Letter to the editor: Jerry Vander Sanden played himself

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Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden — official photo

By Chad Cooper, Cedar Rapids

Would you believe me if I told you a local elected official used the term “race card” to defend the fact that a disproportionate amount of black Iowans are arrested and imprisoned for drug offenses? How about if I told you the official did it in print?

I’m going to assume the majority of Little Village’s readership is located in Johnson County, but we, your neighbors to the north, were treated to that aforementioned display of audacity by our county attorney, Jerry Vander Sanden.

Apparently, Jerry got his shirt ruffled by a Gazette staff editorial calling attention to Iowa’s dismal ranking as one of the top five states with the most racist drug enforcement. You can read the letter, but it cites an ACLU report released last month that finds that black Iowans are more than seven times more likely than white Iowans to be arrested for marijuana possession. The letter goes on to state that the disparities are even worse in several Eastern Iowa counties, including Linn, where blacks are 9.7 times more likely to be arrested.
Keep in mind, while the editorial cites racism, implicit bias, over-policing and lack of community oversight as factors, it focuses on marijuana legalization as the main way to quickly reduce disproportional arrests in our justice system. The letter doesn’t mention Vander Sanden or the Cedar Rapids Police Department. In fact, the letter puts much of the onus on state politicians and voters.

Those are facts, as are the findings from the ACLU report.

Enter Vander Sanden. In a response about a week later, Vander Sanden came out of the gate steaming: “The recent Gazette staff editorial was a reprehensible attack on our police and a shameful play of the race card.”

What article did you read, Jerry?

I could cite more excerpts from Vander Sanden’s letter — including where he labels the ACLU an “anti-police” group — but you can read the entire thing for yourself, and why would I waste the real estate? I want to focus on the tone and stance, because they are what I find most troubling.

In response to an editorial highlighting the facts of a compiled report showing an embarrassing disparity in your community, your published reaction is to get defensive and hostile? A call to action aimed more at state politicians and voters draws your ire and rebuke? You see fit to establish a construct where calling out injustice means siding against all police? Instead of a response that aims to find solutions and paths to work together, you pen a letter that serves to further separate and polarize the public? None of that seems responsible, especially from an elected official.

Now, let’s get this out in the open: I’m a white male. I can only have so much knowledge of the black experience, and that’s why I try to spend a lot more time with my ears open and my mouth shut when black members of our community speak about their experiences and frustrations. When presented with facts and real stories, I find it best to begin learning and cease talking.

I’m also no politician, so I’m not here to grandstand or score points. This is just me, as a lone community member, realizing that it’s imperative to expose racial injustice, wherever we find it. This is just me, thinking there must be a better way that brings us closer together to solve real problems. A way that doesn’t have to demonize, polarize or stigmatize, but cuts to the truth in order to find the path forward.

It doesn’t sound like Jerry Vander Sanden shares that sentiment. I wish he did. We need our elected officials and community members collaborating to achieve progress; that’s how we play to win as a city. But as long as Vander Sanden is writing letters accusing others of playing the race card, he’s only playing himself.

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