Racial Reckoning: Manhattan Beach City Council stops short of issuing a Bruce’s Beach apology

Charles and Willa Bruce. Photo from City of Manhattan Beach staff report

by Mark McDermott 

The recommendations of the Bruce’s Beach Task Force came to the City Council Tuesday night with a backdrop that included not only the century-old, racially-inspired and city-backed misdeed that resulted in the taking of an African-American beachfront resort, but national attention on just what Manhattan Beach now intends to do to address that history. 

What occurred at Bruce’s Beach in 1920s, when the Klu Klux Klan and other white supremacists were aided and abetted by the City of Manhattan Beach to take land from Willa and Charles Bruce and the fledgling African-American community that was growing around their resort, had largely been a hidden history until the Black Lives Matter movement last year cast a new light on underlying causes of ongoing racial inequities in the United States. 

In the wake of BLM protests in Manhattan Beach last year, the City Council sought to address that historical wrong by establishing the Bruce’s Beach Task Force. The 13-member body was appointed by councilmembers and tasked with establishing a more accurate history of what had occurred, propose replacement language for the current plaque at Bruce’s Beach Park, develop ideas for public art to commemorate its real history, and potentially arrive at further recommendations for City Council’s consideration. 

Those recommendations, compiled in a progress report delivered to council, included the issuance of an apology by the City of Manhattan Beach and the continuation of the task force in order to conduct educational public forums. 

“The racial reckoning of 2020 has provided the City of Manhattan Beach with specific opportunities to remember and confront the past and tackle the difficult but necessary steps forward,” the report said. “The history of Bruce’s Beach provides a focus and space for this renewed work.” 

The Task Force’s recommendations met heated opposition in the form of an anonymous media campaign from a group calling itself only “Concerned Residents of MB.” It issued mailers and paid for a two-page advertisement in The Beach Reporter that said Manhattan Beach had been “falsely accused of being a racist city” and that the task force was using race to “grab power.” The group called for disbanding the Task Force and denial of all its recommendations. 

At Tuesday’s meeting, Task Force member Mike Jenkins implored the council to accept the recommendations and emphasized the proposed resolution for the issuance of an apology. 

Black Lives Matter protesters at Bruce’s Beach last August. Photo by Kevin Cody

“The resolution will send an important message to and beyond this community [that] the government of this city makes amends for the actions of its forebears and rejects all forms of racism,” Jenkins said. “Obviously, you’re under some pressure here. I’m disheartened by the anonymous and histrionic messaging circulating in the community attacking our report. Fearmongering and the politics of division are corrosive and ugly. There was nothing radical or frightening in our report. Nobody in this community has anything to fear.” 

Jenkins said he has lived in Manhattan Beach for 43 years and called it “a wonderful place to live.” But he said the city could only benefit by becoming more diverse and inclusive.

“I am a white man,” Jenkins said. “I know that I’ve benefited from white privilege. I’ve listened carefully to my Black colleagues on the Task Force and to the Black residents who have spoken to me. It’s obvious: you’ve had a different experience. I’m proud of [the council] for initiating this hard conversation. As the report makes clear, we’re not done and hopefully you will do the right thing and see this through.” 

The council, before a Zoom audience that included nearly 400 people at its peak, accepted the task force’s recommendations for the rewriting of the plaque, allocated $350,000 for public art at Bruce’s Beach Park, and authorized ongoing work on establishing both an accurate history and a website dedicated to that history. But the council also disbanded the task force and stopped short of issuing an apology, continuing that specific recommendation to a future meeting. 

The apology was the issue that drew the most intense fire. Many residents argued that an apology amounted to an acknowledgment that racism is an ongoing issue in Manhattan Beach. 

“The task force is labeling Manhattan Beach as a racist,” said resident Angela Nelson. “Every town has a few bad apples. But forcing this label on an entire town is not fair. Government funds do not need to support this narrative and the City Council needs to focus on the needs of Manhattan Beach residents as a whole. And why are we apologizing for something that happened 100 years ago? An apology is an admission of guilt. I feel no guilt. Do you?”  

“People are upset because upsetting false allegations have been made in this taskforce with impunity, including that racism is in the DNA of the city, that all of us are white supremacists, and that the Ku Klux Klan is here and well alive,” said Lucia La Rosa Ames. “As a woman, and as an immigrant, I am a two times minority, and I’m the new face of Manhattan Beach…Now, legally and morally, you only represent us, so if you apologize, you apologize for us, because you think we have something to apologize for. You don’t have that right now legally or morally, because we have nothing to apologize for. We all condemn racism.” 

Lifelong Manhattan Beach resident James Orland said he thought all the discussion had been good for the city but that the Task Force had gone too far. 

“I’m not saying there’s not racism today, and certainly I’m not saying there wasn’t racism back in the ‘20s, because there was, and there still is today,” he said. “But I do not believe that Manhattan Beach is a racist community today. What’s being proposed is just a slippery slope. Where does it end? We have this resolution….My fear is that the admission can be used as fuel to fire a potential lawsuit against the city in the future.” 

The Task Force report attempted to address the notion that its findings would be perceived as labeling Manhattan Beach racist. 

“It is not the intention of this report to label or accuse everyone or any specific person or persons in Manhattan Beach as racist,” the report read. “Racism is nuanced and complex, a system not an event. We acknowledge that present day residents were not the residents who inflicted harm on the Bruces and others. Individuals alone are not to blame for systemic racism; however, we are all complicit in its harms, and must be accountable for its elimination.” 

Justin Howze, the 24-year-old Black man who last month was confronted by a white surfer near the Manhattan Beach pier who hurled racial epithets at him and pointedly urged him to go surf by Bruce’s Beach, told the council that they had a historic opportunity. 

“An apology, as proposed by the Task Force, would be just the first step in the right direction of arriving at a solution that rights the wrongs of the past,” Howze said. “And as someone who has experienced racism in Manhattan Beach in 2021, I can tell you that this will only bring us closer to healing together. It’s never okay to justify injustice with other instances of injustice. What happened in other places is not the responsibility of Manhattan Beach. What happens in Manhattan Beach is the responsibility of Manhattan Beach. I inspire you to be an agent of change, because the country is watching.” 

Resident Sharon Kraus said the issue was accepting responsibility, not blame, for what occurred years ago. But she also said racism is an ongoing issue in Manhattan Beach. 

“I am married to an African American,” Kraus said. “I have three beautiful African American children. The majority of the neighbors and people who my children went to school here with are fantastic people and they’ve always treated us well. But racism does rear its ugly head in this beautiful city. My son was called the n-word while playing at the playground program. My daughter had a gun pointed at her head when she was eating ice cream at Baskin Robbins in her car. Anyone who believes that we don’t still have work to do is just putting their head in the sand. We can take some positive steps here. We can show our children what kind of people we are. We can show the world what an amazing city we live in, and how we’re working to make it better.” 

Vicky Edwards recounted similar experiences endured by her two children. 

“My husband is Black. We love Manhattan Beach,” Edwards said. “We moved here almost a decade ago to raise our boys in a great community with a great education. And I’m sorry to get emotional, but I find this emotional. Have we seen racism here? Yes. Is it every day? No. Is it every week? No. But it’s here. I’ve had obscenities yelled at my husband in front of my two young boys, who are eight and 10. And this is not about condemning Manhattan Beach as a racist city. This is about history…when we learn about our past, we open the doors to our future.” 

Manhattan Beach Unified School District board Trustee Jason Boxer understood why some people felt an apology implicitly accused the city of being racist. 

“The concern that you are raising and the alarm that you’re feeling…I think all of it is reasonable,” Boxer said. “I think it is natural. I feel it myself when I hear someone talk about Manhattan Beach as nothing more than some kind of selfish, wealthy enclave, as a malicious place. I feel really angry. I want people to know that it hurts when someone criticizes your hometown, and it hurts when someone attacks your moral character. My message to you tonight, however, is that this is not what is happening here. By proposing that we recognize the gravity and pain of something terrible that happened in our city, something that none of us are personally responsible for, this task force, which is composed of our neighbors, is doing the exact opposite of attacking our moral character. They’re giving us a compassionate and thoroughly researched and humble accounting of an act of racial terror that occurred in our city. And when we acknowledge this, we can show the world —  and the world is watching us right now —  that we are loudly and clearly against racism. In a post George Floyd world, we cannot afford to reduce the task force’s work to simple accusations of personal individual racism. None of us are personally culpable for what happened to the Bruces, just as none of us are personally responsible for the school-to-prison pipeline or massive racial disparities in infant mortality. What we are responsible for is acting with moral courage to heal this world that we’ve been born into by no choice of our own. It is possible for us to acknowledge the racism both in this world and in this city, past and present, without condemning each other as bad people.”

As Boxer and Howze referenced, the council found itself under an unusually large spotlight. National and regional television news segments as well as a lengthy New York Times story last week examined the history of Bruce’s Beach and highlighted not only the City Council’s upcoming decision but also discussions between LA County and the Bruce family for possible restitution of the land. Supervisor Janice Hahn also issued a statement indicating that LA County was in talks with the Bruce family for possible restitution of its land, which is now the lifeguard headquarters below Bruce’s Beach Park. 

“The property that was once the Bruce’s is now owned by the County and I want LA County to be part of righting this wrong,” Hahn said. “I am looking at everything from repurposing the property in a way that tells the history of Bruce’s Beach to actually giving the property back to the descendants of Charles and Willa Bruce.”

One of those descendants, Duane Yellow Feather Shepard, said that what occurred has had a lasting impact on the family.  “It’s been a scar on the family, financially and emotionally,” he told the New York Times, adding that even if LA County returned the land, the city would also need to make further amends. “…The restitution and punitive damages, Manhattan Beach is going to have to pay. We’re going to keep up with them until we get it.”

The city has obtained legal advice that not only should it not pay restitution but that doing so would possibly represent an illegal gift of public funds. The council on Tuesday did not address this aspect of the Bruce’s Beach issue, except a reference by Napolitano that the city had also been legally advised that an apology would not give the city legal liability. 

Napolitano, who along with Councilperson Hildy Stern co-chaired the Task Force, first broached the idea of issuing an apology last August.

“As for an apology, this has generated a lot of heartburn for some folks, and I understand,” Napolitano said Tuesday night. “What I continue to believe is that an apology for historic wrong can be a powerful symbol of reconciliation that is not without precedent. Ronald Reagan made a formal apology on behalf of the nation for the wrongful internment of Japanese Americans during World War Two. I was not alive at the time of their internment, but I didn’t take the apology as assigning guilt or blame for any one person. I saw it as our government trying to redress past wrongs that we collectively came to know as being wrong.” 

Napolitano was the first of the council to speak on the matter, and like his four colleagues, he spoke from prepared remarks —  an unusual occurrence at City Council and indicative of the fraught nature of the issue at hand. Napolitano said he’d learned a lot in the process and emphatically rejected the notion that Manhattan Beach was a racist town. 

The Bruce family held a family reunion at Bruce’s Beach in 2018. Photo by D’Aughn Thomas

“What I already knew, and still know, is that the people of Manhattan Beach are passionate about their community and don’t want to see its reputation wrongfully attacked,” he said. “I share that passion, and I have my entire life. I’ve repeatedly said that we’re not a racist city and I say it again now. And finally and fully dealing with the history of Bruce’s Beach doesn’t make it racist.” 

Stern took aim at the attacks on the Task Force. She said at the group’s first meeting members were asked to say in one word what they hoped to achieve. 

“Let me list for you those aspirational ideas: enlightenment, beginning, community, empathy, compassion, progress, leader, awareness, resonation, change, understanding, education, healing, empower,” Stern said. “Let’s juxtapose those aspirational ideas against the incredibly divisive rhetoric that has lately taken center stage. It’s not a secret that there is a well coordinated effort to undermine the work of the Task Force. We have seen the scare tactics, which have been repeatedly disseminating false and misleading information…This tactic of repeating the same false narrative over and over in an attempt to make it true does not in fact make it true unless, of course, we let it, by not calling it out for what it is. Right now, let’s call it out and clarify what has been misleading and outright false so the reaction to these misstatements do not guide our decision making. Let’s just start with the most obvious: Manhattan Beach is not a racist city.” 

Councilmember Richard Montgomery blasted the anonymity of the attacks. 

“I’m most disappointed in the anonymous ads and emails that we all saw,” he said. “If you’ve spent time and money on an ad, or an email, please have the courage and the intestinal fortitude to sign your name. I’ll call them out as the same weak tactics [we saw in] the last election, reeking of desperation, and pitiful.” 

Councilperson Joe Franklin read a 14-minute statement that passionately defended the moral character of Manhattan Beach and argued against an apology. He instead called for an “acknowledgement and condemnation of the racist actions which took place over 100 years ago in Manhattan Beach.” Franklin’s overarching argument was that symbolic pledges and apologies are less meaningful than actions already underway in the community. 

“The overwhelming majority of Manhattan Beach’s 35,000 residents today live lives far differently than some residents 100 years ago,” he said. “We are this way not due to pledges of inclusion and remedies like those outlined in the apology documents, but by living good, caring lives. By good families and friends who came before us and who live here now, who respect each other, and teach their children to be respectful, helpful, loving and tolerant. These pledges of inclusion and remedies were not in place. When our community showed overwhelming support for the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis 2000 miles away. Many Manhattan Beach residents filled the base of the pier on July 9 last year, joining peaceful protesters.”  

“Racism is not in our DNA, as has been alleged,” Franklin said. “Doing the right thing is…The community of Manhattan Beach today is loving, tolerant, welcome to all. And we will learn from the past and continue to educate ourselves and our families, as we have always done.” 

Mayor Suzanne Hadley likewise gave a long, impassioned speech, by turns referencing the Biblical adage that “the truth shall set you free” and poet laureate Amanda Gorman’s stirring call to unity at January’s presidential inauguration. 

“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” Hadley said. “Our town 100 years ago certainly fell short of the glory of God. What do I want now? I want the history of Bruce’s Beach to be put on our city website. I want the facts of what happened to be taught in our MB public schools. I want the signage updated at the park to list the names of all the evicted families. I want our Cultural Arts Commission to work hard to bring to life an art piece that honors the memory and experience of these early MB settlers. I want to keep Bruce’s Beach as a park, open and welcoming to all. I want to work with the County of Los Angeles to help decide what happens with the County’s own lifeguard station. I want to speak freely and honestly about this stain in our history, and I want to move forward together more in sorrow than in anger, pledging to say never again.” 

Hadley ended with a selection from Gorman’s poem, “The Hill We Climb”:

“We will not march back to what was but move to what shall be, a country that is bruised but whole, benevolent but bold, fierce and free, we will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation because we know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation, our blunders become their burden. But one thing is certain: if we merge mercy with might and might with right, then love becomes our legacy and change our children’s birthright. So let us leave behind a country better than the one we were left, with every breath from my bronze, pounded chest, we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one…We will rebuild, reconcile, and recover in every known nook of our nation in every corner called our country our people diverse and beautiful will emerge battered and beautiful, when the day comes we step out of the shade aflame and unafraid, the new dawn blooms as we free it, for there is always light if only we’re brave enough to see it, if only we’re brave enough to be it.” ER 

 

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