Michael Eric Dyson on NFL Protests, Malcolm Jenkins and Listening to Black Americans on Issues of Race

Last week Donald Trump abruptly called off a planned visit by the Super Bowl-winning Philadelphia Eagles, tweeting, “Staying in the Locker Room for the playing of our National Anthem is as disrespectful to our country as kneeling. Sorry!” While not a single Eagles player kneeled during the national anthem in the 2017 season, Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins did protest by raising a fist during the national anthem, in what has become one of the most enduring images of the protests. Last week, Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins silently held up a series of signs to reporters in a team locker room in response to their questions about the cancellation of the team’s White House visit. For more, we speak with Michael Eric Dyson, professor, political analyst and author. His latest book is What Truth Sounds Like: Robert F. Kennedy, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn now, with Michael Eric Dyson, Georgetown University professor, author of What Truth Sounds Like: RFK, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America—we turn to the issue that took place last week, the ongoing racial justice protest by professional sports players, particularly black NFL players. Last week, Donald Trump abruptly called off a planned visit by the Super Bowl-winning Philadelphia Eagles, tweeting, “Staying in a Locker Room for the playing of our National Anthem is as disrespectful to our country as kneeling. Sorry!” Well, not a single Eagles player kneeled during the national anthem in the 2017 season.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins did protest by raising a fist during the national anthem, in what’s become one of the most enduring images of the protests. Last week, Malcolm Jenkins silently held up a series of signs to reporters in a team locker room who asked about his response to Trump canceling the White House visit the next day. Among the signs Jenkins displayed, “You’re not listening,” “More than 60% of people in prison are people of color,” “Colin Kaepernick gave $1 million to charity” and “In 2018, 439 people shot and killed by police (thus far).” Michael Eric Dyson, your thoughts on what happened last week and what has been happening and what these protests are about?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: I spent the past weekend with Mr. Jenkins. I was on book tour in Philadelphia, had dinner with him, and then he came to hear me preach yesterday morning at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in Philadelphia, where the Reverend Dr. Alyn Waller is pastor.

So, look, there is a connection here between this young man, brave, articulate, highly intelligent, willing to lay everything on the line—that is, his career, the fortunes he’s been able to accumulate—in behalf of vulnerable people who have no platform, who have no voice. And so, there’s a community behind him: Dr. Waller’s church there at Enon Tabernacle, thousands of members standing up to applaud and to praise him and to let him know “you are not alone” and that “we appreciate the amplification of our interests that you are doing.”

And by holding up a sign, like Miles Davis at the end of his life, who refused anymore to speak, mostly, when he introduced horn players or people who were part of his band, there’s a kind of black signifying going on there. And what Mr. Jenkins was asserting was, “You are not listening to the words we keep saying. This is not about—this protest is not about an anthem. It’s not about a flag. It’s about the way in which you refuse to flag the interests of African-American people. It’s the way in which you ignore the anthems coming from hip-hop culture that have told you about police brutality and about the assault upon unarmed black people by police people.” So, holding up a sign, hopefully you will read, “You’re not listening,” the same way Bobby Kennedy sat in that room, refusing, initially, to listen, wanting to speak, wanting to talk, wanting to be the expert, wanting to be the fount of wisdom and the source of insight. Be quiet. Listen to what you think you know, so that you can learn what you don’t know.

And he did not—that is, Mr. Jenkins did not—want this to be about whether you’re upset about Donald Trump uninviting you, disinviting you to the White House. This is about putting the focus back where it belongs. Disproportionate numbers of people of color are locked up. Nonviolent drug offenses are going on, filling these jails and prisons with black and brown bodies. And, yes, though the president may pardon Miss Johnson, that’s an individual thing. That’s anecdote versus data. That’s individual story versus systemic injustice. And what Mr. Jenkins is asserting is the need to focus on the problem as a systematic reality. And we must celebrate Mr. Jenkins, Michael Bennett, Colin Kaepernick, Ed [sic] Reid and those other players—Eric Reid, I’m sorry—who have decided that their fortunes as individual players is not worth protecting at the expense of their people, who die in the streets, savages, dogs hunted down, maimed by the disregard from the justice system for them.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Eric Dyson, we have to break here, but we’re going to continue a web exclusive at democracynow.org. Michael Eric Dyson, author of What Truth Sounds Like.