Malcolm Jenkins Talks To Us About His Visit with Lawmakers Regarding Criminal Justice Reform

Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins was one of five NFL players who visited Capitol Hill to discuss police brutality and criminal justice reform this week. He tells VICE Sports what he learned and what his next steps are.

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Nov 18 2016, 3:33pm

Via @keithellison

On Tuesday, five NFL players—Anquan Boldin, Josh McCown, Andrew Hawkins, Glover Quin, and Malcolm Jenkins—met with lawmakers on Capitol Hill to discuss police killings and criminal justice reform. Months in the making, the players' visit to Washington sought to create an open dialogue about what Congress is doing to address long-standing issues between law enforcement and minority communities, and how the players can better leverage their efforts to help spur change.

VICE Sports caught up with Jenkins on Thursday afternoon to talk about his visit to Washington and what he took away from it. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

How did it go yesterday?

Well, it was on Tuesday, and it went well. [Writer's note: This interview took place on Thursday, but up until this point, I had spent the entire day thinking it was Wednesday.] We got to speak to a bunch of representatives from Congress, both on the Republican and Democratic sides; we got to speak to members of the Obama administration as well as the Congressional Black Caucus. It was a really busy day.

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We learned a lot of information. We got to speak about our concerns and some of the work that we're doing. We felt like we were well received and really had some significant dialogue about the relationship between police and the community, race relations, as well as what's being done on Capitol Hill as far as criminal justice reform, what things are in place, what things are kind of being developed, and how does the new administration with Trump change the priority. We want to make sure that this topic stays at the top of that list.

There was one name of someone you were meeting with that kind of stuck out at me: Paul Ryan. He doesn't really come to mind as someone who is concerned about these issues. How did it go with him? Did you get the impression these are things he's going to focus on over the next four years?

Well, we didn't actually meet with Paul Ryan. We met with his staff. So we didn't actually get a chance to meet with him. But he did pop up afterwards and said hello.

There's this frustration, I think, the two sides often have in terms of talking past each other and being able to agree on broad things like needing to have more substantive conversations and mutual respect being at the forefront of future action, but it seems like specifics are often elusive. Was anything discussed about how to move to the next stage?

Yeah, I mean it's ongoing. This whole thing, it's not going to be a quick fix. It took a long time to—you know, these issues aren't new to the country. They're not something that's happened in the last year or two. This has been going on since the idea of having police came about in this country. It's always been a struggle to deal with those relationships between the police and the community, especially the African-American community and minority communities. That's just the history of our nation. And to understand that context, you know now, as we try to continue to fix this, it's not going to be a quick fix.

But there's a lot of layers to this issue, as well. It's not just the brutality that we've seen across the country. It's also the justice system and things that need to change. All those things play out and manifest into violence, whether it's between the community and officers or whatever. It's because there's a system in place that is also oppressing people.

And so one of the things that was good for me was we got a chance to learn more about that system, how it works, and how we can help push for change in our legislation, in our laws, on a federal level as well as a state level.

Jenkins during the national anthem earlier this year. Photo by Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

So what did you learn?

This is a conversation that's happening across both parties. There is a bipartisan task force that they've put together to tackle the problem of police and community relations as well as criminal justice reform. So there is work being done. It's moving slow, quite frankly, but there are conversations being made and they are bipartisan.

What I didn't necessarily know was how separate the states are individually from the federal system. So although we may change laws federally, that's not the majority of what's happening. For example, Obama passed the law to eliminate mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses. So that's federally. But, most times, those kinds of things will go through the state. States kind of run their own thing. They have mandatory minimums. They have private prisons. And that puts pressure on the [police] departments—although they don't say it—to make quotas, so you start to see how the trickle down of private prisons really drives us to incarcerate more and more Americans. That's why we have well over two million people in prisons right now and probably 80 to 85 percent of those are in state prisons, not necessarily federal prisons. So even though there might be reform from Capitol Hill, that might not necessarily reflect the system [as a whole].

So one thing we took, as players, is there are things we can continue to work with on Capitol Hill as we make connections and continue to rally support from everybody there. But there's more work to do back in our own communities, whether we talk to our city council or state reps to make sure we're pushing those agendas and putting that pressure on the state to make some of those changes.

It's interesting you mention private prisons. As a result of Trump's election, private prison stocks surged 40 percent. Did you get any sense on Tuesday about how the Trump presidency may impact what momentum for reform there is?

I think no one really knows just yet. I think everyone is waiting to see who he appoints. Everybody's waiting to see what his agenda is going to be. But you would assume that, all he was preaching was law and order. He talked about stop and frisk, talked about what Giuliani did in New York. You talk about reform, that's kind of in the other direction. That's more leaving it up to the police, hands-off approach, telling them to do whatever you need to clean up the streets.

That's in the opposite direction of what we're trying to do, because we've seen the effects of wars on crime and wars on drugs, and they don't work. Neither did stop and frisk. All it did was end up with us having over two million people in prison and still growing.

Did you come out of Capitol Hill feeling better or worse about what people are trying to do about the issue of police brutality and criminal justice reform?

I try not to focus on what everyone else is doing. I felt encouraged because I felt like I could do more. I learned a little bit to where I can take the next step. Obviously I've done the protest, I've met with police, I've been in the communities, and now it's like, what's the next step to actually change the policies and laws behind that system?

It's funny—I thought about it, and it's like, if you're the hall monitor in a middle school, if the principal is telling the hall monitor to give as many kids detention as he can, then no kid is ever going to like the hall monitor, no matter how much you try and work on that relationship between the monitor and the kids. Eventually, that conflict of interest is going to divide the two. That's kind of what we're trying to do. We're trying to convince the public to trust the police. We're trying to mend that relationship. But at the same time, the system behind the police is flawed and skewed, and it's skewed to incarcerate the people we're trying to mend that relationship with. So you have to attack this thing on both ends.

Regardless of what they're doing on Capitol Hill, I left there encouraged because I learned more about it and I felt like I was equipped to at least take the next step and educate some people and at least I can help move this thing in the right direction.

So what are you thinking as the next step?

I'll continue to do all the things I do in the community. I'll continue to try and incorporate some of my community events with the police to make sure that there's that introduction and that positive interaction. There's also the next step to start to see kind of the same process in the state level, even in our cities, to see who is doing what when it comes to criminal justice reform or police and community relations. If there is something, see if I can have input. We'll see if I can support it. And if there isn't anything, start to put pressure on those people who make these decisions, who have been elected to serve the people, to actually carry out the concerns of what's going on in the community.

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