Castlemont players find their voice through football
on October 20, 2016
According to Jadan Starks, the National Anthem is “only 30 percent true.” Starks, a senior at Castlemont High and a lineman on its football team, takes particular issue with characterizing the United States as “the land of the free.” So when a traveling team from Canada came to Castlemont to play football and learn about the United States, Starks thought about what he and his teammates could do to leave their visitors with an accurate impression.
After the final notes of “O Canada!” faded away on the night of August 19, the Castlemont players dropped to one knee and bowed their heads as their own National Anthem clicked on.
Their coaches, who, according to Starks, had been “110 percent” behind the team’s idea, knelt, too. As the bombs in the song were “bursting in air,” each Castlemont player raised his right fist in the Black Power salute.
The players said that they were inspired by Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers quarterback who began sitting during the National Anthem this August to protest police brutality, sparking a nation-wide debate about race, sports, and patriotism.
Someone snapped a photo of the Castlemont team kneeling, and it quickly spread on Instagram and Twitter. At the next game against The King’s Academy in Sunnyvale, Castlemont’s players took their protest one step further: they laid down on the ground as if they were dead and raised their arms in the “don’t shoot” position.
This time, there was another body in the end zone: Colin Kaepernick’s.
Kaepernick had seen a photo of the Castlemont players’ original protest on Twitter, and had come to show support to the young team.
Cellphone videos posted to YouTube show Kaepernick talking to the team in the locker room before the game. “What’s most important is you look out for one another,” Kaepernick said. “This is your family. These are your brothers. I look at you as brothers. I see your strength; I see your power; I see your courage; I see your confidence.”
As the videos of Kaepernick’s speech began circulating, Aaron Andino-Pryor, a junior who plays for Castlemont, said he and his teammates “knew what was coming next.”
At a recent Thursday evening practice, he gestured at the two other reporters who were snapping photos and interviewing coaches. “We never did this for attention,” said Andino-Pryor.
The football players are emphatic on this point.
“We did this because the police have a chain of thought,” Andino-Pryor said. “They look at us and assume: ‘He looks like a bad guy.’”
“We did this because I feel like I can never be safe around the police,” Starks said.
Football practice has become the space where the young men of Castlemont feel safe discussing their anxieties about the police, and their personal lives. When Starks took his protest idea to Castlemont head coach Ed Washington, he said he knew Washington would back him up. Coach Washington, Starks said, “wants to see who we are as men and people. He’s always telling us: ‘use your voice.’”
Starks said he feels comfortable talking to Washington because “he has been through the exact same things we have. We have had many heart-to-hearts.”
Washington was a star player at Castlemont himself. Now 28, he has returned to Castlemont with a degree in social work from Texas College in Tyler, Texas, to show other young men how they can use football to follow a similar path.
Washington “is always telling us, ‘Football comes last. It isn’t about the NFL,’” Starks said, like he has heard it a thousand times, but he believes it, too. “It’s about going to college and getting our degrees and coming back to make our communities better.”
Castlemont is situated in “a very poverty stricken area,” says Starks. According to Oakland Unified School District’s Strategic Regional Analysis for 2015 to 2016, the median household income for a Castlemont student is around $33,000. This kind of poverty, Starks says, leads to violence.
“Once you put a bunch of angry people in one place with so little help, so little resources, so little motivation—they are forced to do stuff they don’t want to do,” he said.
According to the 2012-2013 results of the California Healthy Kids Survey, developed for the California Department of Education, 38 percent of Castlemont students they had had a friend or family member who “died by violence.”
But the problem Starks and his teammates are focused on right now is their concern about police bias and brutality against African Americans. Earlier this summer, Stanford University researchers released a report analyzing nearly 30,000 traffic and pedestrian stops recorded on police body cameras in Oakland between 2013 and 2014. They found that African Americans are four times as likely to be searched by police in Oakland as whites are, even though officers were no more likely to find an illegal object from those searches of African Americans.
Similarly, 26 percent of officers handcuffed a white person who was ultimately not arrested, but 72 percent did so with an African American person.
“We’re like people who have lived through a tornado,” Starks says, reflecting on his community in East Oakland. He says every day when he sees his teammates, “it’s a blessing” because he is never sure if he will see them tomorrow.
During a break from practice one Thursday evening, the Castlemont players are grappling with what it means to be a young man of color in the United States.
Romeo Pittman, a sophomore on the team, is upset about the multiple police shootings from across the country captured on video this year. He recalls to his teammates how he used to look up to the police when he was younger.
“When I used to see police when I was younger my cousins would always say, ‘F the police, Five-O coming!’” said Pittman.
“I didn’t get it. I used to say, ‘Don’t say that about them, the police protect us,’” he said.
But now he is not so sure. According to a database on U.S. police killings maintained by the British newspaper The Guardian, 204 African-Americans have been killed in the United States this year. According to The Guardian, 36 were unarmed.
“This isn’t a war; it’s a genocide,” Pittman said. He says he learned what a genocide is in his ethnic studies class, and believes the current state of affairs between police and communities of color fits the definition.
“We are tired of being killed,” Pittman said.
The players have other concerns about the police, too. Lazaro Alvarez, 15, says he has been stopped two times because police thought he was selling drugs or a part of a gang.
“They threw me on the ground,” Alvarez said. “After that, I was in pain and couldn’t really talk.” Alvarez said the police put him in a car and drove him to his parents’ house. The police never charged him with anything, he said.
Other students at Castlemont have had similar experiences. During a practice in late September, teacher and Castlemont alum Chris Oakes said he got a call that an Oakland police officer had stopped four Castlemont freshmen down the street from the school. “I ran up and the officer had his weapon drawn and our kids in the car,” said Oakes.
“He was yelling ‘One of y’all got a gun!’” said Oakes, but he said no weapon was found on the students.
“Because I knew them, I was able to intervene and he let them go,” Oakes said.
Starks, who at age 16 is already 6’1” and 350 pounds, says so far, he has never had any interactions with the police. He tugs at the strings of his black hoodie. “I just want to know that if I ever do have to deal with the police, I will walk away with my life clean and free,” he says.
Chief Jeffrey Godown, the head of the Oakland School Police Department (OPSD), agrees that there is a national problem between police and communities of color.
“Look–the gentleman running in the field who got shot?” Godown said, referring to Walter Scott who was killed by a police officer in South Carolina after being pulled over for a broken taillight. “I’m pretty much immune to anything,” said Godown, but the video of the officer shooting Scott’s back as Scott ran left him “speechless.”
“I’m not in a position to justify what’s happening—I can’t justify it. They need to be prosecuted–more cops should be prosecuted” when the situation is “egregious,” Godown says, as he believes Scott’s was. The murder trial for the officer will begin October 31.
The OPSD differs significantly from the Oakland Police Department in that its officers respond only to school administrators, who call for support for problems like after-school fighting. According to a report that Godown delivered to the school board on September 28, administrators called OPSD for support over 3,000 times during the previous 103-day period.
Out of the 3,000 calls received in those days, OPSD officers made six arrests for incidents like battery and rape. “We truly try to eliminate as many arrests as possible,” Godown said.
Godown says he knows he has a unique group of officers. “They’re aware that they’re in front of kids,” he said, so his officers strive to make a positive impression on Oakland’s youngest residents.
Godown says he wishes the country focused more on the solutions than on problems when it comes to police and communities of color. “I’m trying to seek answers. It becomes frustrating.” Godown said.
“My concern with what’s going on now,” he said referring to both Kaepernick’s and Castlemont’s protest, “is that the discussion is on the protest and not how to fix it.”
Godown says he believes that training in social and emotional learning, known to educators by the acronym SEL, could help police officers around the country. This is a concept primarily used in education that Godown learned while working in schools. Developed by a Chicago non-profit called The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), SEL is a framework for teaching students to regulate their emotions and to use empathy to make responsible decisions.
The otherwise sparse walls of the conference room at the police station are papered with SEL posters it looks like Godown pulled off of some lockers. They illustrate concepts like responsible decision making, relationship skills, self-awareness and self-management. Godown believes training officers in SEL could help them stop and think in the moment: “Do you have to pull out that gun?”
“I know it’s more educational, but I’m trying to move it to police,” Godown says.
Starks says learning to control their emotions is exactly what police officers need. “That hits the nail on the head,” he said. “My mom taught me how to not react out of anger—even if I feel like it—so [the police] should be able to do it, too,” he said.
A box of mint chocolate protein bars, an electric fan, and a pile of chicken bones clutter the desk of Coach Washington. He is just one of a dedicated group of alums who have returned to Castlemont after college. Athletic Director Franky Navarro estimates that one out of six positions at Castlemont are staffed by alums.
Four of these coaches and teachers are crammed into Washington’s office, discussing race and police while the team watches a film in the room next door.
“The American dream is about…” Washington interrupts himself as a tiny player pokes his head through the top part of the swinging purple door.
“Ay! You hungry?”
The boy is silent.
“Here, take this.” Washington chucks a protein bar at him like he’s throwing a touchdown. The boy catches it one-handed, and darts down the hall.
The coaches are more pessimistic than the players, hardened by more life experience. “I got pulled over the other day,” Chris Little told his fellow coaches. “I swear to God I was really spooked! Anyone of us could get got—”
Another player pops his head through the doorframe.
“Hey! How is your grandmother doing?” Washington asks.
“Not good, Coach. She has pneumonia.”
“Write your number down and I’m going to try…No I’m going to buy some flowers and send them to her.”
Washington whips another protein bar. “This is all a lot of them are going to eat today,” Washington says.
The alums seem at ease in their role as part-time coach, part-time father figure. Navarro cracks up while recounting a story about a player they gave $10 to so he could go get a haircut. The next day the player showed up, hair wild as ever.
“What happened?!” Navarro asked him.
“I was hungry, Coach.” The room roars at the familiar story.
But just because the Castlemont coaches are comfortable helping out with groceries and haircuts doesn’t mean it is easy.
Last year, Washington teamed up with former mayoral candidate Bryan Parker to raise funds for the team. While other more affluent schools have deep networks of parents who perform many of these fundraising functions, many Castlemont families are struggling just to get by, Washington said. Their effort on Tilt, which raised over $10,000 last year, has raised an additional $2,335 so far this year.
“I’m the best beggar there is,” Washington says, motioning at the box of bars on the table.
He keeps a running tally of how many players stop by as the conversation about police continues. “Watch how many of them come see me,” he says as the players pop up in the doorway, some to say hello, some to produce a transcript, others to apologize for an earlier tiff with a teacher in class.
“That’s two,” Washington says. “That’s three. That’s four.”
After the team’s September protest, news that Kaepernick had come to Castlemont spread rapidly on social media. Kirk Morrison, a former NFL linebacker and current ESPN broadcaster, snapped a picture showing the Castlemont players lying down with Kaepernick kneeling in the background. It has received over 30,000 likes on Twitter and has been shared nearly as many times.
A YouTube video uploaded by Castlemont coach Benjamin Arnold that shows Kaepernick speaking to players before the game has been watched over 22,000 times. News networks like NBC Bay Area and ABC7 News—which had no prior knowledge of the event because Kaepernick wanted to keep it just between the kids and him, Washington said—pounced in the comments section, requesting permission to reuse the clip.
While many of the comments on the images were supportive, not everyone had kind words for the young team. Tod Starnes, a host on Fox News Radio, called the protest “a shameful display of anti-American behavior” in a column that Fox News ran on its website.
Schoolboard Director James Harris, who represents District 7, where Castlemont is located, said during a school board meeting on September 28 that he was shaken by some of the letters he had received in response to the students’ protest.
Harris read one email he received aloud during the meeting:
I am a citizen of the United States, born in California, a military veteran of the Viet Nam War, a patriot, very proud of my country, the flag and the National Anthem.
For your team to display un-American, disrespectful and obviously racist behavior during the National Anthem at their Friday night game is disgraceful.
Their behavior shows a lack of respect for the flag and this country, and to the many veterans who fought and some gave their lives so these immature, ungrateful and uneducated followers can lay down during the National Anthem.
Obviously your education programs do not include displaying pride in one’s country, patriotism or leadership.
I cannot respect a person who blatantly shows not only a lack of respect, but open disrespect for this great country. These kids need to grow up and be grateful for the country they live in. As always, if they don’t like it here, they are welcome to leave.
Harris said he remembered marching to City Hall to demand justice for Rodney King, whose brutal beating by four Los Angeles police officers was caught on tape in 1991. “And they were beating him with billy clubs. They were beating him with billy clubs,” Harris said.
“This isn’t beating anymore—there is a murder going on. What would I do if I were a young black man [today]?” Harris wondered aloud to his fellow board members.
The Castlemont players reacted to the negative attention by saying they weren’t trying to be disrespectful. “We’re not trying to slap America in the face,” Starks said. “We just want to get this issue [of police violence] settled out.”
Starks said he appreciates certain aspects of his country. “People say we’re ungrateful but we’re not. I feel 50-50 proud to be an American but when problems like this arise…” he trails off.
Andino-Pryor agreed. “This is supposed to be the ‘land of the free’ but we don’t feel free. We can’t even have freedom of speech without someone judging us. They’re still punishing us for following the law,” he said.
Just the day before, Tulsa police had released a video of Terrence Crutcher being shot by police with his hands up. According to his family, Crutcher was waiting for roadside assistance for his SUV, which had broken down. According to The Guardian, Crutcher was the 77th unarmed person this year to be killed by police in the United States.
Starks said he wishes he could switch places with the officer who killed Crutcher. “Let her come trade places with us. Two weeks and see how it is,” he said.
While he understands that while taking a knee might not look like much to some, said Starks, “protest leads to a movement leads to a revolution.” As a result of his idea to kneel during the National Anthem, he has already met Kaepernick, Mayor Libby Schaaf, and OUSD Superintendent Antwan Wilson.
Starks said the protest had made him start paying more attention “to the stuff that needs attention,” like racism and inequality, and tune out the distractions like celebrities and TV.
The next step, he said, is to focus on self-improvement, and the long game.
“We need to win our games. We need to achieve in school. Mediocre is not an option. We need to be outstanding in our classes. We all have to get a college education,” he said.
“And then we need to get jobs at inside institutions,” he said. Starks said he would like to study social work, “like Coach Ed,” and maybe become a police chief or superintendent in Oakland himself someday.
But the Castlemont players are aware that path will not be easy for them.
“You could be someone who gets straight As at Castlemont but have a 2.0 at Piedmont,” Starks said.
Pittman agreed. “The American Dream says all you got to do is work hard. But I know people who work hard, and they get less than the rich.”
“Nowadays you got to know people or be white,” Pittman said. “Football is our way out.”
The Castlemont players may see football as their way out. But they also want the world to know something more: it is their way back.
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