Every few months, members of Congress have been faced with searing images of peaceful protests that turn into violent demonstrations after a black man has died at the hands of police.
The latest episode arose after 25-year-old Baltimore resident Freddie Gray died in police custody. Now, the city of Baltimore is in turmoil, streets are burning, the National Guard has been deployed, and the city is observing a curfew. The deaths of black men at the hands of police have been thrust into the national spotlight. From Ferguson, Missouri, to New York City, communities have lashed out against police brutality with an anger that has been simmering for years—if not decades.
"I think right now, the main thing is calm and getting people calm. I am not sure there is much we can do there," says Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat who sympathizes with the pain in the community and says the the independent investigation may help. "Quite frankly, the motivation for the violence was young people seeing an opportunity to loot and cause harm. ... The people who are for justice for Freddie Gray unanimously indicate this is counterproductive to their goal."
At every turn in these situations, politicians urge peace, President Obama takes a stand, and Congress holds hearings. Then, outside of a task force, nothing happens. It is a pattern, Obama acknowledged Tuesday, that has to stop—even as he is "under no illusion that, out of this Congress, we're going to get massive investments in urban communities."
But, the underlying causes of these riots, politicians say, need to be dealt with, even if it would take more political will than this Congress has shown a propensity for.
"If we really want to solve the problem, if our society really wanted to solve the problem, we could," Obama said at a Tuesday press conference. "It's just, it would require everybody saying, 'This is important, this is significant,' and that we don't just pay attention to these communities when a CVS burns, and we don't just pay attention when a young man gets shot or has his spine snapped."
Democratic Sen. Harry Reid took to the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon and made the point that what happened in Baltimore was really a reflection of income inequality, unrest, and injustice—all of which Congress needs to tackle.
"We should not let the violence perpetrated by a few to become an excuse to ignore the underlying problem: that millions of Americans feel powerless in the face of a system that is rigged against them," Reid said. "In a nation that prides itself on being a land of opportunity, millions of our fellow citizens live every day with little hope of building a better future, no matter how hard they try."
The root causes of these tragedies are so complicated, so widespread, and so ingrained in communities and police culture, that lawmakers across both political parties say expecting the federal government to legislate its way out of local community issues is a daunting task.
"I think it is very difficult for the federal government to find a primary role in defusing the problems in the nation," says Sen. Tim Scott, a Republican from South Carolina who has been confronted with racial tensions in his own home state after a video surfaced of a white police officer shooting unarmed black man, Walter Scott.
Sen. Scott concedes that there are some things Congress can do, such as the "important ingredient" of officers wearing body cameras. But he also concedes that it takes a more comprehensive approach to bring communities back from the brink.
"In those communities that are unraveling before our eyes, high unemployment, graduation rates are below par, poverty is significantly high. Long-term, there is something that we all can do to make that situation less toxic," Scott says.
Getting a grasp on what they can do in the immediate future to combat tensions in communities between police and residents, however, appears to be the first challenge for Congress. After the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, there were calls for the expansion of body cameras, and in the Senate, the Homeland Security Committee held a hearing on the militarization of community law-enforcement agencies.
But bold action to address those issues have not even been taken up on the floor of either chamber.
Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri says she hopes that change will come in small ways. During the hearing last Congress, McCaskill, a Democrat, was one of the leading senators who railed against the the country's ballooning 1033 program, a government grant that has provided local police with more than $5 billion worth of military-grade equipment the Defense Department once used on the ground in war zones, from Iraq to Afghanistan.
McCaskill's office says she is planning to introduce legislation in the coming weeks that would provide oversight to federal grant programs to local cops. But in a Republican-controlled Congress and with a crammed agenda in the Senate, it may be difficult to make room on the schedule for such legislation.
Tuesday, a bipartisan group of senators, including Republican Whip John Cornyn of Texas and Democrat Gary Peters of Michigan, also introduced a bill that would create a National Criminal Justice Commission to examine the country's justice system, from courts to law enforcement.
But some senators say, in order to change the distrust between cops and residents in Baltimore and elsewhere, Congress needs to take a broader approach to combating poverty.
When asked if there was anything Congress could do to help the situation in cities like Baltimore, Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin said, "Yes, but not overnight and not in a matter of weeks or months."
"What we're trying to do is assert dignity and work, give people a decent income so they don't feel hopeless, and I think that is part of the long-term answer to this," Durbin said. "We have to acknowledge that there is a fundamental issue here at stake about the issue of race when it comes to law enforcement. It is just something we are evolving in the right direction, slowly. But sadly, there are victims now captured on videotape that remind us that we have a long way to go."
Dustin Volz contributed to this article
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.