All of us were excited about our two South Bay congregations merging. We launched this new relationship with a celebratory Kabbalat Shabbat service under the stars. I parked in front of the designated location – a beautiful slope of green grass reaching the sand that hugged the Pacific Ocean. We sang, hugged, jammed and tore into our picnic kiddushes. Walking towards my car, I learned the name of this oasis among the sprawl: Bruce’s Beach.
Bruce who? I visualized other Bruces in my cultural imagination – Banner, the alter ego of the Incredible Hulk, and Jenner, the Olympic decathlete. I imagined a muscle beach, a la Venice’s outdoor gyms and its ripped patrons. It would be another decade-plus before I learned Bruce was not the given name of a white guy, but rather the surname of a Black family.
Their story is now well known. Willa and Charles Bruce bought a beachfront property in 1912 as a different kind of oasis – for Blacks whose presence at other local beaches was prohibited. Twelve years later, after a campaign of citizen harassment and violence, the Manhattan Beach City Council invoked eminent domain to steal the beach area from the Bruces, ostensibly to build a park which was never built until the city turned the parcel over to the State of California in 1948. The campaign to return the parcel to the Bruce family has now received the imprimatur of State law, and Los Angeles County is beginning the process to do just that.
This important reparative victory should not be underestimated, nor overestimated. Justice delayed is justice denied. The Bruces took much longer to be heard than it took Dr. Seuss’s Horton to “Hear a Who,” and the Hilton-esque generational wealth that could have resulted from the Bruces’ entrepreneurial spirit will never be realized by this family. To date, Manhattan Beach is 0.8% Black, about a tenth of the percentage of Blacks overall in Los Angeles County.
When Cain killed Abel, God admonished him, saying “the blood of your brother cries out to me from the ground.” I, a late-coming Horton, am hearing more and more echoes of not so ancient sins. And once you hear one Who, you can no longer bat away the cries of many Whos – nameless individuals whose bones our comfortable suburban lifestyles silently crunch. In the mid-18th CenturyThe Tongva tribe dominated Tovaangar, a loose collection of about 100 villages in what we now call Los Angeles county, including Kaweenga (now “Cahuenga”) and Siutcanga (now Encino). The San Fernando Valley was a bridge to other indigenous cultures, including the Chumash and Fernandeno (whose name, even, has been erased by colonialism). Their encounter with European settlers resulted in a 90% reduction of their population, mostly by unfamiliar diseases, over the 19th Century. Their land was forcibly taken from them; systematically enslaved during the Spanish, Mexican and American occupations; children ripped from their mothers’ breasts. Los Angeles County is home to nearly 150,000 indigenous people, mostly refugees from persistent cultural erasure that spans the Americas. A small number of them are indigenous Angelenos.
Whose bones are buried under my house, or my congregation? Over whose bones do i ride my bike as I glide along the Los Angeles River? Do I dare attempt to silence the blood of the dispossessed, the enslaved, and the murdered that cry out against the wall of deaf ears? Am I not a fellow victim of dispossession, whose father left a country during the Nazi onslaught where his family resided for many centuries? If I am to advocate for the return of Jews to our historic homeland after 2000 years of dispossession, do I not have a responsibility to hear the cries of those dispossessed far more recently?
Of course I do. We all do. So now what?
I’m not entirely sure. It appears some reparations are in order, but no amount of reparations will properly address even a tiny fraction of the historic injustices against indigenous and other underserved populations. However, in 2019, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti impaneled a Civic Memory Working Group to unveil the true history of Los Angeles. Its recommendations, released earlier this year, can be found here.
Has your Neighborhood Council heard about this? Is your representative on the City Council following up on this? I don’t know, and it’s my responsibility as an American, a Jew and a person of faith to find out and get involved; to facilitate a cultural Right of Return; perhaps even to prioritize indigenous access to certain areas, as is being done at downtown Los Angeles’s pueblo.
Our Sages teach, “for sins against another person, Yom Kippur does not absolve unless and until the victim has been recompensed.” We did not commit the sin of dispossession, but we are culpable for blindly deriving benefit from this grave sin. It is long past time to recompense the victims, even if it is a tiny fraction of what they deserve. We owe the Bruces and the Tongva at least this. Shavua Tov.