Lakewood Residents Gather To Discuss Race Relations, Play Basketball

Several people gathered on a basketball court for a game.
Residents celebrated the return of basketball hoops to Madison Park with games, a cookout and an important conversation Saturday. [Taylor Haggerty / ideastream]

Residents gathered in Lakewood’s Madison Park Saturday to take advantage of the recently reinstalled basketball hoops.

Bringing basketball back to the neighborhood park in Lakewood's Birdtown neighborhood also opened the door for often-difficult conversations about race, public safety and perceptions.

Basketball hoops were reinstalled Thursday after being removed by the city during investigations into a pair of recent shootings at the park. Many residents called the decision to remove the hoops racist and criticized the move as unfair and reinforcing negative stereotypes.

A few dozen people showed up to enjoy basketball games, a cookout and a community-led discussion on the courts Saturday afternoon – the first of a series of block parties meant to improve safety and keep lines of communication open.

Organizers are hoping the effort can serve as a blueprint for others to make changes in their own neighborhoods, said Lakewood Outdoor Basketball Committee member Casey Davis.

“This concept of bringing people out to this park and this court to build an inclusive community around it will not be fleeting. It will not run out of steam,” Davis said. “This will be a blueprint for Lakewood and any other community watching us that the willingness to put action behind words works if people come together.”

The afternoon’s youth discussion about race relations, policing and diversity was led by Olivia Patterson, a senior at Lakewood High School. Patterson thinks the city needs to do more to show the voices of people of color are being heard, she said.

“I think there’s just been this overly perpetuated narrative where Lakewood is perfect and it’s like this post-racial utopia where everyone gets along, and that’s not true,” Patterson said. “There’s a lot of great things about Lakewood, but there’s also some really hard things to talk about here.”

The event Saturday included a community discussion about race, equity and policing in Lakewood. [Taylor Haggerty / ideastream]

The removal of basketball hoops was an example of reactionary decisions on the city’s part based on racial profiling, Patterson said. Putting them back up is good, she said, but there’s still a lack of diversity in areas like the city council, education and other local institutions. She’d also like to see changes in the Lakewood police force.

“What happened with the basketball courts really opened people’s eyes,” Patterson said. “It was a way for me to get involved, but also to make sure that I’m addressing it and helping other people to see that it’s racial profiling and it’s not okay.”

Lakewood Community Relations Commission member and longtime resident Camille Bragg said the neighborhood needs the park to be a comfortable and safe space, particularly for kids. The city has taken some steps, she said, but there needs to be an awareness of what might be too much.

“It’s important that the police monitor all aspects of the community that they do, but I think that if [the shooting] was an isolated incident, we don’t need to necessarily over-police because that can drive people away,” Bragg said. “I’m not saying they are, but it’s important to keep perspective on what happened.”

The decision to target only the basketball hoops following the shooting sends a message on how officials feel about the people who play the sport, Bragg said. Though the courts were closed during the police investigation, other facilities, like soccer and baseball fields stayed open.

The city needs to be aware more of how its decisions look and make residents feel as it makes efforts to be inclusive and fair, Bragg said.

Lakewood officials asked the Anti-Racism Task Force to contribute to discussions on safety and inclusion going forward.

Including young people and people of color in these conversations is important, said task force member and resident Angelina Steiner, and the city needs to make sure safety protocols aren’t making people of color uncomfortable. Creating the task force is a good first step, she said.

“I just want to make sure that Lakewood is a safer community that also includes them, as well. I’m their voice, but I’m the voice for myself as well. I grew up in Lakewood, and it was not very friendly to people of color even back then.”

More youth opportunities and amenities need to be made available around Lakewood, Steiner said. She’s hoping Lakewood officials will treat this moment as an opportunity for a redesign of Madison Park in order to make it a place everyone in the community can feel safe in and enjoy.

Eighteen block parties are scheduled through the summer to encourage Lakewood and Birdtown neighborhood residents to show up and get involved, Davis said.

The effort has been noticed by some city officials, including Lakewood City Council President Dan O’Malley, who also spoke Saturday.

“I can tell you there was a really real chance these courts would die on the vine,” O’Malley said. “You stood up and immediately and actively and loudly and said, ‘These courts belong to us, to the community. We are not going to surrender this court to anybody.’”

The city needs more courts and amenities, O’Malley said, and residents have made it clear to city officials they value those ideas.

“We’re going to have a great summer here at Madison Park, and it’s because of the work that you’ve done,” O’Malley told the crowd gathered in the spring sunshine.

Lakewood resident Julia Toke helped organize the block party and said she appreciated the participation from city councilmembers and the Lakewood Police Department.

“They were listening with open ears. I think what brings us together is hearing each other, and right now, there isn’t a lot of hearing,” Toke said. “There’s a lot of speaking, without a ton of listening and hearing. But I felt like people were really doing that today.”

The diversity of Lakewood residents is an asset for the community, Toke said, and the community needs to reinvest in itself to take advantage of that. White residents need to examine their own internal biases and work to help local communities of color how they can, she said.

“Just dig a little bit deeper and really love our neighbors a little bit harder,” Toke said.

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