When Police Join Protesters, Their Rhetoric Heals the Social Contract & Stops the Cycle of Violence

Where to begin? Where to focus? The murder of George Floyd. The peaceful and violent protests all over the country. The solidarity and violence of police. Exaggerations in the news media. Problems in politicians' statements. Debates over #BlackLivesMatter vs. #AllLivesMatter. Misleading memes, moralizing social media, and misinformation.


Of all weeks, there are plenty of facts, "facts," and rhetoric for a fact-checking writing and rhetoric teacher to blog about. But instead, I want to focus on something underlying all the rhetoric.


Fractures in our social contract explain much of the protesting, violence, looting, and fruitless debating. Until we grapple with the broken social contract between American police and society, we'll spin our wheels debating hashtags and the right way to protest instead of addressing the roots of protests, riots, and looting.



The Social Contract with Police


In a nutshell, the "social contract" is the idea that a people form a society based on an unofficial but widely-understood "contract." We agree to forgo frontier justice, to play by certain rules, and to give a central government power to enforce those rules. These rules include both formal laws and informal norms and expectations.


To enforce our rules, laws, and norms, we give police broad power and discretion to use force. They can't do their job without the ability to use force, and they can't do it well if they're constantly second-guessing whether they'll get in trouble later.


In exchange, we expect police to judiciously use the power and discretion that we give them. We expect them to avoid using force if possible and, when it can't be avoided, to use only the amount and type of force necessary for the situation.


Much of the rhetoric surrounding police violence centers around disagreements about the balance between empowering police to do what society asks of them and needing police to stay within certain boundaries.

Some want to give police the benefit of the doubt in most cases, and others more readily question the necessity of police violence.


Many protest to draw attention to use-of-force that exceeds the "charter" given by the social contract, and others advocate "back the blue."


We struggle to agree whether police break their social contract. Partly, each case is unique. Partly, we haven't discussed the contract enough.


Breaking the Social Contract


Enter Derek Chauvin. Everyone agrees that he broke the social contract when he knelt on the neck of a handcuffed, prostrate George Floyd for nearly nine minutes while he pleaded, "I can't breathe." Everyone agrees that the other three officers broke the contract when they stood by and let it happen.


Our criminal justice system has guardrails for when an officer abuses the power that society gives to police. The police department's Internal Affairs Division and the local district attorney office hold the offending police officers accountable.


Except, all too often, they don't until public outcry forces them to.

Private citizens would've been arrested and charged immediately for doing what Chauvin and his fellow officers did, but it took four days of intense pressure, national outrage, and both peaceful and violent protests before Chauvin was arrested and charged with third-degree murder. It took even longer for the other officers to be charged.


Organizing and rhetoric can have real impacts on the world. Until large numbers of people began advocating for specific outcomes based on clear (video) evidence, Chauvin wasn't brought to justice. Yet in all the rhetoric, we haven't talked about the tattered social contract underlying the injustice, the protests, and, yes, even the riots.


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Police can't be everywhere at all times, of course, so our social contract allows for citizens to defend themselves, fellow people, and their property if necessary. But we also expect citizens to act wisely when deciding whether and how to defend themselves, others, or their property.


Gregory and Travis McMichael broke the social contract when they thought Ahmaud Aubrey appeared suspicious for jogging through their neighborhood and then fatally shot him. George Zimmerman broke the social contract when he decided Trayvon Martin looked suspicious in his hoodie.


Again, the criminal justice system addresses abuses of the right to self-defense or defense of property. People who kill others based on groundless suspicions get arrested and charged.


Except, all too often, they don't until public outcry forces them to.

It took months of public pressure, national outrage, and peaceful protests for the McMichaels and Zimmerman to be arrested.


Again, organizing and rhetoric led to results. Nothing happened until local groups argued for justice based on the facts of the case, national voices began weighing in, and undeniable (video) evidence emerged to support the argument.


And again, despite all the rhetoric, we didn't discuss the social contract.



Fractures in the Social Contract Lead to Protests, Violence, and Looting


When police officers break their social contract with everyone else and the system's guard-rails also fail, people protest to draw attention to the injustice and shame the people in charge of the system into making it work. It's another guard-rail, a pressure valve.


Given the histories of racial discrimination and systemic racism, it's not surprising that the pressure valve sometimes fails. As Martin Luther King, Jr., said, Riots don't happen out of thin air.


According to credible news reports, some protesters in Minneapolis instigated violence with police by throwing rocks and water bottles at police cars. In Ferguson six years ago, some protesters began burning buildings and cop cars. Both cities have long histories of racial inequities in their policing and criminal justice systems.


When police meet peaceful protests in riot gear ...


shoot canisters of tear-gas and rubber bullets in response to chanting crowds with signs and, yes, even rock-throwing protesters ...


arrest and attack journalists for simply being present with cameras ...


the social contract fractures again and again and again; the last guardrail, peaceful protest, gets ripped off the exit ramp.

When you need protection from the people and systems that are supposed to protect all of us, then you're likely to feel purposefully excluded from the social contract and very much alone.


I have no illusions that looters have some high-minded political philosophy in mind when they're carrying off goods, but it makes sense that people would look out for themselves and "get theirs" when they feel left out of society. A broken social contract produces anarchy.


Until we grapple with the broken social contract in our rhetoric about police force, I fear we'll stay in the cycle of police brutality, violent protests, and unchanged systems.


Patching, Renewing, the Social Contract


When the system seems to be set against you, when you seem to have no recourse, when you've been left out of the social contract, then you become much more likely to resort to what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called "the language of the unheard" -- violence, frontier justice, every-man-for-himself.


Yet courageous, empathetic leaders can patch the social contract with their rhetoric.

We saw examples of this in police solidarity with protesters all over the country.


In Flint, MI, where the county sheriff joined the protesters. In Santa Cruz, CA, and Coral Gables, FL, where officers took a knee with protesters. In Fargo, ND, where police leaders met and talked with protesters. In Camden, NJ, where officers held signs voicing their own protest. In Kansas City, MO, where a black officer and a white officer held up a sign reading, "End police brutality."



The more that police, district attorneys, mayors, and governors come together with protesters rather than clashing against them, the more the social contract can heal and society can come back together.


The people and systems that we empower to protect all of us have an opportunity to lead the way. They can acknowledge the fractures of their social contract with us, and they can patch the damage with restraint and rhetoric that honors the contract.


Maybe then we'll stop the cycle.


Eric Sentell teaches writing and rhetoric. He is the author of How to Write an Essay like an Equation and Become Your Own Fact-Checker.
Learn more about his work, sign up for a newsletter, and get free excerpts at www.EricSentell.com.
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