Lawyers triumphed over cops at the 2022 San Diego Unity Games Saturday, bringing a little friendly competition to the Mountain View community.
The trash talk began early Saturday morning with Randy Grossman, US Attorney for the Southern District of California, predicting his Sandlot crew would win the trophy in the sixth year of the competition.
“For the first time, we’re actually going to win,” Grossman said, and his words proved prophetic as the squad defeated the San Diego Police Department in the Games’ single-elimination softball tournament. The nonprofit organization SAY San Diego won the event’s first three-on-three basketball competition.
Showoff rights aside, this meeting wasn’t really about winning, it was about seeing and being seen in a different environment.
As San Diego City Council President Sean Elo-Rivera explained, the idea behind Unity Games is to create a space where community members and those who serve them connect in fun situations rather than tense ones be able.
“This is an opportunity for us to build a community and get to know each other in a different way,” said Elo-Rivera.
Saturday’s event took place at the Willie Henderson Sports Complex on 54th Street near Logan Avenue.
The grassy expanse with a recreation center, basketball courts, and baseball fields is known as a site of drug trafficking and violence. Willie Henderson has seen three shootings since 2019, the last on Jan. 7, 2022.
But getting the community living around the park to come out and play was hit and miss.
While a number of organizations, including Bridge Church and nonprofit organizations such as Project AWARE and the National Conflict Resolution Center, participated heavily, there was no team contribution that represented the neighborhood itself, and there were few area residents who came out to help to watch the action unfold.
Manny Del Toro, captain of the police department’s Southeastern Division, said a two-year pandemic hiatus certainly set the event back somewhat. A Christmas present at the same location, he added, had a significant turnout.
“Everybody’s just trying to put their power into making it a better place,” Del Toro said.
Overcoming the place’s reputation is a difficult task, added Sergio Gonzalez, a neighborhood resident and member of the DiverCityHeights team. Gonzalez, a member of the neighborhood’s community violence response team, said he regularly knocks on doors to hear residents’ concerns and notes there are trepidations about going to Willie Henderson.
“They tell us, ‘We’re scared to come out, we’re scared to take our kids to the park,'” Gonzalez said. “They see the drug activity, they see the gangs, they hear gunshots and they’re scared to bring their kids here.”
Reversing that perception takes more than a few events once a year, he said. It will take a lot of positive presence, he said, to change the mood in the community.
Reginald Washington, founder and CEO of Project AWARE, an organization that works with youth to find peaceful ways to resolve conflict, agreed that change will not come with a one-off approach. Losing five years of momentum to the pandemic is a particular shame, as gaining community trust and involvement is always a years-long endeavor.
“If after one or two times we think everything’s going to be Kopacific, we’re fooling ourselves,” Washington said. “If we have 10 or 15 kids this time, maybe next time we’ll have 20 or 30.
“We have to be there for the long term.”