Attacking black athletes who dare to think and speak for themselves has become a sport of its own. When a player in the NFL knelt down to protest injustice, Donald Trump told the team owner to “Get that son of a bitch off the field.” When Lebron James voiced a political opinion in an interview, Laura Ingraham told him to “shut up and dribble.” This country stripped Tommie Smith and John Carlos of their medals for raising a fist at the 1968 Olympics to protest human rights violations. The list goes on and the message is clear: black athletes are to be seen, not heard; they are only here to entertain us and should say nothing about the society in which they live.
Malcolm Jenkins of the Philadelphia Eagles, who had the audacity to call for much-needed reforms to the city’s police department, is the latest victim of the “stick to sports” crew. Philadelphia FOP Police Union President James McNesby—a man who once referred to black lives matter activists as a “[p]ack of rabid animals”—responded with baseless and racist personal attacks against Jenkins, showing, more than ever, how badly we need change, and how much we need Jenkins calling for it.
McNesby called Jenkins “washed up”; Jenkins is a two-time Super Bowl champion, All-Pro safety, and team captain who hasn’t missed a game in six seasons and a snap in two. He said that Jenkins is a “non-resident” who needs to “stay in his lane”; Jenkins lives in Philadelphia and has given his limited free time to advocate for record expungement, probation reform, the end to money bail, improved reentry services, less-cruel D.A. practices, and now, police accountability. McNesby suggested that the Inquirer may as well conduct a “survey of drug dealers,” a comment that is racist and disgraceful.
Perhaps McNesby’s most dangerous accusation, however, is that Jenkins’ call for reform to policing is also a call for less safety. The opposite is true, and it is time for tough-on-crime adherents, and frankly, the media, to stop pretending that our current police practices equate to safe communities. Gun violence is ravaging our city, and yet police have made arrests in just 23% of nonfatal shootings and 47% of murder cases this year. Instead of solving violent crime, police focus on stop-and-frisk and vehicle stops, which are up this year. These stops are devastating, especially to the black community who make up 74% of all those stopped. Jenkins called on police to stop these discriminatory practices and investigate violence, a not the smell of marijuana or broken taillights.
Discriminatory and abusive practices by police have also reduced safety by destroying community trust, which is why Jenkins’ call for accountability and transformation is so important. The Philadelphia Police department is facing allegations of discriminatory policing, abuse of power, racist social media postings by its officers, sexual harassment, and assault. It is hard, given all this, to know who a bad or good actor is, to know who we as ordinary citizens can trust and who we cannot. This is terrible for safety, because people, and especially black people, are reluctant to come to the police for help, and they are reluctant to act as witnesses.
As Jenkins argued, to fix this, we need a Commissioner who will hold police accountable and a union contract that will let her or him do so. Currently, it is hard to take bad officers off the street, and they are free to “serve without protecting”. If we are to transform policing into a fair and just system, we must change our contract and also increase civilian oversight as another check on power.
Jenkins used his enormous platform to make these and other demands, not because it is easy, but because it is right. He did so at considerable risk to himself, exposing himself to those who will lie to get their way and protect their power. He did it because he knows that all Philadelphians deserve to live in both a safe and dignified community, and because real people are harmed every day by the way this city is policed. He did it because he can absorb the attack from those with power in the way our more vulnerable citizens cannot.
But make no mistake: this community wants what Jenkins demanded and more. We want a better community, and we are here to fight for it. Just as he will not be silenced by those who call him “washed up” and who prefer athletes to “shut up and dribble,” neither will we. We will not rest until we have a city that works for all.
Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler is senior pastor of the historic Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia and co-chair of Live Free, POWER, a gun violence prevention group.