Malcolm Jenkins is a National Football League safety for the Philadelphia Eagles. He has received media attention for his activism against police brutality and protests during the National Anthem. The interview was conducted on January 27th, 2017.
Harvard Political Review: By the end of the season, you were the only player on the Eagles who was still raising his fist during the national anthem. Why did the number of players protesting dwindle?
Malcolm Jenkins: Well, we didn’t start with many to begin with. We started with four players, and then that following week, I believe we got down to two. I never really asked the other two why they stopped, but I understood the pressures that are at hand. It ended up being myself and Ron Brooks [cornerback for the Eagles] for a while, and then Ron got hurt and was put on injury reserve, so he was no longer even out on the field. So that’s when it ended up being just myself. But Steven Means [defensive end for the Eagles], who was one of the four who originally started, he stayed pretty active with me with all of the things that I was doing in Philadelphia around police brutality and rectifying that relationship between police and community. He stayed very involved in that, so really it came down to myself, Ron Brooks, and Steven Means who on the team were actively involved in this struggle. But by the end of the season, when it came to the protests, I was by myself.
HPR: Take us back to the first game you protested alone. Can you describe your thoughts and emotions before the national anthem played?
MJ: It was one of those things that we had already done a few weeks. It already felt like a lonely feeling when it was just a few of us, but I remember specifically having that feeling where it was a really lonely space, but I also knew that everyone would be looking to see if I would stand when I was by myself, because there’s nobody else to spread the criticism around with. It’s just me. Being a leader on the team, a lot of people pay attention to what I do, so I did feel that responsibility to make sure that I kept my word.
HPR: What inspired you to take your activism off the field?
MJ: Well, we had already been doing some things off the field before the protests started. When we saw what happened to Philando Castile and, that summer, it was two killings back to back, and then there were the police shootings in Dallas. It just came to a boiling point that week in July, and I reached out to some people I knew in the city that worked or formerly worked for the mayor’s office. I just said, ‘Look, I want to talk to somebody high up in the police department here in Philadelphia and have a conversation about what’s going on.’ In July, I brought a couple of my teammates and some leaders from around the communities, and we sat down with the Commissioner of Philadelphia Police, Richard Ross, and we just talked. We had a candid conversation about some of the things that are going on in the nation, around the country, our concerns as community members, community leaders. Then we asked him to give us his take on what are some of the struggles with police officers and what are they dealing with. It was a good conversation to at least bring people to the table, have candid, open dialogue about each other’s perspectives, and start to figure out how we can work together to change not only the perception in how we think about each other but how we work and communicate with each other. That was in July before the season even started.
HPR: What would you say was your biggest takeaway from that conversation?
MJ: The biggest thing for me is that I realized most of what we were getting upset about–like I said, it was these shootings that I was upset about–but we realized that it was a much bigger issue than just the brutality. The brutality, it was a symptom of the system and policies and laws that are in place. While, as community members, we were angry, we also got to hear from a commissioner of a police department who also can acknowledge, ‘yes, the system is definitely skewed and we don’t have it all together.’ To hear that come from his mouth was an ‘okay, now we could work together.’ Once we can both admit that there is an issue and there is a problem, then we can work, and I think that’s when my mentality changed from not necessarily focusing on the problems and pointing out the shootings. Although that’s important, now we can become solution-oriented. Where’s the common ground? What are some of the policies and laws that need to be changed? How do we put our foot to pavement and reconcile this relationship between law enforcement and communities? How do we reinforce that trust? It gave me a little bit of a roadmap as to how to at least approach this issue.
HPR: Your foundation is active in four cities across the United States, Philadelphia being one of them. Have you been active in the movement for police reform in the other three cities as well?
MJ: Well, no. I’m currently here [in Philadelphia] and this has really been my first year to be active when it comes to police reform, so I’ve done everything really here. When I was in New Orleans, I was part of a movement that was called ‘Solutions, Not Shootings,’ because New Orleans had and still has a huge issue with shootings in the city. There were a lot of community members coming together along with police trying to figure out ways to lower those rates of shootings and killings. But when it came to community and police relations, this has really been my first year even getting into that realm. My main focus is here in Philly, but obviously whatever we do here can be replicated anywhere in the country.
HPR: You and several other NFL players met with members of Congress to discuss police brutality. Do you see your activism shifting from the local to the national level?
MJ: I think it’s both, because one thing that I learned–and all it is for me is a learning process–is if I want to change the system, I have to learn how it works. We went to DC and had some preliminary conversations, but what I’ve learned is that what happens on the federal level does not always reflect each state. There’s work to be done on Capitol Hill, where they set the example for the rest of the nation, but there’s also a lot of work to be done in our own specific states, cities, and all of that. This is not an easy singular solution. There’s a lot of work to be done on the ground at the state level and on the federal level. It’s complicated, but right now, we’re in the process of finding out who among the decision makers and the lawmakers are willing to work alongside us with this, as well as give a little bit of direction and instruction to citizens and people out there who want to have their voices heard, who want to help push this change.
HPR: Could you elaborate on what those partnerships might look like?
MJ: We met with representatives of Congress from the Democratic side and the Republican side. We met with the Congressional Black Caucus. What we asked of them was if we could count on them to lend us support, lend us advice, and let us know what is going on at Capitol Hill to address not only criminal justice reform and our prison system, but also reconciling the relationship between law enforcement and communities, and what they have as far as opportunities and resources that they plan on pushing to these communities that live in poverty or high crime. It was a multitude of things. We wanted to get involved. We wanted to see what they were already doing and how we could help, as well as push the agendas that we wanted to get. And, in doing that, we set up another meeting to go back in March, where we’ll be able to talk to a bigger group of individuals on both the Republican and Democratic sides, to give testimony, to talk and be able to present and see where we can really form some alliances.
HPR: Back to the Eagles, how has all of your activism influenced how other players have seen you?
MJ: That part I don’t actually know. There are some people I know for a fact that disagree with some of the things that I do, but it’s never really become an issue to the point where we couldn’t talk or hang out. I know there are guys who have strong opinions on police brutality and the criminal justice system that believe that we should push for change and that there are things that need to be reviewed. But there’s that dilemma as to if that’s a fight that they really want to fight. I get a lot of guys who respect what I’m doing because they recognize the burden and the challenge, which is one of the reasons why there are not many guys around the [National Football] League that are trying to take this on. But I’ve never gotten any bad feedback. Nobody’s ever challenged me on what I’m trying to do.
HPR: What about the fans? Do you see a disconnect at all between how people see you on and off the field?
MJ: Well, no. It’s a good representation of where we are as a nation right now. If I paid attention to what people said to me online, on Twitter or Facebook, on social media, I’d really think that fans and people out there were really against what I’m doing: you know, ‘it’s a bad thing’ and ‘a negative thing.’ But I’ve gotten multiple letters of support. When I’m at the stadium, in front of people, I think I’ve probably only got heckled maybe twice this year out of the fifteen games that I protested in. Multiple people, when they see me at events, who are out and about, they’re always saying that they support and thank me for what I’m doing–not only just about the protests, but also the work that is being done along with it. I think that’s really what people were waiting to see, is not just protest and ‘make noise’ and disrupt things, but what are you then going to do to help this problem. I think once they started to see the work, they really appreciated the stand. At least, that’s what I see when I interact with people face to face.
HPR: Do you envision more athletes following your example of bringing activism into communities?
MJ: I believe so. I believe at this point in time, the level of political consciousness, not only the nation but also athletes that are coming up now, the level of influence has never been higher, the level of consciousness as far as their ability to change and influence has never been higher. So you’re starting to see athletes from different sports or different levels: you’ve got athletes from the professional ranks all the way down to Pop Warner and high school teams that are using their platform, however big or small it is, to voice their opinions, voice what they believe in. Especially with a new administration, where there’s so much change and everyone is very, very concerned about those changes representing the nation as a whole, and making sure that we are all represented under this new administration, I think it’s going to be even more important for those who have a voice and have influence to use it, to organize people, to energize people, and to really keep that message and keep that fight at the forefront of everyone’s mind.
HPR: At the end of the day, do you find your roles as a football player and an activist to be mutually reinforcing?
MJ: I don’t see two sides of it. I see myself just like any other citizen. I’m a citizen. I have a job that gives me a certain amount of influence or platform, and I’ve used that platform to do what I can to help. And it’s the same whether you’re a doctor, you’re a schoolteacher, you volunteer for a nonprofit, whatever it is. You’re a citizen, you have concerns, you have opinions, and you have some sort of influence, whether it be over our youth, whether it be your community, whether it be over decision makers, you can open doors of businessmen and women. Everyone has a sphere of influence. Just like I would tell someone to be the change that they want to see, I have to tell myself that. I can’t separate the two and say that I’m an activist here when I step off the field but when I’m on the field I’m just an athlete. No, I’m a citizen, a concerned citizen of this country, and both of those things are part of me. And I think everyone, when they realize that they have a role in this struggle, then the more and more they get active, the more and more people see their potential and influence, and use it to help.
Image Source: Flickr/keithallison