Jenkins and Eagles teammates Steven Means and Ron Brooks were in the midst of a ride-along he set up with the Philadelphia Police Department recently. Means and Brooks were in one squad car, Jenkins in another with a young officer from the 25th District.
The night was a signature moment in Phase II of the movement in which players across the NFL are adding more off-field action to their on-field protests. Motivated to help improve the relationship between police and the community, Jenkins wants to view things from the law-enforcement perspective so he can gain an understanding of where some fears and biases come from, and go at the issue from there.
“We went to the Badlands up in North Philly, where heroin is the No. 1 driver of the economy up there,” Jenkins said. “Even in that area, you can see how block to block that dynamic changes. ... Captain [Michael] Cram was an awesome example of how it should look when you have an officer that actually cares about the well being of the people in the community he serves. We show up and people are hugging him; they genuinely have a friendship where they can tell him some hard stuff, whatever they need for him to do better, and he can talk about what he needs from them. I got to see where that dynamic is actually working: ‘OK, this is something that we need to replicate and show more of.’
“But also, got to go to a different neighborhood where we responded to a shooting. Nobody was shot, but in the area there were kids everywhere, and some dude was shooting at a car that fled or something and a couple bullets went astray. One hit a parked car and another one went through somebody’s window. I had a chance to go into that lady’s house and speak to her. This lady lived in that area for 40 years. All she does is go home -- go to work, come home and stay in the house. Doesn’t come outside. She didn’t even know her window had got shot at first because she’s so used to hearing gunfire that it’s second nature.
“And to see the difference between the interactions where, as we walk down the street with police, everybody went from on the street to in their yards, and as we approached to talk to people, they go from on their porch to in their house, and there’s no communication. ... So I got to see what works, what doesn’t, and from a fly-on-the-wall perspective just come up with my own conclusions.”
Brooks and Means got a unique vantage point as well. The two players were standing on a city street talking to a few women when some kids approached on bike. The cops called them over, but the kids were apprehensive. Encouraged by the Eagles players, they approached the police car, and eventually they all began to have a catch.
“Just seeing, they didn’t know the officers and automatically assume the worst, but once they got to know them it was kind of like, ‘OK, they’re cool and we can be ourselves around them,’ and that was a cool experience seeing it that way,” Means said. “Just seeing both sides of it.”
“They said that they could kind of see through that interaction, that some of the kids’ minds were changed a little bit,” Jenkins added. “They had just never been exposed to that relationship.
“It’s kind of just breaking down those barriers and exposing ourselves to each other, having candid conversations, open communication, that then we can find some common ground to actually work together, which is really a common theme for everything -- not just community-police, but even race relations or whatever, it’s just about breaking down those barriers, ideals and biases that we have based off our own perception and our own experience, and really being able to communicate and understand each other, basically.”
‘That doesn’t bother me at all’
Jenkins has described the act of protesting as a "lonely feeling," but Sunday night was the first time he was truly alone.
Military men and women solemnly marched in from the tunnel bearing a massive American flag they spread wide across the field at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Those holding the lower end taut were positioned a few feet from the row of Eagles players along the visitor’s sideline. The national anthem began, and Jenkins -- as he has since Week 2 of the regular season -- raised his right fist above his head and kept it there until the final note rang out and the flag began to fold.
It started Week 2 with four Eagles players, as Jenkins, Brooks, Means and defensive end Marcus Smith together raised an arm in Chicago. Means and Smith stopped after one game. That left Jenkins and Brooks, who have stood side by side in the weeks since. But Brooks did not travel to Texas after undergoing surgery to repair a ruptured quadriceps tendon, so before the Cowboys game Sunday, Jenkins was the lone demonstrator.
The overall number of NFL players undertaking such protests appears to have gone down slightly from the peak around Week 3, following police shootings in Charlotte and Tulsa, Oklahoma. But there are still dozens around the NFL who continue to push forward the movement started by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
The protests have been met with both resistance and gratitude, proved to be divisive and unifying, and had effects both expected and unintentional.
It is having a direct impact on the number of people watching the sport, depending on whom you ask.
In a poll conducted by Yahoo! Sports and YouGov, 40 percent of those who said they are watching the NFL less cited the protests as the reason. And in a recent study conducted by Seton Hall, 56 percent of respondents cited players not standing for the anthem as a factor in the decline of NFL viewership.
“That doesn’t bother me at all,” Jenkins said of the potential decline in ratings. “I guess that’s the ironic thing about it is that a lot of people have real strong emotions about the protests and the act of protesting during the national anthem, which I think is justified; if that’s something that you feel strongly about and voice it, then that’s your opinion. But those same people are awfully quiet when you ask them, ‘What about the subject that I’m protesting about?’ And then all of a sudden, their moral compass is silent, and they have no opinion and they think things are just cool the way they are.
“And that’s the shocking thing to me, is that the NFL is full of people that beat their wives, do drugs and break the law, and none of that has ever deterred them from watching football, and now suddenly because some people are standing up for what they believe is right and what they believe is for an oppressed people, suddenly your moral compass is telling you that this is something that you don’t want to associate with. So those people who feel that strongly, those are the people I would challenge to look into what it is these players are actually protesting about.”
This movement is one part organic. New players join in, other players drop out, and those who are moved to act do so based largely on what they are passionate about and what their respective communities need.
But it is also one part coordinated. There is communication among a core group of players across the league intent on making a difference on a larger scale.
“Eventually there will be a push to try to change from a legislation or policy standpoint,” said Jenkins, who predicts that players “will be pretty active as this offseason approaches.”
“Guys are serious about it. It’s kind of quiet now, because everybody is over the shock of the protests,” he said. “Even for us, the protest stuff really gave us a chance to see, all right, who is serious about it and who’s not? When you see the video [of a police shooting], everybody can agree that that’s bad and this needs changing, you get an emotional reaction, but now, when your endorsements and your popularity and your followers and all that stuff start to get threatened, or we move on to different things, is this still something that you’re passionate about? And those who are still standing tall, those are the guys that are kind of linking together. It’s interesting to see it unfold.”
Limited in time during the season, the players who have committed to social change are doing what they can in their spare time, whether it’s meeting with the police or helping with voter registration or doing work through their individual charities.
During his night in the Badlands, Cram and his community needed Jenkins to listen, observe and then talk. Cram explained that in his district, 34 people have died this year and 154 have been shot, and none was at the hands of police. Poverty and hunger were breeding violence, Cram said, and that a lack of “sustainable life jobs” was at the root of it. So heroin becomes the economy, and addiction spreads throughout the neighborhood, and needles litter playgrounds and “zombies are on their front steps when they come out in the morning to go to work.”
Jenkins was asked to take all that in, and then see the work dedicated citizens and officers put in to fight against it, which is evident at the regular community meetings Cram and his crew have helped establish.
“He wasn’t going to stand up, but Pastor Billy Cortes runs [the meeting Jenkins attended], and you don’t say no to Pastor Billy, man,” Cram said with a laugh. “Pastor Billy was on one of his rants where he was kind of bringing the power of heaven down on Earth and he made Malcolm stand up and talk, and [Jenkins offered] pretty much just words of encouragement, keep the hope. That’s what we always try to bring, especially to this group -- hope -- because man, they get frustrated.
“He just kind of talked about keeping their heads up, keep doing what they’re doing. He’s a good dude, man.”