They Met In Their DMs on Instagram and Sparked a Movement To End Racism in L.A. Surf Culture

Justin “Brick” Howze and Gage Crismond, were friends and  regular surfing companions at Manhattan Beach long before the incident that sparked the Peace Paddle event that helped the men reset the tone of the initially contentious rhetoric and relationship between the culture around surfing in Southern California and the one that originated in Hawaii.

The full original version of this story was originally published in theLos Angeles Times. Read it here.

Above: After getting called a slur while surfing the northside of the Manhattan Beach Pier on President’s Day, Justin “Brick” Howze and Gage Crismond organized a Peace Paddle that drew 200 surfers. (Gabriella Angotti-Jones / For The Times).

Last President’s Day weekend Brick found himself, quite literally, at the intersection of the collision of multiple surfers.

According to the Los Angeles Times, “First, a surfer dropped in on Brick’s wave, resulting in Brick’s board thrashing the other surfer’s board. The second time, it was Brick who accidentally cut someone off. “Get the f— out of the way,” the surfer told Brick. An argument ensued. As emotions climaxed, a different surfer — white and older — inserted himself into the fray. He began calling Brick the N-word repeatedly. Then he called him a ‘donkey’ and violently splashed water in his face. He also called Gage, a 25-year-old dancer and choreographer with painted nails and arms full of scribbly tattoos, a gay slur and told him to ‘go back to the streets.’”

“Go down there … that’s where the Blacks used to surf,” the man added, referencing Bruce’s Beach, a once-thriving Black-owned resort at the center of a fierce land battle in Manhattan Beach today. (The property was taken through eminent domain more than 100 years ago. Local activists are calling for Los Angeles County to return the land to the living descendants of the Bruce family and for the city of Manhattan Beach to publicly apologize and provide restitution for its role in institutionalized racism.)

Confrontation and aggression among surfers is nothing new. The common term “Locals Only” is often thought to speak to the kind of pride small towns revel in, but it actually speaks to a heightened sense of militant tribalism that grew out of 1950s California surf culture.

Local’s Only is a term even understood by the majority of us who are non-surfers thanks to Point Break.

Manhattan Beach has a reputation for invoking the latter to justify the former, especially when it comes to surfers deemed by locals as outsiders; “localism,” as it is known, is the culture that surfers adhere to. Some say it’s surfers just being protective of their home turf. Others think it’s a guise for something more insidious. Dan Cobley, 42, who has been surfing in Manhattan Beach for 30 years, says localism reigns because of the quality of the waves.

Surfing legend Graham Hamilton, L.A. chapter manager of the Surfrider Foundation and a surfer of 20 years, believes localism can be a veil for racism. “It’s rooted in this false sense of ownership,” he says.”

In the moment, Brick retreated into a meditative state. “I was just aware of my surroundings, and aware of who I am, and aware of what this moment actually is and what this moment actually means,” he said later on Instagram. The easy reaction would have been to punch the guy in the mouth, Brick said. “But do you want to be exactly what they want you to be in that moment?”

Above: DeVante Von Deschwaden bails out of a closeout wave during a morning surf session with members of Black Sand and Color the Water in Marina Del Rey. (Gabriella Angotti-Jones / For The Times.

Later that day, Brick and Gage went on Instagram Live for 37 minutes, broadcasting to Brick’s 76,000 followers. Brick recounted the morning in detail, while Gage rolled a joint and filled in the blanks. They also posted the images captured by Kafele of the surfer splashing Brick in the face to the Black Sand Instagram account, a surf and arts collective they started in October. The posts got the attention of organizations including 1 Planet One People, which advocates for inclusivity in surfing and encouraged the friends to create a call to action.

 

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Brick and Gage wanted to “reset the tone.” They knew that last summer, after the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, surfers organized “paddle-outs” in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Traditionally, surfers paddle out a few yards from shore and join hands in a circle to memorialize someone from their community who has died. Brick and Gage thought that the paddling out was a powerful gesture. And, if they did it on the same stretch of Manhattan Beach where Brick was called the N-word, it had the potential to make a statement. They blasted it out on their Instagrams.

On Feb. 21, 2021 surfers showed up, along with camera crews, journalists and observers from the pier.

“It was really just about Black joy,” says Danielle Black Lyons, co-founder of 1 Planet One People, a collective supporting climate action and racial and social equality, and Textured Waves, which aims to boost participation among women of color in surfing. “That was the focus of the day: being around your people, being free to be whoever you are and surf your face off without worrying about if you were going to make some white guy angry for accidentally dropping in.”

Above: When Brick and Gage started surfing together, it felt like a secret club. “We were just on this idea of just making sure that we were creating our own space,” Gage says. (Gabriella Angotti-Jones for The Times).

After the Peace Paddle, the South Bay’s Easy Reader newspaper published a story about the events. The headline, “Localism at the Manhattan Beach pier triggers racial reckoning for surfers,” struck a lot of the Peace Paddle participants as problematic — an echo of the root cause of “the incident.”

When Brick and Gage started surfing last year, they knew about the lack of representation in surf culture. But it wasn’t top of mind — at least not at first. In the water, everything else just became noise. “I felt the most free I’ve ever felt,” Gage describes. “It’s almost like magic. You always think about the oceans and how we don’t know too much and how the moon controls the tides, but you never really immerse yourself in it. And then when you’re sitting in it, and you’re forced to think that this is a whole different world upside down … it’s kind of artistic. There’s no way to just say you’re an athlete; surfing is more of a spiritual thing.”

The two men arrived at surfing as a sport and meditative exercise from different points but they fell into a routine that came to encompass their friendship and love of the sport.

Above: Brick and Gage have plans to move to Manhattan Beach. Brick has been scanning Zillow listings for the last two months, looking for a place near the water. (Gabriella Angotti-Jones / For The Times).

It’s that commitment to the integrity of that spirit that drives the enormous effort they put into getting people to join Black Sand — their effort to encourage people of color to thrive in spaces where they’ve been historically underrepresented. They recently released a Peace Paddle capsule collection of T-shirts and crewnecks and are donating proceeds to local surf organizations and Bruce’s Beach activists.

“You don’t really have the option to [say] ‘I’m not an activist’ in this type of a moment,” says Brick. (Gabriella Angotti-Jones / For The Times).

“Its purpose and goal now,” Brick says, “is just increased visibility for people like us in the water and to inspire others who have just tried to be different in spaces that they may not have previously felt comfortable in.”

Both Brick and Gage want to move to Manhattan Beach. They’ve been religiously sharing the work of Justice for Bruce’s Beach on Instagram, and digging into the town’s racist history. Brick has his sights set on finding the perfect spot near the water. He’s been scanning Zillow listings for two months.

Sure, Black people make up less than 1% of the population there. “I’ll become 151 of the 150 black people that live there right now,” he says. It’s more like 191. Brick hopes even more will catch the wave.

Writer Julissa James has been with the Los Angeles Times since 2019, where she’s written about culture, style and L.A. for the Calendar, Features and Metro sections. Her interests include covering subcultures and niche communities in California and beyond. She’s a graduate of Cal State Dominguez Hills and was editor of its school paper, the Bulletin. Caffeine sustains her.