City residents have spent about 100 days of social distancing, masks, and sheltering at home because of COVID-19. But for the street athletes of the East Harlem Athletics, Sunday morning was finally an opportunity to let loose on the touch-football field at Harlem River Park.
That is until Park Enforcement officers and cops from the 25th Precinct crashed their much-needed football game, a huge tension release from nearly a week of George Floyd marches. The result however was much different than anticipated.
Nearly 100 people had assembled at the Field early Sunday morning, where East Harlem leagues have historically played every weekend – many playing high stakes games under the banner, “Kings of the Underground.” During the week, soccer leagues play most every day, many people playing before or after work or school. But the field has been empty for weeks, only recently starting to see activity from die-hard sports fans.
Athletes, their ages 20 and up to 40, were well into a touch football game when members of the Parks Department enforcement division sporting masks requested the game halt because both players and people were not social distancing and many were not wearing masks.
Parks officers told occupants that Harlem had suffered some of the highest numbers of COVID-19 cases, accounting for hundreds of deaths from Manhattan. They told the players Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo continue to prohibit public gatherings.
The athletes pointed out that demonstrators have been marching in the streets for two weeks and despite that, the rate of COVID-19 cases has dropped dramatically state-wide.
The Park officers quickly withdrew and the game resumed. That is until the next game got underway and the PEP officers returned with a contingent of 25th Precinct police officers led by a sergeant. Again, the debate began, many on the field becoming emotional, pleading with the officers that they have been “locked up for so long, we really need this.”
“They should let them finish because they have nothing else to do, a lot of people are home doing nothing – let them let some steam off,” said Jose Reyes, a resident of Harlem. “They’ve been locked in for about 100 days now so we need to get away from the new norm for a little while. Staying inside drives you nuts – you see the riots – they are venting in a whole different way.”
He admitted that the community had the worst suffering from COVID-19 – he and others confessed to knowing one or more people who died from the virus.
“But we also knocked it down, you gotta be rewarded for the job we’ve done – they were staying in, they were wearing their masks,” he said. “Whatever was asked was done and the numbers are down to where they want it now. People are antsy, they want to do things – this wasn’t put together by one guy – they all came together to do what they do.”
Luis Morales said street sports are “all we have left after they took away our professional sports teams,” their field a stone-throw from Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.
“They are opening the golf courses and tennis courts – they can do that but we can’t come out here and play,” Morales said. “I don’t get that.”
Police tried reasoning with the crowd, but residents were strenuous in their resolve to play their game with their families.
“Hey, we don’t want to shut you down, but the mayor says we are supposed to shut you down – it’s not us,” said one police officer who gave a fist bump to one of the players. “I really don’t want to do this.”
But after about 10 minutes of discussions, police turned around and left the field and the park, saying to them, “let’em finish their game.” As the officers walked off the field, the crowd cheered and applauded – a rare show of appreciation during a week when crowds were cursing and attacking officers.
One athlete identified only as Louis, pointed out that demonstrators have been gathering for nearly two weeks, and “they should just let us be human.”
“It’s the lowest neighborhoods (that were hit by COVID) – but this is all we got – they can’t do nothing to this, they are not pulling up the turf and letting us play, but it’s all we got,” Louis said.