“If you don’t like what is being said, change the conversation,” Don Draper once quipped on Mad Men. On Wednesday, Malcolm Jenkins took the advice.
As the local press surrounded Jenkins’ locker, fishing for a quote to color their stories about the Eagles’ scuttled White House trip, the Eagles safety and social activist tried a different mode of communication.
“Are you surprised that you guys eventually decided not to go to the White House?” Derrick Gunn asked. In response, Jenkins held up a poster board that read, “You Aren’t Listening.”
“More than 60% of people in prison are people of color,” read the ensuing slide in the presentation.
6 ABC reporter Jeff Skversky was the next to try to cull a sound bite from Jenkins. “Are you surprised you guys are embroiled in this controversy with the White House?”
“Nearly 200,000 juveniles enter the adult criminal system each year, most for non-violent crime. #stopschoolpipelinetoprison” was the written reply.
“Are you not going to say anything, or are you just going to use these posters?” Skversky inquired. It was a fair question in light of the unconventional display taking place.
“You aren’t listening,” came the silent retort.
You Aren’t Listening! pic.twitter.com/5ti8HU2Cq0
— Malcolm Jenkins (@MalcolmJenkins) June 6, 2018
You Aren’t Listening! pic.twitter.com/41llVxwDEq
— Malcolm Jenkins (@MalcolmJenkins) June 6, 2018
Jenkins is right. We largely haven’t been listening, which is reflected in the bad-faith national debate that the anthem protests generated when Colin Kaepernick first took a seat on the bench during a pregame performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in August 2016.
Kaepernick’s own strategic miscalculations and ill-formed opinions, combined with the disingenuity of opponents looking to change the subject, morphed the protest from an act calling attention to racial injustice to a referendum on respect for the flag and the troops.
After a conversation with former NFL long snapper and Green Beret Nate Boyer, Kaepernick switched tactics; instead of taking a seat, the 49ers quarterback would take a knee. Kap continued his protest throughout the 2016 season. After the year, he cut ties with San Francisco, entered free agency, and has since been in professional exile.
Jenkins, who shares Kaepernick’s concerns about perceived racial injustice, has favored a different, less divisive form of protest. Beginning with a game against the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football in 2016, Jenkins raised his fist during the rendition of the national anthem. The tactic called to mind Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ raised fist protest during the 1968 Olympic games. Reviled at the time, Smith and Carlos have since etched their places in history.
In November, Jenkins ended his anthem protest when he secured a significant, multi-million dollar commitment from the NFL to fund “projects dealing with criminal justice reform, law enforcement/community relations and education,” according to ESPN reporter Tim McManus.
At every turn, Jenkins has answered the criticisms of commenters accusing him of disrupting their virtue signaling patriotic ritual with his own empty gestures; he’s responded with substantive action, not flowery talk or an appearance at a glorified photo op:
Can’t wait for #Eagles players to use this as an opportunity to virtue signal. You don’t want real equality, otherwise you would show up and express your differences. You want attention. Stand for the anthem @realDonaldTrump
— Britt McHenry (@BrittMcHenry) June 5, 2018
Aside from the aforementioned financial commitment from the NFL, Jenkins has a long resume of accomplishment and activity. Through his eponymous charitable foundation, Jenkins has participated in food drives. He’s coordinated events for the homeless. He’s offered college scholarships for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. He’s developed a program to encourage high school attendance and augment secondary school curricula.
And he’s done all of these things while standing for the national anthem not because he was required to do it, but because he wanted to do it.
As his critics have tossed stones from the comfort of their computers or behind television cameras, Malcolm Jenkins has been doing the hard work reform requires.
To borrow the phrase commonly misattributed to Gandhi, Jenkins has been the change he’s wished to see in the world. He’s talked the talk, and he’s walked the walk.
For our part, the least we can do is consider the merits of the arguments Jenkins and his fellow advocates are offering. Who knows? We might learn something.
For example, did you know that as recently as three years ago, the city of Philadelphia was seeking to build another prison to house its booming inmate population? Over 1,000 of these prisoners are languishing in jail because they could not post bail. Or at least they were, until newly installed district attorney Larry Krasner announced his office was no longer seeking cash bail for so-called “low level offenses.”
“The truth is they’re not sitting in jail because they committed a serious offense,” Krasner observed at a West Philadelphia town hall event in February. “They’re sitting in jail because they’re broke. And they’re also making us broke.”
So now, instead of constructing a new facility, the implementation of this bail policy might allow the city to close one of its four prisons. Meanwhile, a suspect awaiting trial on a minor offense has an opportunity to continue working, seeing his family, potentially seeking treatment or a rehab program, and otherwise contributing to society while enjoying the presumption of innocence in fact as well as theory. He or she might be less inclined to accept a plea bargain just to get out of jail. A criminal record, as sociologist Devah Pager has found, significantly impacts one’s ability to find a job. Without a fair chance at re-entry, ex-cons are more likely to return to prison. And the cycle of recidivism abides.
It’s amazing, the knowledge you can discover by opening a book and reading its contents, or considering the insights of a person with a different point of view. It’s certainly better than living in the partisan silos we’ve constructed for ourselves, fortified with the superficial wisdom of internet memes and talking points designed to end arguments rather than advance them.
You might find yourself reacting with empathy instead of defensiveness the next time video of police officers using excessive force to subdue a minority captures the news cycle. It might help you find a more receptive audience the next time you rightly wonder about the selectivity of the news narrative and the narrow agenda of the Black Lives Matter movement.
On the other side of the spectrum, you might be a little more suspicious the next time a well-known opportunist amplifies an evidence-free allegation that smears a police officer who was just doing his job.
We could all stand to be more skeptical of our own beliefs and more receptive to ideas that clash with our ideology.
Of course, this does not mean that you ought to accept wholesale Jenkins’ point of view regarding perceived racial injustice and alleged police brutality. You don’t owe Jenkins your mind; you owe him your ears. And the first step in that process is dropping the patriotic pretense adopted by our president, who would rather debate the propriety of the protest than the merits of it.
Silence can be a powerful sword. I wonder, though, if it will be sharp enough to cut through the noise that has drowned out Jenkins and the message he hopes to convey.