Black Surfers Organize a Peace Paddle Following Racist Encounter

The ocean is a place where many people find solace, particularly during the global pandemic. Sadly Black people cannot even escape to the water in peace.

An incident that took place earlier this year has fueled the conversation of who gets to surf. President’s Day this year started out as a normal outing for two friends Justin “Brick” Howze and Gage Crismond who are regulars at Manhattan Beach and have been surfing together for the last eight months.

Photo: Justin “Brick” Howze and Gage Crismond

While the two Black men were surfing, a white man paddled up to them and hurled racial slurs. He began yelling the N-word at Brick repeatedly and called him a ‘donkey’ while violently splashing water in his face. He also called Gage, a dancer and choreographer with painted nails, a homophobic slur.

Other white surfers joined in telling them that Manhattan Beach is reserved for locals only and they should “go to where the Blacks surf,” referencing Bruce’s Beach, a once-thriving Black-owned resort which was taken by the city in 1924 and is currently at the center of a fierce land battle.

As the altercation escalated a Black passerby, Rashidi Kafele, heard racial slurs and immediately pulled out his phone to document the incident. Neither Brick nor Gage had been involved in a racially charged altercation in the water before. When reflecting back to that moment, Brick said on Instagram, “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. The easy reaction would have been to punch the guy in the mouth, but do you want to be exactly what they want you to be in that moment?

Later that same day, Brick and Gage went on Instagram Live to speak to Brick’s 76,000 followers in detail about the incident. They also posted the images captured by Kafele of the white surfer aggressively splashing Brick in the face to the Black Sand account, a surf and arts collective they had started in October. The post caught the attention of many different organizations who encouraged the friends to create a call to action.

Brick and Gage knew that last summer following the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, surfers had organized “paddle-outs” in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Traditionally, surfers paddle out a few yards from the shore and form a circle joining hands to memorialize someone from the community who has died. Brick and Gage knew that doing this on the same stretch of Manhattan Beach where the incident had occurred would make a powerful statement.

They organized a Peace Paddle, promoting it on their social media accounts, and on February 21 the outcome was beautiful as over 200 surfers showed up in support and solidarity. Also present to document the event were journalists, camera crews and onlookers from the community.

Photo credit: Anthony Tran

“I feel a sense of impact because I want to be able to inspire the next person to not be intimidated by surfing because many BIPOC may feel intimidated by the ocean or the people in it,” shares Brick. “My parents didn’t grow up next to the beach. I didn’t get the luxury of having this my whole life. I know I deserve to be at the beach just as much as anyone else.”

Black Sand, founded by Brick, Gage and their friend Tre’lan, believes that “surf culture is ready for a renaissance of inclusivity, peace, and accountability amongst the humans sharing the ocean.” Before the Peace Paddle, the friends didn’t consider themselves activists, they were just two Black dudes who enjoyed surfing. Following the unfortunate event, the friends have been inspired to host more events that focus on inclusivity in the water. “You don’t really have the option [to] say ‘I’m not an activist’ in this type of moment,” says Brick, “yes, you are. If you thought that was wrong, and there’s a solution to it that needs to be found – yes, you have a responsibility.”

Brick and Gage are currently focused on getting more people to join Black Sand as they want to encourage people of color to thrive in a space from which they have been historically excluded. They recently released a Peace Paddle capsule collection of T-shirts and crewnecks and are donating proceeds to BIPOC surf-affiliated organizations and Bruce’s Beach activists.

To learn more about Black Sand check out their Instagram and visit their website.

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