Jenkins backs up anthem gesture with action to raise awareness
First there were four. Then there were two. And for the last two months there has been just one. Every Eagles game, Malcolm Jenkins has stood during the national anthem and raised his right fist. You could call it a protest, and sometimes he has himself, but Jenkins more than anything wanted his gesture to raise awareness about police brutality and the divide between citizens and law enforcement in many communities throughout America.
First there were four. Then there were two. And for the last two months there has been just one.
Every Eagles game, Malcolm Jenkins has stood during the national anthem and raised his right fist. You could call it a protest, and sometimes he has himself, but Jenkins more than anything wanted his gesture to raise awareness about police brutality and the divide between citizens and law enforcement in many communities throughout America.
Jenkins was joined by teammates Ron Brooks, Steven Means, and Marcus Smith when he first extended his hand above his head in Chicago on Sept. 20. But the following week at home it was just Brooks joining him, and the Jenkins-Brooks tandem lasted until the latter suffered a season-ending quadriceps injury on Oct. 23.
For the last eight games, Jenkins has been a solitary figure on the sideline. He said he never asked Means or Smith why they stopped raising their fists, nor did he believe it was his place. Ever since he started the "conversation," as Jenkins often calls the campaign, he knew there was a chance he could be the only one talking.
"It's a tough conversation no matter who you are, from the president of the United States to a professional athlete, talking about police brutality, or talking about race relations, it's a sensitive part of American history," Jenkins said last week. "It's uncomfortable and it's a commitment. It's one thing to speak out, but when you step out front of an issue like this there really is no stepping back from it.
"If that's something you're going to do, you have to be ready for the backlash, and the unknown about being out on that stage by yourself."
There has been criticism, with most coming from social media. Jenkins will occasionally engage on Twitter, and he never declines to answer questions, even when he may not know a reporter's motives. If he had struggled on the field this season, maybe there would have been more indignation, but the safety's overall performance has been consistent with that of past seasons.
Jenkins, more than anything, has let his actions do the talking. He first met with Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross Jr., along with other Eagles such as Jordan Matthews and Jason Kelce, in July to discuss potential ways to improve relations between police and local communities.
There had been a series of shootings over the previous months, and Jenkins had already been planning for some way to use his platform to help bridge what seemed to be a widening chasm.
Jenkins wanted to put feet to the street. He wanted to see both perspectives. So he set up a ride-along with Philadelphia police during an off day in October. Jenkins was raised in a middle-class Piscataway, N.J., neighborhood where he knew some of the police because they had coached local football, from Pop Warner on up. His high school coach, Dan Higgins, is a detective.
But Jenkins also knew what it felt like to be "policed." He lived near the border of Plainfield and a park where drug dealing took place, and narcotics cops would often circle the neighborhood without ever stopping to engage with residents.
Jenkins wanted to see firsthand what it was like to be in that patrol car. So he, Brooks, and Means rode with officers from the 25th District and into the Badlands section of North Philly, and documented the outing for Vice Sports' The Clubhouse, which eventually televised the episode on ESPN2.
"It was good to show examples of what's working, some officers that are doing well, because I think that's one thing that gets glossed over a lot," Jenkins said. "But also address . . . that there are these implicit biases, there are policies in place that need to be changed, and there's obviously some groundwork that needs to happen to reconcile that relationship."
Jenkins saw what he described as both ends of the spectrum. He said it was "eye opening" to watch Capt. Michael Cram interact with his community and the respect they had for him because there was open dialogue. He said he gained a better grasp of what it was like to put on the uniform and go to work in an environment where heroin has a grip and bullets rattle the streetlights.
At one point during the ride-along police were called to respond to a shooting. Someone fired eight rounds, and while no one was shot, there were unanswered questions.
"When you get to the scene there's 10 officers huddled in the middle of the street, and all the people in the neighborhood are out in their yards and nobody knows anything," Jenkins said. "There's an obvious disconnect between the community and the police and everybody is frustrated and I could feel the tension."
On Monday, the Malcolm Jenkins Foundation partnered with the Philadelphia Police Athletic League and provided holiday meal baskets for 140 local families and hand-delivered the baskets along with toys to a select number of homes. The foundation held a similar event in New Orleans on Saturday.
"A lot of the frustrations from the community toward the police are because the only interactions people have to go off of are negative ones sometimes," Jenkins said. "So this was an opportunity to break those molds, break down those barriers, and put people together with police in a positive environment and just show the humanity of both."
To some, Jenkins may appear to be a rabble-rouser, someone willing to disrespect the flag for an ill-advised cause. But he has never shown any disregard for those who have fought, died, or served because of what the stars and stripes represent. His grandfather was a Marine and Korean War veteran and he has family members in the armed forces.
Jenkins raised his fist last month as hundreds of servicemen and women held a giant American flag in honor of Veterans Day. But when the anthem ended he walked over and extended the same hand to those in uniform. Each responded with a handshake.
"All my interactions one-on-one with people have been very positive," Jenkins said. "Even the mayor [Jim Kenney] pulled me aside and said that he was proud of what I was doing, that somebody needed to stand up. He encouraged me to continue to do the work that I'm doing."
Jenkins was invited by Lions receiver Anquan Boldin to Washington last month to meet with members of Congress on the subject of race relations. He has said that the protests and off-the-field actions were only the first few phases of a movement to enact change.
More will be done during the offseason, Jenkins has said. The next logical step is to work on legislation. In three weeks, he will no longer raise his fist during the anthem. But don't expect him to give up the fight.
Agree with him or not, Jenkins has yet to pull a punch.