I’m willing to bet that Mayor Jim Kenney and Police Commissioner Richard Ross wish they had thousands more Philadelphians with “gang connections” — as DeSean Jackson was once so unfairly stereotyped as having — replicating the heavy lifting in the community that the Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver is doing.
The drug-infested corners of Kensington are near the top of the list — perhaps right below a leper colony — of the least favorite places anyone familiar with them would choose to want spend a Saturday evening. Yet there was Jackson over the weekend, not in a swanky club but hopping out of his SUV with hundreds of meals for the homeless, many of them caught in the throes of the opioid epidemic.
Jackson could have been anywhere, of course, considering that earlier this spring he signed a three-year, $27 million deal with the Eagles. But there he was under the Market-Frankford Line, along with his boys, delivering hot meals and hope to people who had neither.
In the last few months, we’ve seen similar acts of kindness become commonplace from Jackson, 32, in his second stint with the Eagles and his 12th season in the NFL. Last month, Jackson spoke at Boys’ Latin High School in West Philadelphia, where, during the 2017-18 school year, at least four students at the all-boys school lost their lives to either homicide or suicide. One of those students was 16-year-old William Bethel, who was killed on Easter Sunday in 2018.
Bethel had participated in Jackson’s football camp in Jackson’s first go-round (2008-13) with the Eagles before they released him and recouped no compensation for the loss (in one of the stupidest moves in franchise history). After that, Jackson, a three-time Pro Bowl player, maintained a close relationship with Boy’s Latin lead student support officer Kenyon Meeks.
After Jackson’s close friend Nipsey Hussle was shot dead in Los Angeles in March, Meeks reached out to Jackson to tell him how Hussle’s untimely death had traumatized a big portion of Boys’ Latin’s student body. Jackson went soon after and spoke candidly with hundreds of students trying to assuage their grief the best way he knew how.
This hardly sounds like the ritual of a gangbanger. However, this is exactly how NJ.com attempted to portray Jackson when things went sour between him and the Eagles following the 2013 regular season.
The very day the Eagles cut Jackson in 2014, a story built on circumstantial evidence appeared on NJ.com suggesting Jackson’s “gang connections” made it easier for the Eagles to part ways with the player.
Here’s the flimsy evidence they built this canard on:
On Dec. 29, 2010, in Los Angeles, while Jackson was in Philadelphia preparing to face the Dallas Cowboys in the final game of the regular season, a 14-year-old was shot and killed after he allegedly threw up gang signs.
Theron Shakir, a rapper who once recorded on Jackson’s record label, was charged in the shooting and later acquitted. Shakir and Jackson were friends who frequently appeared together in photos, including a photo Jackson posted to Instagram while Shakir was in prison awaiting trial.
Still, LAPD spokesperson Jane Robinson is quoted in the story saying that “Jackson was not part of this case.”
And in 2012, LAPD reached out to Jackson after a gang-related slaying occurred in front of a property being rented by Jackson’s sister. Police told NJ.com they found several items that belonged to Jackson, including a car title, a New Jersey gun permit and several receipts. Police said they never considered Jackson a suspect in the crime.
A Los Angeles detective also told NJ.com that Jackson flashed “neighborhood Crip gang signs” on social media and at football games.
That’s it. That’s all they had along with a few anonymous Eagles sources chiming in with the obligatory Jackson's "lazy" and that Jackson, 27 at the time, was a “bad influence” on the younger Eagles players.
This wasn’t just something that was floated by NJ.com. Most of the local media picked up on it and infused this debunked narrative — LAPD said it never investigated Jackson’s gang connections — into their coverage, which almost seemed desirous of transforming Jackson into Suge Knight.
For this mythology to be passed off as the legitimate news that it never was requires “media professionals” to sign off on it. It also requires a belief that the audience be willing to accept negative tropes regularly attached to Black people.
Does receiving across-the-board support from the likes of white supremacists like former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke create “white supremacist connections” for Donald Trump? That question was answered when former ESPN SportsCenter host Jemele Hill went down that road and it marked the beginning of the end for her at the network.
When tennis star Serena Williams defeated Maria Sharapova to win the gold medal in the women’s singles at the 2012 Olympics, Williams celebrated with a Crip Walk, a dance popularized by members of the Los Angeles Crips, where Williams grew up and likely saw actual Crips doing this exact same dance. Nevertheless, Williams was slammed for glamorizing gang culture.
We don’t know to what extent Jackson affiliates with gangsters. Perhaps he never, ever did. But five years later after being wrongfully stereotyped as one, we do know that there are some local officials who probably would love to see more people doing what DeSean Jackson is doing.