OAKLAND, Calif. -- The sights and sounds of economic redevelopment are seemingly around every corner. If bulldozers aren't puffing out tufts of white smoke as they move massive amounts of earth, towering cranes are swiveling from side to side, providing the framework for the next high-rise or office building. The constant thumping of jackhammers serves as the soundtrack of progress.
Sitting inconspicuously on a narrow, car-lined street is New Parkway Theater, an intimate venue that prides itself on being quirky and community-based. The cement walls in the softly lit back auditorium are canvases for local artists, and the seating includes velour couches, leather loveseats and a worn beautician's chair that still has a hair dryer attached to it. Each Wednesday, patrons are allowed to "pay what you can" for movie tickets, with 20 percent of the proceeds going to a local nonprofit at the end of the month.
What really makes the venue an important part of the area's revitalization, however, is its commitment to hosting community events at little or no cost to organizers, such as last Thursday when a handful of NFL players held a Launching Justice forum attended by roughly 90 people. The event is one of at least four the Players Coalition will stage across the country, during which candidates for district attorney will be invited to participate in a public Q&A conducted by members.
Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin, Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman and Texans cornerback Johnson Bademosi represented the group on this day. The Coalition is focused on DA races because district attorneys play a significant role in deciding whether someone is or isn't prosecuted and how the system will handle those who are charged.
"I'm hoping that with the presence of stars like Richard and Malcolm and Johnson, like we had today, we can bring the community together and educate them by providing an opportunity to ask questions of the people being elected to represent the community," said Baldwin, who, like Sherman and Bademosi, has ties to the Bay Area from his college days at Stanford. "I'm hoping forums like this can spark that conversation or spark that curiosity that the community has but just doesn't always have the platform to get the answers it might be seeking."
Last week's stops in Sacramento and Oakland were the first of at least four Launching Justice events the Players Coalition has scheduled, the next being tentatively scheduled for June in Boston. The initial results were mixed; although the public turnouts were good, the incumbents in Alameda and Sacramento counties did not attend, essentially yielding the floor to each of their opponents. Coalition members proceeded anyway, peppering single candidates in each county with four pages of questions that focused on things like police accountability and practices, cash bail reform and sentencing guidelines for juveniles and drug offenses.
"Criminal justice reform is at the heart of our ability to preserve our democracy, so everybody better pay attention," Alameda County candidate Pamela Price said. "The fact that these young men are woke and are saying, 'Hey, I'm not just an athlete. I'm a member of the community. I'm a black man in America, and that means I need to step up and speak out on behalf of my community' -- that's awesome."
The Players Coalition, as a collective, is prohibited from endorsing candidates because of its nonprofit status, but the players make clear their purpose is to give a voice to communities that often feel voiceless. The players paid their own expenses to participate Thursday, with Baldwin flying in from Seattle, Jenkins from Philadelphia and Bademosi from Houston. Sherman, who resides near Silicon Valley after signing with San Francisco, made the drive across the Bay despite not being a formal member of the Coalition.
"When you're from the inner city, you see first-hand the effects that laws and convictions have on your community, how detrimental it can be for kids to lose their fathers for minor drug offenses that most people would get probation or something lesser for," said Sherman, who grew up in the southern Los Angeles County city of Compton. "Guys are getting five or 10 years of their lives taken from them because they don't have the money to fight the charges. It's unfortunate. Being here is my way of giving back and trying to make a difference because I've seen first-hand men being raised without a father and how negatively it can affect their lives."
The Launching Justice tour is a continuation of the work the Players Coalition has been doing for the past two-plus years. Gradually, its work is having an impact. For instance: In April, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Price signed a bill that raised the age from 7 to 12 that a youth could enter the criminal justice system. Patriots defensive captain Devin McCourty led a group of four other Coalition members who lobbied on behalf of the bill. Also that month, the Pennsylvania House passed the Clean Slate Act, which would automatically seal old, nonviolent misdemeanor offenses for Pennsylvanians who have not had any additional convictions for at least 10 years. Jenkins and several other Coalition members had lobbied on behalf of the bill.
"The thing that I'm most proud about is that we're actively building a bridge between law enforcement and our communities," Baldwin said. "We've done a lot of work with law enforcement to reinforce the values that the community and law enforcement care about. It's important to come to the table together because we know it's not a problem we can solve separately. We've been able to find the empathetic nature of the conversation. We can have all these solutions and come up with all these ideas, but if we really don't understand the context of where this emotion is coming from, then we're really not even answering the real questions."
Significant planning and homework goes into the staging of a Launching Justice event. Members study legislative and judicial data from the community they'll be speaking at, so they can tailor questions specifically for the candidates. They also speak with community leaders to gauge which issues are most important to them and how the Players Coalition can be most effective in its presentation.
Thus far, community leaders have welcomed them with open arms. In Sacramento and Oakland, venues were provided free of charge to host the events, save a cleaning fee in Oakland.
"We have 55 investors at New Parkway Theater, and five or six of them are public defenders in Alameda County," general manager J Moses Ceaser said. "One works with UnCommon Law. (A non-profit whose stated mission is advocating "to improve prison conditions and to find alternatives to incarceration. Our ultimate aim is to reduce drastically the number of adults and children entangled in the criminal justice system".) He's very interested in some of the themes that were discussed. It's an important conversation."
Said Barbara Range, curator of the Brickhouse Gallery and Art Complex, which hosted the Sacramento forum: "The event was very impactful, not only because you had a sports personality coming out, but because you had the NFL supporting human rights. How often does that happen? And then the message ... that from this point on we, as an African-American community, will be holding accountable any elected officials we choose to govern us. Events like this are a big help is doing that."