Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins talks about his ride-along with Philly Police Department
The Pro Bowler continues to shine more light on the country’s need for criminal justice reform
If San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sparked the conversation, Malcolm Jenkins has kept it going. Inspired by Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem before NFL games in protest of the country’s persistent racial inequality, Jenkins, a Pro Bowl safety for the Philadelphia Eagles, raised his right fist to the sky during the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” before his team’s Week 2 game against the Chicago Bears. At first, Jenkins was joined in protest by two teammates. By the end of the season, he was the lone player on Philadelphia’s sideline throwing up the Black Power salute.
After the anthem, and off the field, Jenkins’ push for social justice and racial equality continued. Along with four other NFL players, he traveled to Washington, D.C., for a meeting with lawmakers to discuss criminal justice reform. He’s collaborated with Philadelphia’s Caucus of Working Educators to advocate for the Black Lives Matter movement. And during the season, he saw the city from the passenger seat of a squad car while on a ride-along with a Philadelphia police officer.
Jenkins’ experience is captured in the latest installment of The Clubhouse, a series of short films from executive producer Carmelo Anthony, VICE Sports and ESPN Films. Before the film’s release, Jenkins spoke about receiving a firsthand look at a police officer’s daily duties, his relationship with Kaepernick and whether he’ll raise his fist before games next season.
Given what the country has experienced in the past year regarding of community-police relations, how important was the ride-along to you?
There was a lot I wanted to accomplish by doing it. First, I wanted to kind of learn for myself before I went on advocating and making a lot of noise. I wanted to learn for myself, kind of both ends of the spectrum. What is it that officers are going through? What are their challenges? Their perspective on the issue. Or even if they believed that there was an issue. And then also being able to hear the voices of members of the community that have to deal with police interactions all the time. The third thing I wanted to do is document the conversations that came out of it, between myself and law enforcement. Letting them kind of give their side, documenting their voices, but then also documenting the different interactions between the police and community here in Philadelphia. It was a learning experience for me. Kind of me doing some hands-on research, but also an opportunity to interact and collaborate with the police department and different communities of Philadelphia.
During your ride-along, you experienced a shooting. What was that like for you, and did you expect to have that experience?
I didn’t expect to have anything like that happen. We responded to a shooting, and so we showed up probably 10 minutes after it was all done, and had the opportunity to view the scene almost. Just walk down the street and ask people what they thought. A bullet went through a lady’s window and she gave us the opportunity to come into her home and talk to her, kind of almost walk through that with her. That was kind of eye-opening for me, for multiple reasons. You’ve got really good people who live in these communities. But there’s crime, there’s drugs around, and there’s not a relationship with police, because nobody’s getting information. There’s tons of people outside, but nobody wants to get involved. They don’t feel like the police are there to protect them, so they don’t give information. The officers are mad because they’re trying to clean up the streets, they’re trying to get whoever did it, but there’s no cooperation. It was an eye-opening experience.
What was your biggest takeaway from the ride-along?
My biggest takeaway was that there are definitely a lot more officers out there that are doing an awesome job that don’t get highlighted enough. But the disconnect and the mistrust that we all see, and is well-documented, is there. It varies from community to community, and so it was interesting to see how I can be in one neighborhood and they have a really good officer who loves the community, serves the community, and that relationship is great. And just one neighborhood over, it’s a completely different idea where the community and police are totally separate and no one’s working together. It’s frustration on both hands.
Looking back on your life, have you had any negative interactions with the police that you think could’ve been handled better?
Not necessarily on my end. Luckily, I’ve had very, very few interactions with officers. I think there have been times when I’ve been pulled over when I probably wouldn’t have been, but I know even just seeing some of the things that my brothers went through, and cousins, it happens.
After the ride-along, what was the next step you wanted to make in terms of advocating for social change?
For me, my focus has kind of shifted. I’ve done a lot more things since the ride-along. What I’ve learned is that it’s not as simple as just bringing the community and police together. A lot of the brutality and a lot of the efforts of the police are really just a symptom of the justice system they’re on the front lines of. And so, you take for instance, back in the day, when you had the war on crime and war on drugs, these police officers were put in the position where that’s what they had to go execute. So you start seeing the profiling, the brutality, mass incarceration, all that stuff. A lot of times that frustration gets poured out on the police. But they’re just the front lines of a bigger system. They act in accordance with the policies and laws that govern them. So when you see the brutality, we don’t see any kind of accountability or repercussions for people losing their lives. It’s because the policies that they’re governed by allows it. So that’s where my focus has started to change, or get directed toward. How do we continue to work on the interactions or positive interactions between communities and police officers, but also make some real reform to the training and the criminal justice system in itself so we’re not devastating communities, we’re not targeting communities, but we’re certainly building it up?
Out of all the experiences you’ve had since the ride-along, which one has resonated with you the most?
We’ve been to D.C. We plan to go back to meet with members of Congress. That was a really eye-opening trip. I got the opportunity to talk to members of Sen. [Cory] Booker’s camp. I’ve spoken at UPenn’s law school. They did a symposium on hate speech vs. free speech. It’s just been something that a lot of people are discussing and talking about. So it’s really just trying to organize people. The biggest interaction that changed me was when we first went to D.C., because it just kind of showed me how far my reach is as an athlete. To be able to get meetings that the people who are actually doing work on the ground probably can’t get. Kind of broaden my scale of work as far was what I think I can help get accomplished, because my reach is far, I can get so many different meetings and the ear of people who make decisions.
Colin Kaepernick was credited for sparking a movement for social justice in the NFL last season. You continued the conversation in many ways. What do you think your role in this movement has been?
That’s not really much of my concern. I definitely think Kaepernick’s convictions and bravery to just kind of take that step on his own not only sparked the conversation, but I think it kind of showed other athletes, not only NFL players, but other athletes, how big of a stage that we’re on. How many people that we can reach if we so choose to use that platform. Then you saw myself and other guys around the league follow suit. I think everybody has a role in it. So right now, I’m trying to maximize the resources and information that I have to really help make some change, not just protesting and make a lot of noise, but to actually make some change.
Have you ever spoken Kaepernick about whether the goals each of you have aligned?
I gotta reach out to him soon. We talked back in season. We were kind of discussing some of the protests and things like that. We talked a couple times. But as we’re in the offseason now, I need to reach out to him. I’ve been following what he’s doing pretty closely, though. I know he started a ‘Know Your Rights’ Camp that he’s done on both the East Coast and the West Coast. He pledged to donate that million dollars. We’ll see where we can overlap and work together in some things.
Obviously we’re months away from the start of next season, but have you thought about whether or not you’ll continue to raise your fist before games?
I haven’t thought about it at all, actually. It’ll probably be something I think about as we get closer to the season to see what process we’ve made between then and now. That was the whole point — we didn’t like where we were as a country. So, I’ll evaluate that as we get closer to the season.
It’s hard to put a barometer on change when it comes to social justice. In your mind, what’s the end goal?
You just wanna see the beginning of a little bit of a change, right? For me, it starts with the criminal justice system and the issue of mass incarceration, because that in itself really causes, to me, a lot of issues, when you talk about people being stuck in the system, fathers and leaders of entire neighborhoods being incarcerated, especially African-American males that have been almost targeted by the system. Black people in general are only 13 percent of the population, but we make up 40 percent of the prison population. Those things, I think, when you get people out of jail, give them opportunities to vote, to do something, you give people a way to climb out of poverty. It’s not just letting people out, it’s also giving them opportunities in education, opportunities in the workplace. I think the first thing we need to do is stop locking people up at alarming rates, especially when the sentencing and the laws will heavily affect minority communities, especially the black community.