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Ferguson's State of Emergency Proves America's Social Contract Has Been Broken

When the government must prepare for unrest because injustice is expected from the justice system, the government's legitimacy must be called into question.
Photo by Charlie Riedel/AP

In Ferguson, Missouri, a festering truth about the entire United States has come to light. It is not a truth about flagrant racism, police impunity, or the systematic quashing of free speech. It is not even the truth that, in the eyes of US justice, black lives don't matter. These truths, while bolstered by events in Ferguson, have made themselves perfectly evident via prison populations and police statistics for decades.


What Ferguson has made clear, specifically, is that the social contract has been broken. With the expected grand jury non-indictment of Officer Darren Wilson likely to provoke renewed and righteous unrest, we are seeing nothing less than the state proving itself illegitimate.

I mean this in a very particular sense. When the decisions of a justice system are so repugnant to a significant mass of people that the state apparatus expects and must contend with popular unrest, then this political system has lost the grounds on which political legitimacy is based. When, on Monday, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency in Ferguson ahead of the grand jury decision, I like to think the ghost of Jean Jacques Rousseau looked on and whispered through the icy Missouri air, "Rise up."

Ferguson police emails reveal 'life is very rough' for officers. Read more here.

Rousseau's The Social Contract does not describe the modern democratic state. Yet the tenets of the 1762 treatise provided the framework by which we came to understand how political legitimacy resides in a democratic government. The social contract is broken, Rousseau stated, when a government does not represent the general will of the sovereign — the sovereign being the people, united — and when justice is not the expression of the general will of the people. And so, in Ferguson, where the National Guard must be called for fear that people will be moved to violence because of the decisions of our justice system, the social contract, it seems, is broken. This, for Rousseau, would be grounds enough for revolution.


I'm making some contentious claims here, and Rousseau made even more. Indeed, the idea of the general will and its accordance with justice is somewhat mythic. Rousseau's optimistic belief that people converge on what is just and right goes sadly unfounded in recorded history. It is, nonetheless, a foundational idea of modern democracy. And if there is any locus around which the collective will should emerge in this country, it is surely in upholding the principle that, under law, all people deserve to be treated equally. Or, at the very least, the proposition-turned-hashtag, which should go without saying, that #BlackLivesMatter.

In the case of Mike Brown's death and the subsequent fate of the officer who shot him, Darren Wilson, the US justice system and the police stand at odds with the collective assertion of this basic truth, as expressed in the streets of Ferguson and beyond. The military has been called in and police departments nationwide are preparing in expectation that the justice system will be widely perceived as unjust.

It is in the expectation of injustice, the preparation for it, the fact that we are already talking about a "non-indictment" for Wilson, that indicates a shredded social contract. Of course the violences and injustices of the US legal, prison, and police systems will not be mended by bringing Wilson to trial. Oscar Grant's killer, BART police officer Johannes Mehserle, was brought to trial for shooting dead the unarmed black man who lay face down on an Oakland train platform. The summary execution, caught on cell phone camera, was deemed involuntary manslaughter in court. He received a two-year sentence, heavily reduced by doubly credited time served.


This was not justice for Grant, and the verdict provoked protests and riots. The trial's not necessarily the thing.

But in Ferguson, we see how far the justice system in this country has drifted from justice. A decision is coming that promises to be so unjust in its nature, so contrary to the basic tenets of equality, so dismissive of black life, that mass protest is inevitable and riots are expected. The state apparatus is not moving to serve the will of people who stand against this injustice, it is preparing for battle against it under the bogus guise of peacekeeping. To prepare for injustice is proof enough that it is already the status quo.

Video shows Ferguson officer Darren Wilson threatening man filming him. Watch it here.

It is a power with questionable legitimacy that prepares with heavy artillery for popular unrest. The preparation alone draws political legitimacy into question, regardless of what Wilson's grand jury decides. And if, per Rousseau, "obedience is due only to legitimate powers," the declared state of emergency in Ferguson is as much an assertion of illegitimate power — a broken social contract — as it is an unwitting justification of civil disobedience.

Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard