OAKLAND — The head coach of an Oakland youth football program is fed up with the violence in the city and said the blame goes all the way to the top.
This comes after the park they used to call home was the scene of a massive gunfight while the kids were on the field. Now,where they can continue their practices.
"With the game of football, that's their outlet. It gives them the opportunity to let their anger out, to let their aggression out, so they don't take it out on the world," said head coach Leroy Jones.
When the East Bay Panthers Football and Cheer club meets for practice every evening, in their own way, they're making the city of Oakland just a tiny bit safer.
The program, for kids 8 to 14, was practicing on Wednesday night at Madison Academy, but it was a temporary home, just until the end of the week.
Formerly, the team practiced and played their games at Verdese Carter Park in East Oakland, but gun violence made the area too dangerous to stay there. The sound of gunshots coming from the neighborhood was common, and Coach Jones said, on one night recently, two gangs of men showed up at the park, exchanging more than 100 shots as the kids dove for cover.
The team has had enough.
"We call the police now, it takes three to four hours to respond," said Jones. "Yeah, they say they're understaffed, but still, this is gun violence. This is for the youth. They had to duck. They could have lost their lives."
On Wednesday, the only OPD response was a statement reading, "The Oakland Police Department (OPD) recognizes the uptick in violent crime and gun violence. The Department is dedicated to utilizing all available resources to focus on individuals committing violent crimes, and we have increased our presence in areas experiencing this uptick."
But parent Danika Anderson said she didn't understand why things have been allowed to get so bad.
"At this point, I think it's hopeless, honestly," she said. "It sucks, because some people are born and raised here, and they're like, 'Oh no, we still got hope.' But at the same time, not really."
Coach Jones thinks the blame rests squarely at City Hall. He said all the talk about defunding the police, with the mayor then firing the Police Chief, has demoralized the force. He said now it feels like the cops don't care at all what happens.
"I believe the mayor, she ran on a platform of safety and prevention. There is no safety, no prevention here," Jones said. "Oakland has become a war zone. Right now, we don't have a Police Chief here in Oakland. I feel that the Mayor's not doing anything here in Oakland to help us."
Jones is also worried that, without deterrence, some of his own kids could end up in the violent lifestyle. So, without police presence at his team gatherings, they're doing the only thing they can: try to escape. The Panthers are searching for another field, even if it's in another community.
The team's last day at Madison is Friday, and Jones said they will consider anything in the East Bay, from Richmond all the way down to Hayward. They just need a safe place where they can practice, play games, and channel their energy to draw cheers rather than blood.
If you know of a possible site for the Panthers, you can contact them through their website at https://www.eastbaypanthers.com/
for more features.