MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. — Less than a month after the Manhattan Beach City Council dissolved a task force examining the city’s past racist actions and its future, the council met to discuss offering a formal apology to Black families whose land was seized through eminent domain.
But instead of an apology, a majority of the council approved a “statement of acknowledgement and condemnation” of the city’s past actions, overruling dozens of comments demanding an apology from Manhattan Beach residents and people throughout the Southland. The council’s vote overran one member’s objections to phrasing that minimized the city’s racist actions.
The council’s vote, according to Mayor Suzanne Hadley, was due in part to fears that the city may be sued for issuing an apology — a fear that two council members and many members of the public considered overblown.
“I hear all of you who want an apology, I’m a mom, I’m a Christian, I get the power of apology, I agree with the obligation to apologize,” Hadley said. “The difference here though is that word in California law comes with a lot of baggage.”
More than 100 years ago, Willa and Charles Bruce opened Bruce’s Lodge, one of the few Black-friendly resorts in Los Angeles County, drawing a handful of Black visitors and eventually, Black residents and businesses.
But their success didn’t sit well with white residents. A campaign of harassment from residents and city officials culminated in eminent domain proceedings. By 1929, seven Black families over two blocks of land were forced to sell their property. At least a dozen white landowners were also forced off their land — but only the Black property owners had built homes and buildings.
At the time, Manhattan Beach said it would build a park on the land. A park wasn’t established until the 1960s. In the late 2000s, the eventual park was named Bruce’s Beach, in honor of the Bruce family, following a push from the only Black elected official in the city’s history.
Last year, during the swell of the racial justice movement, activists learned of the park’s history, and pressed city leaders to atone for the city’s history of racial misdeeds. In response, Manhattan Beach formed the Bruce’s Beach Task Force, chaired by two council members and made up of a diverse handful of residents.
In March, the council deemed the task force’s job largely complete, accepting some of the task force’s recommendations (construction of new artwork; rephrasing an existing plaque) while ignoring others (ongoing public education; a racial policing review board). The council tabled its discussion of an apology until April.
The apology was the most polarizing issue both nights. This week, dozens of calls were made on the item, and Councilmember Richard Montgomery said he received at least 1,000 emails on the matter. However, he said that he put a greater weight on the “silent majority” of constituents he spoke to around town.
Proponents of an apology generally argued that it was proper for the city to admit fault for its past misdeeds to move forward. Opponents argued that it wasn’t their place to apologize for century-old actions, that racism doesn’t exist in Manhattan Beach, or that an apology could lead to the city being sued…though some took to attacking activists.
“The people who are on this Bruce’s Beach Task Force came here to profit from the town…they need to work hard, like the people of Manhattan Beach, the people who have worked here” said Alita Rethmeyer, who singled out three Black activists as wanting to be “famous.” “Those people who apologize, it’s like admitting something and going to jail for something you didn’t do. I’m sure those people can relate to this.”
“Unlike most people, I am a middle-aged white guy that grew up in a Black neighborhood and know exactly what it is to be amongst the Black people,” said David Dennis. “And there is no systemic racism. I’ve talked to my Black friends that I grew up with who are still in South Central Los Angeles…take a look around. I go to Ralph’s, there’s no racism. The Black families are certainly welcome, and have always been welcome, as all cultures are welcome in this town.”
But the overwhelming majority of comments were in favor of an apology — and often, the more progressive apology authored by Councilmember Hildy Stern. Some used their histories as parents as justification for the city apologizing, saying that the first thing one teaches children to do is apologize for wrongdoing. Others offered their own experiences as racial or ethnic minorities.
“One hundred years ago, I would have been excluded from living here because of covenants barring purchase of land by non-whites, or the Ku Klux Klan intimidating me to leave, like the Bruces were forced to leave,” said Robert, a Manhattan Beach resident whose last name was obscured by technical issues. “I’m extremely disappointed by our council members who are trying to find a way to water this down.”
“I am puzzled and quite frankly disturbed by the residents of Manhattan Beach that are personalizing this,” said Alison Hales, a member of the Bruce’s Beach Task Force. “No one is calling Manhattan Beach residents racist. The point is to acknowledge and apologize for the past actions of the institution that is now the Manhattan Beach City Council, that used eminent domain under racist motives toward the Bruce family and other families that were affected.”
The vote came down to a matter of semantics, according to Mayor Suzanne Hadley. Hadley — who voted in favor of the acknowledgement — said that there’s a slight difference between the words “apology” and “acknowledgement.”
But her biggest fear was that of a lawsuit: that an apology would be an admission of guilt that could be used as a cudgel against Manhattan Beach in a civil lawsuit. Throughout her comments, Hadley repeatedly alluded to a past lawsuit threat, though she did not offer specifics.
The two council members most in favor of an apology, Hildy Stern and Steve Napolitano, found Hadley’s argument suspect — coincidentally, both are attorneys by background, though only Napolitano practices in California.
“If we’re going to go down that road, anybody can be sued for anything. The question is whether there’s true liability that someone’s going to win on,” Napolitano said.
Napolitano clarified that a spokesperson for the Bruce family has threatened lawsuits in the past, but the facts of Bruce’s Beach have existed for years. “The lawsuit could have been brought many times before. The question is whether an apology brings about causation to create new liability on top of the facts that we already know.”
And based on his review, and discussion with Manhattan Beach City Attorney Quinn Barrow, Napolitano believed it wouldn’t be a problem.
Franklin, the author of the “statement of acknowledgement and condemnation” said that a resident told him that “as an attorney representing a victim of Manhattan Beach police brutality, the very first thing I would march in front of the jury is the city’s resolution apologizing for its racism.” That the apology would cover past racism, he believes, wouldn’t matter.
“It is not for the Manhattan Beach residents of today to apologize for what the residents from 100 years ago have done,” Franklin said. “If we acknowledge and condemn those actions, we can learn from them and move on…to do this, we need an accurate, unbiased version of our history.”
To Franklin, that apparently means a subcommittee report from the Bruce’s Beach task force, which has not been completed — though multiple tellings of the Bruce family’s history already exist.
The lack of a definitive report is why Franklin professed to use language that Stern called “minimizing” — words that add ambiguity, or suggest excuses for the city’s past racist actions. Franklin’s resolution, which was based on Napolitano’s suggested apology, deleted references to the city’s police department; to acts of intimidation and harassment; and suggested that the city’s past actions weren’t racially motivated.
Any doubts regarding racial motivations could have quashed when Napolitano read aloud a news column written by former trustee Frank Doherty and published in 1945 by the long-defunct Redondo Reflex newspaper.
“At one time, we thought the negro problem was going to stop our progress,” Doherty wrote. “So to solve the problem, we voted to condemn them and make a city park there.” At the time, Manhattan Beach’s attorney advised the city never to reveal the true purpose of the eminent domain — “especially during the council meeting,” Doherty wrote.
But, when Stern suggested that the word “reportedly” be struck before a section detailing racist acts against Black residents, Franklin declined, suggesting that the facts have to be “firmed up.”
“It doesn’t sound like you’re really ready to actually submit an acknowledgement if you don’t have confidence in the facts,” Stern replied.
Though Napolitano was able to amend Franklin’s proposed statement, Stern’s attempts to make changes were overruled when Hadley called for a vote.
Stern was the only vote against the statement of acknowledgement.
“It is incredibly disturbing to see how this has unfolded and this lack of intention on an acknowledgement,” Stern said.
One more minor amendment did make it through: Montgomery’s addition of the word “empathy” to read that the City of Manhattan Beach “formally acknowledges, empathizes and condemns” before describing the people it dispossessed of their land nearly 100 years ago.
“I like that Richard,” Hadley said. “I think empathy is a very important word.”