Escalating Violence in America: Misdiagnosing the Problem

Chris Ernesto

Reasons given for murders by the police, escalating homicides and rampage killings are overly narrow, if not inaccurate

(RINF) – A number of years ago I moved from California to Alabama to attend school. On my first day at the University of Alabama I was standing in a line on campus and turned to talk to two black students who were behind me. I was just being friendly and making small talk. But the two guys did not respond back. They didn’t say anything. I thought it was strange since I was led to believe people in the south were very friendly.

Later that night at my dormitory, I just happened to see the two guys again. I told them it was pretty coincidental that on such a big campus we would run across each other twice in the same day and that we just happened to live in the same dorm. I asked if they wanted to go do something, and they said they were playing drinking games with some friends in their room and asked if I wanted to join them. After a couple beers, one of the young black men said to me, “I’m sorry I didn’t say anything to you earlier today while we were standing in line. I was just surprised because it was the first time a white person has ever spoken to me in public.”

I was blown away. I had seen racism growing up, and I came to reject it in part because my father’s family moved to California from Hawaii and they had darker-than-white skin. My father was a frequent victim of abuse because he was a little darker than “normal” so I was sensitive to the plight of dark-skinned people.

But I never imagined it could be as bad as it was for my black friends in Alabama. I went on to hang out regularly with many black people while in Tuscaloosa, and discrimination was a regular occurrence at grocery stores, bars and restaurants. I talked to my black friends about Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, but they told me to just accept the way things were because fighting against it caused too many problems. They were right about the problems – we had numerous altercations while out and about but I told them struggle was necessary to achieve progress, though I understood their point of view.

The way black people are treated in Alabama, and throughout much of America has improved in recent years, but we don’t have anything close to racial equality in the U.S.

It’s not always about racism
That being said, just because black people have been wronged for so long doesn’t mean that every time something bad happens to a black person it is due to racism.

I thought this about the Michael Brown murder in Ferguson, Mo. last year. There was never any proof that Darren Wilson, the cop who killed Mr. Brown, did so because the teenager was black. The larger issue was that a cop killed a person.

Mr. Wilson may or may not be racist, but without any evidence the accusation itself is somewhat racist. You can’t just claim racism every time a white cop kills a black person, unless there’s proof, even in places like Ferguson, where police fostered a “highly toxic environment” of racism and misconduct, according to a Justice Department investigation.

Anti-capitalist protesters take part in a May Day demonstration in Seattle.
Anti-capitalist protesters take part in a May Day demonstration in Seattle.

Similarly, when Freddie Gray was killed by police in Baltimore earlier this year, there were immediate claims of racism. As it turns out, three of the six cops who were involved in Mr. Gray’s murder were black.

Systemic and institutional racism are real, but that doesn’t translate into every single instance in which a black person is killed by a cop as being due to their skin color.

The primary issue in all the recent incidents should have been police brutality, with institutional racism as the secondary issue. Instead, it seems that many activists inverted the issues.

More white people are killed by cops
The Washington Post is compiling a database of every fatal shooting in the United States by a police officer in the line of duty in 2015. So far this year there have been 652 people shot dead by the police. Surprisingly, 50% of those killed were white, 26% were black, 16% Hispanic and 8% other.

So, cops have killed almost twice as many white people as they have black people this year.

shootings by police wash post

It’s true that there are about five times as many white people than black people in the U.S., so blacks are killed by cops at a disproportionately high rate. But that doesn’t prove cops are racist. Indeed, 96% of those killed by cops were men – does that prove cops target men more than they target women?

The underlying problem is that many, if not most cops have a superiority complex and are power-hungry and violent. White cops and black cops. Male cops and female cops. And they are supported by a judicial system and a media that protects them. There’s no doubt that the same establishment is biased against people of color, but they also discriminate based on socio-economic status, and whether or not someone is challenging their world view and authority.

Ask the (primarily white) 7,700 protestors who were arrested during the Occupy movement about the cops only targeting black people. Ask poor white and Latino people and those who are homeless how the cops treat them. Ask peaceful anti-war demonstrators who have felt the wrath of the police and FBI for decades.

The truth is that the entire law enforcement apparatus in the United States is brutal and reflects the values instilled in Americans.

Protesters in Milwaukee, WI expressing a strong message
Protesters in Milwaukee, WI expressing a strong message

Chickens coming home to roost
What you rarely hear from officials, the media and even social justice activists is that the United States is a society in which violence is taught as a means of conflict resolution.

A citizenry that is taught to resolve its conflicts with violence eventually yields the increase in violence experienced today in the U.S. Americans are just behaving as they’ve been shown and taught.

For decades, U.S. foreign policy has been belligerent and has used force, not negotiation, to resolve its perceived problems around the world. Those carrying out that policy — the military — are glorified. It’s acceptable, in fact encouraged to have a career that entails killing people.

And just like those in the law enforcement profession who are said to be “serving” their community, people in the military are said to be “serving” their country. It should be more accurately stated that cops are paid to arrest and kill people in the U.S., and those in the military are paid to oppress and kill people around the world.


Violence as a means of conflict resolution is exacerbated by some parents who use television and video games to help raise their children. Turn on the TV and you’ll quickly find a show or movie in which someone is getting punched, stabbed, shot or bombed. You’ll see arrogant, testosterone-filled cops defeating the “bad guys”. You’ll see violent football games with tributes to the military.

How can we expect people in this country, particularly the young and economically disadvantaged, to peacefully resolve issues when they are inundated with violent messaging?

Predictable, misguided solutions
And now that homicides are on the rise in many U.S. cities, officials are scrambling to offer explanation and solutions. Liberals say that gun laws are too lax and conservatives say that prosecutors and judges are too lenient.

Officials in Washington, D.C. have offered various reasons for the increase in homicides in the District this year, including the proliferation of illegal guns, the growing use of synthetic drugs, and repeat violent offenders being involved in new crimes.

Rarely mentioned are the issues of sub-standard healthcare, machismo, low-paying jobs that are unfulfilling, pressure to possess material goods in order to “keep up with the Joneses”, and a nationwide culture of violence as a means of conflict resolution.

Also not examined is the percolating tension resulting from the economic gap between gentrifying neighborhood’s new arrivals and poor and blue-collar residents.

Outsiders may not see it, but I get a sense of anger among younger African American males [who live in a gentrifying neighborhood.]

“It’s that old story: If you have a barn full of corn and I have a barn that’s empty, at some point you’re going to have a problem. What’s making people sharp is that someone has some money, and it’s not me,” one long time, black D.C. resident told the Washington Post.

Even some African Americans are drinking the Kool-Aid
According to D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, an African American, the increase in murders in D.C. has been in part because of “fights between family members, neighbors, friends even. Fights over senseless things, bruised egos, perceived slights,”

That part sounded logical.

But then she went on to say that part of the solution was to add more cops to areas of the city experiencing disproportionate increases in homicides. Another part of the mayor’s plan allows police to search for guns in the homes of violent offenders on parole.

In trying to explain the rise in homicides, Washington D.C. police union leader Delroy Burton, also African American, said he believes that the nationwide scrutiny of police shootings has made officers less assertive — the “Ferguson effect,” as it is known.

At a high school football game in the District last weekend, multiple fights erupted in the stands and spilled into the surrounding streets. When asked what could be done to prevent fights from occurring at future games, one of the coaches, African American Jason Lane said, “I think they probably need to have more security present at some of the bigger games. Not just security but [police] officers inside and outside of the game … If they had more of a presence, it’s more of a deterrent.”

Black Lives Matter not getting to the core
In response to the D.C. mayor’s announcement of more cops on the streets, Black Lives Matter activists voiced their disapproval.blacklivesmatter1 “More cops with more weapons and tougher laws and expanding police powers – that got us the era of mass incarceration, but it didn’t stop crime,” Stop Police Terror D.C. (a Black Lives Matter affiliate) activist Eugene Puryear said.

That part sounded promising, but then he said that the city’s de facto racial divide – with a majority black eastern section and majority white western area – makes it hard for Washingtonians to understand each other’s respective experiences with police. “If you’re not experiencing these oppressive police practices, then it’s easier to look at the police and say [more police] is the solution.”

That’s true in many cases, but it is also a borderline-racist, blanket statement that does nothing to shrink the existing black/white chasm. There are plenty of black people (see above) who believe that more police are a solution. And there are plenty of non-black people (like me) who believe the police are a big part of the problem.

The proper diagnosis
Virtually every time there is a mass shooting in the U.S., law enforcement officials and the media quickly claim “terrorism” if the suspect is Arab and/or Muslim, and “mental illness” if the perpetrator is white. What’s rarely mentioned is how many people in the U.S. are ostracized from society if they don’t fit the “cool” stereotype, and how the country’s meritocracy is a ruse that pushes people to feel exorbitant amounts of economic pressure.

And what’s definitely not addressed is the fact that we live in a society that glorifies violence in which people are not taught to resolve issues with dialog.

As long as people continue to misdiagnose the cause of violence in America – whether it’s people getting killed by cops, homicides on city streets or rampage killings – we have very little chance of reducing the amount of violence being experienced.

It’s just like going to see a doctor when you’re ill. If the doctor misdiagnoses your sickness and prescribes the wrong treatment, your original illness will not get better, and you may even begin to experience other maladies.

(The views expressed are solely those of the author and not necessarily those of or St. Pete for Peace.)

Chris Ernesto is a founding member of St. Pete for Peace, a non-partisan antiwar organization providing peace oriented education events and services to the Tampa Bay, FL community since 2003.