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Malcolm Jenkins: What protesting NFL players like me want to do next

We understand that these conversations are often uncomfortable, but they are important for progress.

Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins (left) raises his fist while teammate Chris Long places his left hand on Jekins’ shoulder during the national anthem before a preseason game in August.
Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins (left) raises his fist while teammate Chris Long places his left hand on Jekins’ shoulder during the national anthem before a preseason game in August.Read moreMatt Rourke / AP

A year ago, I was one of several NFL players who began demonstrating in the hope of sparking conversation about injustice in our country. That effort has now grown to include players and teams across the league, as we proclaim together that we believe in equality and justice for everyone. We understand that these conversations are often uncomfortable, but they are important for progress. Our demonstrations have never been about the symbols and traditions we use to honor America. They have been about us as citizens making sure we hold America to the ideals and promises that make this country great.

We believe our country can do better — can be better.

In the past year, more than 40 NFL players have joined Anquan Boldin, who retired this summer after 14 seasons, and me to form a Players Coalition dedicated to improving our criminal-justice system.

We want to lend our voices to changing this flawed system, which is crippling our nation and especially affects people who are poor or of color. We have gone on ride-alongs with police, visited Capitol Hill, and talked with policy advocates and grass-roots organizers. We've learned first-hand about the problems we face. We've also learned that we aren't alone. There are plenty of Republicans and Democrats, community leaders, and members of law enforcement who agree.

We as citizens must make this work a priority. Consider our money-bail system. In 2016, police punched 58-year-old Gilbert Cruz in the face and arrested him for refusing to leave his own home during an investigation. Unable to make the $3,500 bail, Cruz spent more than two months in a Houston jail. By the time prosecutors finally dropped the case after concluding he had committed no crime, Cruz had lost his job, his car, and almost his home.

The system punishes even after you've served your time. As many as 1 in 3 Americans has a criminal record. Criminal records keep people from getting jobs. Philadelphia native Ronald Lewis runs his own HVAC business, where he hires people from his neighborhood. But two misdemeanor convictions from 13 years ago continue to keep him from getting contracts that could help his business grow.

The system has unleashed an extraordinary burden on communities of color. Mass incarceration and the war on drugs have destroyed lives, families, and whole communities for generations. Communities of color have also had to watch video after video of unarmed black men and women being handled without regard for their lives or well-being. As a black man, I see these images and I see myself; I wonder whether this will happen to me or one of my loved ones.

For Boldin, it did. His cousin was shot and killed by an off-duty police officer after his car broke down on the side of the road. We have borne witness to the deaths of Philando Castile, Jordan Edwards, Tamir Rice, and countless others.

In honor of their names, we are joining the fight for change. We are demanding police transparency and accountability so we can build trust and work together to make our communities safer.

We are fighting to end the money-bail system by investing in community bail funds and advocating legislation that does away with money bail altogether.

We are fighting to pass clean-slate legislation in Pennsylvania to seal nonviolent misdemeanor records automatically after 10 years. We must provide opportunities for employment, housing, education, loans, and voting. We should not disenfranchise a third of the population.

I've heard people say that my colleagues and I are un-American and unpatriotic. Well, we want to make America great. We want to help make our country safe and prosperous. We want a land of justice and equality. True patriotism is loving your country and countrymen enough to want to make it better.

To make this work, we need to understand one another. I'm grateful for my teammate Chris Long, who as a white man has faced none of the issues I've laid out here. But as a teammate, brother and fellow citizen, he was willing to listen to my call for change. He didn't agree with my demonstration, but he knew what I was trying to accomplish, and he supported my cause in a way that was true to him. When he put his arm around me as I raised my fist during the national anthem, I think it showed people that regardless of how you feel about the demonstration, you can still stand by somebody who may be struggling for a bigger cause.

That support goes a long way. And Chris followed it up with action. He allowed me to take him to see what was going on in the communities of Philadelphia. We talked with the police. We talked to community leaders about the struggles of men and women coming in and out of our justice system. We went to bail hearings, and we talked to public defenders. He didn't have to do any of that. Since that tour, Chris, too, is searching for a way he can become a part of the solution.

This is where we need to point our attention now. Not to guys demonstrating but to the issues and work to be done in cities across the country.

Jenkins, a safety and defensive team captain with the Eagles, is playing his ninth season in the NFL.