VanDiver: America has a police brutality problem

Shawn VanDiver

There is a discussion going on right now about the merits of violence as a means of affecting change. This week and last, that focus has been on Baltimore, where violent protests have erupted ostensibly in response to the death of Freddie Gray.

But are they really about Mr. Gray, a 25-year-old man who died in police custody? I am not there, so I can't say. But it seems to me that these protests are a symptom of our continually widening income inequality gap and ever-present racial divide.

Having grown up in California and served in the Navy for 12 years, I had never really seen segregation in action until I visited other parts of the country. Seeing those clear divisions, I began to understand the depths of our divide. Now, the military isn’t perfect, and there are certainly people who identify with one another in some way (by occupational specialty, race, creed, interests, or the like), but for the most part it is a diverse group of folks working toward the same mission. The same cannot be said for places like West Baltimore, Ferguson, or countless other communities across our great country.

And why is that? It's because our country is not at all a post-racial society. I can't imagine having to sit my 6-year-old son Ryan down for a talk about how he has to watch himself around law enforcement. I can’t imagine him being followed around a store because of the color of his skin. It breaks my heart to think about parents who never know if their children will make it home at night. We all worry about individual bad actors in society, but only some of us must also contend with the dangers of institutionalized racism.

That isn’t to say all law enforcement is bad. Most law enforcement officers are good people who care about their communities and have integrity, honor, and discipline. But recognizing that there is a problem doesn’t mean discounting the sacrifice of these good folks. So what should we do? We can start by asking questions.

What do we want to see as a result of these violent or nonviolent protests? Does the end game involve the federal Department of Justice having oversight over all law enforcement in the country? Does it involve every police officer in our country wearing a body camera? Does it mean more rigorous reporting on police brutality and the deaths of Americans in police custody, rather than airing endless footage of a building set afire by a few opportunistic malcontents while thousands protest peacefully around the corner?

If we’ve learned anything from Baltimore, surely it should be that surface-level solutions aren’t going to be enough. What does accountability look like? How can we treat the root cause rather than just the symptoms? How can we identify the reasons that people of color, despite not committing more crimes, are incarcerated at an alarmingly higher rate and are being gunned down in the street? Well, it’s going to take time. It’s going to take a national commitment.

As President Barack Obama said, people shouldn’t have to burn down a CVS to get noticed.

Shawn VanDiver is a 12 year Navy Veteran and co-director of the Truman National Security Project San Diego chapter.