at local beaches, the City of Manhattan Beach closed its beach parking lots. And then, on March 27, the hammer fell — LA County announced all beaches would be closed by the following day. On the same day, Manhattan Beach also closed The Strand and bike path. 

“The crowds we saw at our beaches last weekend were unacceptable,” Supervisor Janice Hahn said via Tweet. “In order to save lives, beaches in LA County will be temporarily closed. I understand that this is a huge sacrifice for everyone who enjoys going to our beaches. But we cannot risk another sunny weekend with crowds at the beach spreading this virus.” 

The first act of defiance in Manhattan Beach occurred on Sunday morning, March 29, when a surfer ignored the public health orders and warnings from a lifeguard and paddled out. “Go ahead and arrest me,” the surfer reportedly told a lifeguard. He wasn’t arrested but he was issued a $1,000 citation. [See story on COVID-19, beaches, and surfing, page 7]. 

COVID-related enforcement was just beginning. The City Council, which was now meeting almost daily, in addition to closing parks and The Strand, had passed an ordinance requiring six-foot social distancing in public places. During the first weekend of April, the MBPD issued 129 citations for social distancing violations. Thirty citations were issued at Polliwog Park and 10 at Bruce’s Beach. Additionally, 48 people were cited for being on The Strand. All carried a $1,000 fine. 

“No more warnings,” said Mayor Richard Montgomery. “Some people, unfortunately, can’t follow the rules.”

Another area of concern was Ocean Drive, which had become a thoroughfare for cyclists and pedestrians since the closing of The Strand. Four cyclists received citations on the street for violating social distancing. 

“A lot of people are going for their daily walk or bike ride on Ocean Drive. They see it as the new Strand,” said MBPD Officer Chris Ineguez. “That is where they are all congregating and walking.” 

The $1,000 fines came as a shock to many of those cited. On the morning of April 4, resident Nick Winnie, a teacher for LA Unified, who had been taking the Stay At Home order so seriously he limited his outdoor excursions to a daily 20 minute walk, lost $1,000 dollars because of his dog’s need to poop and love for green grass. Winnie and his fiance and three-year-old stepson were walking by Bruce’s Beach park with the family dog, Layla. 

“We had been wearing our face masks,” Winnie said. “We were going on a walk; that was one of the only things that was still allowed. But the dog doesn’t know about the rules.” 

The three-year-old collie mix spied the fresh green grass and immediately went for it. She went a few yards into the park, squatted, and defecated. Winnie stepped into the grass to clean up after her; his stepson, a couple of days from turning four and bounding with energy, immediately decided he wanted to roll down the hill. 

“You know, he’s exuberant, he’s boisterous, and he decided I’m going to use this opportunity to roll down the hill,” Winnie said. “And we told him, ‘Stay right by us. We’re not going to go into the park. We’re just going to step our toes out onto the grass.’ So he says, ‘Okay, I’ll just roll right here.’ So he’s rolling down the hill, I’m picking up the dog poop, and bam! Like a blitzkrieg of local law enforcement arrives.” 

A half dozen officers raided the park, where many people were openly defying the closure, sun-bathing and picnicking. Winnie was caught in the dragnet. Weeks later, a letter arrived, not from the city, but from the Santa Monica-based law firm of Richards, Gershon, and Watson. The fine, the letter said, was $1,000; appealing the fine required both its payment in full and a $1,500 deposit. 

“I was just shocked at the size of the fine. So basically, you would need to throw down $2,500 just to do your appeal….This is just getting absurd,” Winnie said. “It’s like, ‘Okay, the city cites me for something, then they farm it out to a different law firm for the collection. I’m confused.” 

In a sign of just how confusing the times were, Winnie received his $1,200 government stimulus check within 24 hours of receiving his $1,000 fine in the mail. 

“So basically I’m robbing Peter to pay Paul here,” he said. “My local government is taking away the assistance of my federal government.” 

Several hundred people rallied at the Manhattan Beach City Hall in support of bsuinesses reopening. Photo by Jp Cordero

Businesses protest lockdown 

Something occurred on May 18 in downtown Manhattan Beach that had not happened in two months. A group of people gathered. 

More than 100 people attended a protest aimed at gaining support from City Council to allow businesses to reopen throughout the city. The protest was organized by local Realtor and former council candidate Joe Franklin (who would run again and be elected by year’s end). The crowd, most but not all wearing masks and uniformly packed together in defiance of the six-foot social distancing orders, gathered by the Light Gate plaza near the library on Highland Avenue.

Hadley, the most adamant voice on the City Council advocating the flouting of the state and county health orders on behalf of businesses, told those gathered that she felt the pain of small business owners because she once ran a brick and mortar retail store in Wisconsin. She noted that her home state was flourishing during the pandemic. 

“I tell you there are people from the state of Illinois streaming over the border into Wisconsin to get their nails done, their hair done, to get a massage, to get their physical therapy, to have a beer and have a restaurant meal,” Hadley said. “So I would like people streaming in our city to take advantage of our retailers and our residential businesses and our restaurants.”

Realtor Robb Stroyke, who didn’t wear a mask, expressed respect for the law but defiance of the public health order. 

“Life is about living, not just staying alive,” Stroyke said. “You shouldn’t live with fear; live with faith. Screw fear. And if I want to live my life with my system and not wear a mask — masks are not protective. They are not healthy for us. God created us to breathe oxygen, not carbon dioxide….Let’s get this opened up. I think we should have Manhattan and Hermosa be a sanctuary city for small businesses.” 

Mike Zislis, the owner of Shade Hotel and downtown restaurants Rock ‘N Fish, Strand House, and Rock ‘N Brew, said the community had done what was asked. 

“They said we need to flatten the curve, and we flattened it like nobody has ever flattened a curve,” he said, as Franklin made a stomping motion behind him. Zislis said downtown businesses would die if not allowed to open immediately. “They are not going to make it another day,” he said. “We have to open tomorrow. The retailers have to open. Von’s can be open, Target can be open, Home Depot can be open — our downtown businesses can be open.” 

The City Council two days later acted for the first time in slight defiance of state and county orders, unilaterally lifting the “curbside-only” restriction on retail owners, thereby allowing them to reopen in time for Memorial Day weekend. 

“All retail businesses large and small deserve an even playing field and a fighting chance,” said Councilmember Steve Napolitano. “These are more than businesses. They are people and lives and livelihoods.”

On Memorial Day, Governor Gavin Newsom followed suit, reopening retail under the same rules large retailers like Target and Walmart had been operating under. Gavin’s order limited how many people could be in stores and required masks. Mayor Richard Montgomery suggested the city’s action had influenced the state’s. 

“I would say that the Manhattan Beach City Council, with strong support from LA County Supervisor Janice Hahn and the many business owners and residents who called, emailed and wrote letters to the Governor, took bold action a few days ahead of this decision by eliminating the curbside restriction from our retailers. We were hoping that Governor Newsom would agree with us. Apparently Governor Newsom and God both accept ‘knee mail’ (prayers).” 

 

Organizers Malachi McMahon, Dalia Feliciano, and Jemal Williams with fellow Black Lives Matter protesters at the Manhattan Beach pier on June 2. All three protest leaders, and a fourth who was not present, Nia Marshall, attended Mira Costa High School. Photo by J.P. Cordero

Black Lives Matter comes to the beach 

Twenty minutes before noon on June 2, protesters began streaming down Manhattan Beach Boulevard. They mostly walked single file, or in small groups, and were mostly young; some were African-American, some Latino, a few white, a few older. They were uniformly disciplined. Some greeted the police officers who had cordoned off the street. By noon, a few hundred protesters stood at the foot of the pier. They held signs: “Black Lives Matter,” “Enough is Enough,” “I Can’t Breathe.” 

More and more people arrived, both protesters and observers, swelling to a crowd of about 1,000. 

Many of the downtown businesses had boarded up, concerned that protests would give way to the rioting that had overtaken parts of LA and throughout the nation. Social media was abuzz. “BLM protesters are Mobbing Up on Manhattan Beach Pier right now,” wrote Jeff Hennebry on Facebook. “Hope they don’t burn it down.”

Chants eventually gave way to individual speakers. 

“I understand you have this nice beach here,” said Malachi McMahon, one of the protest’s leaders. “You have these nice homes. But you got to realize, we are human as well. So I understand that this may not personally affect you, but when we are hurt, everyone else is hurt.” 

“Hey, they heard that we were coming down here today, and what did they do? They boarded up the whole city. They boarded up the whole city, the parking lots and all. But we just came here to spread a positive message. I don’t blame anyone, not anyone personally. I blame the system. I blame the conditioning, the media, the constant portrayal of human people as something less than. We will no longer accept that. The time for change is right now.” 

McMahon, 18, attended Mira Costa High School. He was a running back for the MCHS Mustangs, and as a musician was once profiled by the school paper. “But I can say, as a person of color, I didn’t feel completely accepted,” McMahon told the crowd.

All four of the protest’s organizers were MCHS graduates. Jemal Williams, also a former Mustang football player, shared that he keeps the vehicle registration for his car in the map pocket of the driver’s side door, rather than his glove compartment. He said he does this to make it less likely that he will be killed while presenting his license and registration when he is pulled over by police — which, as a 21-year-old Black man living in the United States of America, he has come to expect to happen, often.

“I shouldn’t have to do that,” he said. “I should be able to reach, like a normal civilian, into my glove compartment, and get my license and registration, without them thinking, ‘Oh, he’s reaching for something, let me put a bullet in his back.’ And then I’m another story.” 

Manhattan Beach Police Resource Officer Donavan torres finds common grounds with a BLM protester. Photo by JP Cordero

Dalia Feliciano, perhaps aware that on social media rumors had swirled that this was a protest started by outside organizations like Antifa, told the crowd that this was simply a movement of young people who wanted a better future. 

“This protest was organized by Black and Latino youth,” she said, raising her voice to a high, almost tattered pitch, breaking with emotion. “This is not about our personal grievances with the City of Manhattan Beach. This is about Black and Latino youth, the leaders of tomorrow, advocating for the generations of the future….We will no longer sit silent. We are not okay with fearing for our lives, fearing for our father’s lives, our brother’s lives, our sister’s lives, our babies’ lives.”

Feliciano and her family moved to the South Bay from Eagle Rock when she was a kid. Another organizer, Nia Marshall, like McMahon and Williams, grew up in Inglewood. Their families worked to get them into the Manhattan Beach Unified School District to take advantage of the schools’ resources. The organizers’ experience with the protest reflected an expansive notion of community: one in which the price of real estate does not dictate where people may find themselves feeling at home.

“Even though I’m not from Manhattan Beach, I spent a good deal of my formative years down there. I was a Junior Lifeguard, I went to high school there, I was a Girl Scout there. But I did always feel separate from the community, even though I had spent a good deal of time there, and that was because of my race. I felt a connection to it but at the same time felt alienated from it. I thought that it would be a good idea to open up a conversation about it,” said Marshall, who is Black. “Now is a time when race relations in America really have people’s attention. And so I figured it would be good to take the plunge down there, just try to use it to unify us, rather than make it something divisive.”

A few local residents also spoke. Cedric Jones, who owns a local business, said he’s raising two young men, ages three and six, and that he doesn’t want them to experience society the way he has had to, as a Black man. 

“I’m scared for my wife now,” he said. “When I go for a run, she’s like ‘I need to know where you are running.’ What kind of life is this? I can’t even run the streets without giving my wife a map-by-map chart of where I am going, because I might be shot in the streets.” 

The protest eventually marched down The Strand, where protesters filled Pier Plaza in Hermosa Beach and collectively took a knee and observed a moment of silence. Except for a brief standoff with police by a handful of protesters (none of whom were affiliated with the organizers) shouting obscenities at the end of the day, no incidents occurred. Protesters themselves embraced the police, literally, a dynamic that may have had to do with the fact that MBPD chief Derrick Abell, who also coaches freshman football at MCHS, had recognized Williams when the young man had come to scout downtown a day earlier. The organizers, as a result, coordinated with MBPD.

Abell, the first African American chief of police in Manhattan Beach history, spoke with pride of the protest’s leaders. 

“They showed what is possible when you do the work to bring about positive change in a peaceful way,” Abell said. “You can have a positive impact on your community, and you can be a model for change not only for Manhattan Beach, but for this entire county, and state, and country. What they have done is a great example of that. These kids are powerful, man. They are the future of our country. I told them, ‘Listen, folks like me are going to retire, and you are going to take care of us.’”

 

Protesters called Bruce’s Beach Park to be restored to the Bruce family. Photo by Kevin Cody

Bruce’s Beach revisited

Bruce’s Beach, the park formerly home to an African American family resort lost to racist-inspired deployment of eminent domain a century ago, this year became a rallying point for activists in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

A petition started by local activist Kaitlyn McQuown gathered more than 13,000 signatures. It demanded restoration of the land to the Bruce family, who operated the resort, as well as restitution for lost income and an immediate rewrite of a plaque in the park to include more of its racist history. That tortured history drew national and particularly regional attention, with a long Los Angeles Times page one story reporting that the City of Manhattan Beach “faces a reckoning” over what to do with the park. Several small protests also occurred at Bruce’s Beach in the wake of the BLM movement’s rise throughout the nation.

The City Council held a special meeting to address the topic on August 18 in which a report was presented that gave an unvarnished account of what had occurred when Bruce’s Beach was still a resort. Councilperson Nancy Hersman said understanding that history was a key starting point.

“White Americans are looking at the racial injustices that have been brought against African Americans throughout history,” Hersman said. “And Bruce’s Beach is our history. So once we’ve heard what happened in the ‘20s in Manhattan Beach, the City Council can then discuss next steps.”

That history was delivered by city analyst Alexandria Latranga, who previously spent a dozen years as an ethics program manager for the Los Angeles Ethics Commission and a year as an adjunct political science professor at Mt. San Antonio College. Her research relied heavily on a 1956 thesis, “Land Ownership and Occupancy by Negroes in Manhattan Beach, California,” written by Bob Brigham, who was still a young man then but would go on to be a revered teacher at Mira Costa. It showed that Willa and Charles Bruce built a seaside dream and real life respite for fellow African Americans in the second and third decades of the last century and then had everything taken from them because of the color of their skin. The Ku Klux Klan organized against the Bruces’ resort, and the city aided and abetted attempts to discriminate against the Bruces and the six other African American families who’d moved to Manhattan Beach.

“As Manhattan Beach became more and more popular among Los Angeles’s African American families, the resentment and fear among white townspeople became increasingly evident,” Latranga said. “Violence and discrimination [against] the African American families on the beach, or to make it more difficult for them to remain, increased…The beach in front of Bruce’s Lodge was actually roped off at both ends to limit the beach area that African Americans could use. Many African American beachgoers returned from the beach to find the air had been left out of the tires. There was a report of a house belonging to an African American that was burned in the 1920s.”

The efforts culminated in the taking of the land by legal process. A former Manhattan Beach trustee, Frank Daugherty, told the Redondo Reflex in 1948 that condemnation was specifically meant to rid Manhattan Beach of Blacks.

“We tried to buy them out, but they would not sell,” he said, in a press clipping exhibited by Latranga. “We had to acquire these two blocks to solve the problem. So we voted to condemn them, and we made a city park there. We had to protect ourselves. Our attorney advised the members of the council never to admit the real purpose in establishing the park, especially during the council meeting.”

That park wouldn’t be established until after Brigham started asking questions in the 1950s. It wouldn’t be named after the Bruce family until 2005, and then it was accompanied by a plaque that ignored the racist history of the land.

Councilperson Steve Napolitano, a Manhattan Beach native, said at the August 18 meeting that the city could begin by rewriting the plaque, possibly commissioning public art to more accurately tell the story of Bruce’s Beach and by apologizing to the Bruce family.

“I think an apology from the city, representing the city for the racist acts of others in the past, is important to help reconcile that, too,” he said. “The story of Bruce’s Beach parallels the story of racism in America in the early part of the last century,”

Napolitano said at the following council meeting, on August 31. “Some of us knew it and willfully ignored it, while others have been willfully ignorant of it despite books and articles written on [Bruce’s Beach] over the years. The result allowed it to just be for so many years.” Napolitano said reparations are not at the discretion of city governments, and noted that a state task force has recently been formed to address the issue of reparations.

“For those asking for reparations, these are typically considered by levels of government much higher than cities,” he said. “The issue of reparations for historic wrongs against any group of people is much bigger than Manhattan Beach and is not the sole responsibility of our current residents.”

In October, the City Council appointed a 13-member task force to address Bruce’s Beach. The task will be to rewrite the plaque and find other ways for the city to better recognize and learn from the history of the area.

 

Former Manhattan Beach fire chief Daryn Drum. Photo courtesy City of Manhattan Beach

Manhattan Beach Fire Department Chief Daryn Drum was fired in June by the City of Manhattan Beach over language he used on a conference call with regional public safety officials, during which he urged a negotiation tactic of “not taking our foot off their throat,” as well as comments on a local podcast in which he spoke sympathetically of a police shooting that happened near his former jurisdiction in North San Diego County. 

In the wake of the May 25 incident in Minneapolis, in which a police officer kept his knee on the throat of George Floyd for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, strangling him to death and sparking nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, Drum’s language drew immediate attention from the City of Manhattan Beach. On June 19, City Manager Bruce Moe announced Drum had been relieved of his duties and his employment agreement with MBFD had been terminated. 

“We need thoughtful leaders offering voices that are open and inclusive,” Moe said in a statement. “Chief Drum’s recent comments do not reflect our core values as a City, and an immediate change of Fire Department leadership is in the community’s best interests.” 

The city released a 67-second excerpt of the conference phone call that occurred on June 16 with the South Bay Regional Communications Center in which Drum, apparently referencing negotiations with a service vendor, made repeated use of the phrase. 

“I am comfortable continuing to move forward, but not letting our guard down and, pardon my vernacular, but not taking our foot off their throat, either,” Drum says on the recording. “I think our foot —  your foot —  needs to be clearly on their throat, and they need to feel it, and they need to feel that constant pressure every single day, that we mean business….I am comfortable continuing down the path as long as your foot is firmly on their throat.” 

The RCC meeting occurred June 16. The podcast comments were made earlier that same week. Drum was featured on the South Bay Show along with Manhattan Beach Police Department Chief Derrick Abell. Drum spoke at length about a variety of topics relating to public safety during times of crisis, including his experience as a 9/11 first responder going through the pile of rubble at the former World Trade Center and his empathy for the challenge police officers face regarding the use of force. He noted that his brother is a police officer and recalled a police shooting incident in a nearby jurisdiction when he was working in the San Diego area. 

“I put myself in the shoes of the officer and I could not imagine doing anything else than what he did,” Drum said. “And it was portrayed in the media poorly and it caused demonstrations, potential violence. Chief Abell and I have had the conversation previously that you’re one good shooting away from civil unrest. And now it’s changed to you’re one violent interaction [away], and the officer oftentimes doesn’t control the level of violence that comes with that interaction. The person that they’re in contact with is really the one in control. If you comply, there’s no violence; if you respond with violence, then the officer has no choice. So with social media and the cameras, there’s one violent interaction — regardless of whether it was appropriate or not — away from civil unrest.” 

 

Mayor Pro Tem Suzanne Hadley speaks at a protest in May demanding that small businesses be allowed to reopen. Photo by JP Cordero

Hadley’s ascent

Throughout the pandemic, a sense of rebellion coursed through Manhattan Beach. It didn’t have a specific leader, but Mayor Pro Tem Suzanne Hadley was the rebellion’s most articulate and outspoken voice. She would become mayor by year’s end, but even that process, which is usually an automatic rotation, was riven with controversy as a result of Hadley’s outspokenness.

Hadley’s advocacy on behalf of small businesses early in the pandemic evolved into outright defiance of public health orders. In early June, she joined Councilperson Steve Napolitano in calling for the city to ignore the public health order that left the pier locked up even after the BLM protests.

“I would say it’s not defiant,” she said. “I would say doors are open and unlocked, all we need to do is walk out of the cell. The jailers are gone. It’s so old news after the protests of the last 10 days, which have been powerful and effective and I have attended. I have worn a mask and I have been uncomfortable in some spaces… but it is literally a joke that people cannot be outside now and we’ll have to worry about social distancing after what we’ve seen the last 10 days.”

As the Fourth of July approached and LA County prepared to temporarily close beaches again, Hadley’s voice found a national audience. Standing on the Manhattan Beach pier, she suggested to an MSNBC reporter that such COVID-19 restrictions were pointless.

“This is not the plague,” Hadley said. “I don’t know anybody who has died; maybe you do. We can’t prevent drunk driving by banning alcohol. We can’t prevent car fatalities on the highway by closing our highways and preventing cars. The role of society is not to prevent death. It’s to inform adults of the risks and the opportunities of life and to let them choose those opportunities and risks. It’s not to wrap everybody in bubble wrap…If a disease is contagious and yet is non-deadly, then there is nothing we can do to keep it from spreading through.”

As the year progressed, Hadley advocated on behalf of parents who were angry that the Manhattan Beach Unified School District had not yet reopened its campuses, especially to high needs students allowed by LA County to resume part-time in-person instruction.

“It’s very sad that MBUSD has not yet reopened to our special-ed and higher-risk students,” Hadley said in a Facebook post in early October. “What makes me especially sad is that MBUSD has not yet even submitted a plan to the County to allow these children to return. Why? What does this say about the (lack of) urgency in our district in planning for the safe and soon return of our TK-2nd graders?”

A day later, MBUSD announced the district would be bringing back high needs students. Hadley suggested to her council colleagues that her advocacy might have made a difference.

“I’m not going to give myself any credit here, but I am feeling like more has happened since I kind of got involved, and that’s great. Maybe it’s an accident, and maybe I should never have posted it at all. I am shining the spotlight, and spotlights are uncomfortable sometimes,” Hadley said.

Also in early October, Hadley signed the Great Barrington Declaration, a document that emanated from a libertarian think tank that argued on behalf of pursuing herd immunity as an approach to the pandemic rather than imposing broad societal restrictions, such as stay-at-home orders, business restrictions, and school closings. The declaration argued that such restrictions do more harm than good.

But by early December, the spotlight turned on Hadley. On December 1, two weeks before she was slated to become mayor, colleague Hildy Stern agendized the matter for discussion. Two petitions against Hadley had attracted hundreds of signatures. Hadley saw the writing on the wall and issued a public letter addressing what she called the “whisper campaign” against her.

“They don’t point to any high crimes or misdemeanors; it’s more about some folks not liking some things I’ve said or how I’ve said them,” Hadley wrote, while also vowing to serve as mayor with “respect, compassion, humility, and cooperation.”

The council was deluged with hundreds of letters, for and against Hadley. But on December 15, Hadley received unanimous support from her council colleagues and became mayor. “She says she has heard the concerns and will do better,” said Councilperson Nancy Hersman, who’d frequently clashed with Hadley.

“She says she wants to unify the community. I do hope that can be done, because I’ve never seen our community as split apart with divisiveness in my 22 years here. Now, at a time when we need to be unified against the coronavirus, we are taking sides. We cannot continue this way. We all have to work together to make changes.”

Hadley, visibly moved by the support of her colleagues, called herself “a flawed human being” and promised to help make changes.

“I just welcome a clean slate,” she said. “I welcome a fresh start. I have work to do, and fences to mend, and relationships to repair. I will take that seriously…I thank you for this. I am humbled and chastened. I would just love to move forward.”

Manhattan Beach School Board candidates Chaz Flemmings and Phoebe Lyons and Manhattan Council candidate Jason Boxer. Photo by Jess Lee Cederblom (@JLCederblomPhotos)

The Zoom election

City politics were impacted both by the pandemic and by the Black Lives Matter movement. Social distancing restrictions meant that the campaigns for three City Council seats and two seats on the Manhattan Beach Unified School District Board of Education were conducted largely by Zoom. Candidates debated online, met with possible supporters online, and — with the exception of a small election night party at Ercoles celebrating the reelection of Richard Montgomery and Steve Napolitano to the council — even celebrated online.

The surge in activism surrounding BLM attracted two young candidates to the council race, 29-year-old Chaz Flemmings and 23-year-old Phoebe Lyons, and 28-year-old Jason Boxer to the school board race. The council race was also unusual in that, because of the nature of the vote-by-mail election, it took nearly a month for all the ballots to be counted. Joe Franklin overtook Grettel Fournell over the course of that month to join Napolitano and Montgomery in victory. Boxer and Cathey Graves won election to the school board.

In November, parents and students held a rally in Polliwog Park, calling for schools to be reopened. Photo by JP Cordero

The parent rebellion

No single sector of society struggled more with the pandemic than schools. In March, schools had to adjust on the fly to distance learning. Chaos ensued; many students, aware that grades would not be affected by anything that occurred in distance learning, gave little attention to online classes. Even those who did, struggled with learning in isolation. And parents suddenly had to take responsibility for having a de facto classroom in their homes populated by bored, lonely, and often disgruntled children.

Things boiled over in Manhattan Beach in late September. Earlier that month, state and county public health agreed on guidelines to allow special needs students back on campuses as early as September 14. Yet as the month wore on, MBUSD had yet to bring any of those students back. More than 100 parents showed up for what one described as an “emotional and devastating” Special Education Advisory Committee meeting via Zoom on September 22, during which fury was unleashed towards district leaders.

Manhattan Beach parent Jessica Cornelison told the school board “every day is a struggle” for her and her son, a fourth grader with Down syndrome.

“We’ve stopped participating in General Education zooms, and even one-on-one Zooms with the providers he loves, he has no interest in attending,” she wrote. “I often must physically carry him to his chair and keep him in front of the camera. I can’t continue to force this on him. He has deleted Zoom from his device repeatedly, and locked himself in his room at the start of a call. His team is doing everything they can for him, but without in-person learning, everyday is a lost opportunity for growth. This is a little boy who used to love to go to school and learn.”

Later, in November, parents held a rally at Polliwog Park, headlined by actor and local resident Vince Vaughn, calling for school reopening.

MBUSD leaders listened. High needs students were back in classrooms by mid-October, and in November the district successfully applied for TK-2 waivers from LA County, which allowed the return of transitional kindergarten through second grade students two days a week just before the holiday break.

Not all teachers were comfortable with the pace of the district’s reopening. In early November, just as the TK-2 waiver was approved, a group of 24 youth soccer teams from Manhattan Beach traveled to Arizona to play in a tournament. Teachers union president Shawn Chen described that action as indicative of a sense of “Manhattan Beach exceptionalism” that she worried put teachers at risk.

“It’s concerning, because we are doing something that is beyond the necessary requirement — many, many schools in LA County are not going back,” Chen said. “So we are taking this step for our students, and that step involves trust. And some of the people we are trusting are showing a disregard for our safety and health…These are people who want all the privilege and none of the responsibility.”

Other teachers were just happy to be back in the classroom. As the TK-2 program launched on December 8, Pennekamp Elementary kindergarten teacher Patti Ackerman noted that something unusual happened — not a single one of her students cried on their first-ever day of school. At the end of the school day, however, Ackerman herself almost cried when parents waiting outside gave each student a round of applause as they left school.

“I had to hold back tears,” she said. “And they applauded for every child who walked out. It was such a great moment. It was such a great day.”

Michael Zislis, owner of Rock N’ Fish and the Strand House on Manhattan Beach Boulevard helped spearhead approval for outdoor dining. Photos by Kevin Cody

The dining rebellion

The City Council in early December went out on a limb on behalf of the city’s restaurants. A surge of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations caused the LA County Department of Public Health to ban outdoor dining. The Council on December 2 took the unusual action of declaring the public dining areas of all restaurants within Manhattan Beach public seating.

“Our business community is struggling to survive the County’s latest restrictions and the City has a win-win solution to help, while safeguarding public health,” Mayor Suzanne Hadley said in a statement at the time. “Additional public seating areas will strike this balance and repurpose public areas that temporarily can’t be used for outdoor dining because of the County’s restrictions.”

Restaurants officially ceded control of their outdoor deck furniture, which they purchased after the city allowed an expansion of outdoor dining early in the pandemic. On December 6, inspectors from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health paid visits to several Manhattan restaurants and asked operators why their outdoor dining decks were still in use.

Mike Simms, co-owner of Simmzy’s and a handful of other downtown eateries, said he told the inspectors, ‘Well, they’re not our dining decks anymore. The city took them back when outdoor dining was banned…So they’re now public spaces, just as if they were a public park. And from the city’s stance, the order doesn’t shut down public parks, so anybody’s allowed to sit there.’”

LA County Health Officer Muntu Davis, in a letter to the City, urged an end to the practice, which he described as a “workaround” of the public health order.

“By placing tables and chairs adjacent to restaurants, the City of Manhattan Beach is both violating and defeating the purpose of the County’s Order and decidedly not safeguarding public health,” Davis wrote.

At year’s close, outdoor dining was still occuring in Manhattan Beach, despite an appeals court ruling this week, upholding the county ban. ER

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