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America’s Social Contract Is Broken

The protests across the country are about more than police violence.

EREM YUCEL/AFP/Getty Images

So little has changed. Nearly 30 years have passed since the Los Angeles riots, and yet we find ourselves in a near-identical situation: a black man brutalized by police; the incident caught on camera, extinguishing any doubt that a horrendous crime has been committed; then an eruption of violence, fueled not only by the crime itself but by a long history of racial discrimination. Observers in both cases split into two camps: those who sympathize with rioters who have been terrorized by police and abandoned by their government and those who are calling them criminals and demanding that peace be restored. Even the attorney general who oversaw the Justice Department’s response to the Los Angeles riots occupies that office today.

There are differences between then and now, between Los Angeles in 1992 and Minneapolis in 2020—the greatest being that the Minneapolis riots, which have since spawned anti-police protests in cities across the country, occurred amid a deadly pandemic. This cannot be mere coincidence. People are frustrated, trapped in their homes, eager to bust out. “They’re in a different space and a different place,” Keith Ellison, Minnesota’s attorney general, told The New York Times. “They’re restless.” African Americans have had a particularly tough time of it. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote for the Times, “The coronavirus has scythed its way through black communities, highlighting and accelerating the ingrained social inequities that have made African Americans the most vulnerable to the disease.” To douse salt in the wound, black people are far more likely to be arrested for supposed infractions of pandemic safety protocols.

But there is a sense that the protests are tapping into a more ambient anger. There is a sense, too, that the appropriate precedent for the coronavirus pandemic isn’t, say, the “Hong Kong flu” of 1968 (which killed some 100,000 people in the United States) but the utter collapse of society that occurred in convulsions like the Los Angeles riots. The spasms of violence we saw in Minnesota and elsewhere, this collective scream of rage, is what happens when the social contract between citizens and their government is so thoroughly, irredeemably broken.


There are other, telling differences between the 1992 riots and the ones we see today. In Los Angeles, the riots began after the officers who brutally beat Rodney King were acquitted by a jury. It’s almost quaint the way people expected that justice might actually be served, that genuine change might come for America’s pathologically violent police forces. In Minneapolis, though the officers were quickly fired and George Floyd’s killer was charged with murder, the protesters didn’t bother to wait for a trial, because what would a trial do? What have all the other trials, as well as all the other videos of blatant police brutality, done? They certainly didn’t save the life of George Floyd. We have learned, as William Gaddis once wrote, that “you get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.”

In 1992, George H.W. Bush was president, presiding over a Republican Party that had not yet divested itself of all decency and common sense. While Bush condemned the rioters in Nixonian law-and-order fashion, insisting that their actions were “not about civil rights” and that the authorities would use “whatever force necessary” to bring them to heel, he expressed shock and sorrow that King’s assailants were not found guilty. He also vowed to address the “underlying” issues that had amassed in Los Angeles like so much dry tinder. “We know there is police brutality,” then–Attorney General William Barr said. “It’s reprehensible.”

It could be argued that Donald Trump has, in his vulgar way, performed a similar two-step, describing Floyd’s death as “sad and tragic,” while attacking the protesters as an anarchic mob. But in the perfectly cursory tone of his condolences, and in the glee with which he has advocated a crackdown on the protests, he has really made no concessions to the awful reality under which African Americans in Minneapolis and elsewhere live. He has called the protesters “THUGS” and, echoing the arch-segregationist George Wallace, threatened that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” He has blamed the chaos on “Liberal Governors and Mayors,” who, he says, must get “MUCH tougher” on crowds. Current Attorney General William Barr, meanwhile, has delegitimized the protests by claiming that they have been “planned, organized, and driven by anarchic and far-left extremist groups using antifa-like tactics.”

These people obviously do not care about what is going on in this country. It has become a commonplace to describe America as a failed state, but I’m not sure that term quite captures what is happening here, this strange combination of decadence and suffering. It is not just that the federal government is doing almost nothing to address the pandemic, relying instead on the bluntest of measures—an economy-destroying lockdown—and praying schools and businesses will reopen in time for the election in November. It is not just that the pandemic has exposed every institution in American life, including the once-esteemed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. military, as being hopelessly incompetent. It is the wanton greed and corruption on display: the insider trading by U.S. senators (and their subsequent exoneration by Barr’s Justice Department); the wealthy hospitals with venture capital funds that are pocketing aid from Congress while poorer hospitals struggle (did you even know that hospitals had venture capital funds? I didn’t); the large chains gobbling up small business loans from a program that is too poorly designed and inadequately funded to help many actual small businesses. Meanwhile, the unemployment insurance programs of many states are so sclerotic from decades of official contempt for those who have been left behind by the market system that people who have lost their jobs have to go through insane hoops just to get a modest amount of assistance.

So much wealth, so many resources, and yet so little help. It is every person, every family, for themselves. As my colleague Osita Nwanevu has written, “We do not have a country.” There may be solidarity among discrete groups; there may be common feeling between like-minded people who, to name one example, agree to wear masks or shelter in place for the benefit of everyone. But it is not enough, not for a pandemic. It is difficult to describe the feeling of helplessness this engenders—its vastness, the crushing weight of it. Even if we know, on an intellectual level, that government is broken, that our society’s privileges extend only to a lucky few, that no one is going to save us, it is another thing entirely to feel it as soon as you wake up in the morning. The surreal drift of the quarantine era, its never-endingness, is the essence of our political situation.

But others have always lived with this feeling, and they sense it most acutely in their interactions with the most conspicuous representatives of the state: the police. The police, at long last, have shed the adulatory glow they enjoyed in the years after September 11. (It is hard to believe now, but The Strokes even dropped their song “New York City Cops” from their 2001 album, Is This It, because it contained the laughably innocuous line that “they ain’t too smart.”) In urban areas throughout the country, the police have proven themselves to be corrupt and violent, impervious to reform, and hostile toward both the citizens they are supposed to protect and the politicians who dare to criticize them. They are, naturally, an important constituency for Donald Trump. But it must be said that Democratic politicians are as much to blame for this rotten state of affairs as anyone, as well as voters who are willing to accept the regular unnecessary deaths of minorities as long as it keeps their cities “safe.”

And what have the cops done for us in this time of crisis? It is the nurses and doctors and EMTs who have been at the front lines of the pandemic and who are celebrated every night at 7 p.m. with hoots and applause and banging pans. In New York, when the cops are not defying the open streets program in order to fill up on bagels, they are arresting mostly African Americans for flouting lockdown guidelines. When I drive through the eerily empty spaces of Manhattan, I see the police idling in groups, often maskless, while the homeless eddy about the streets. I see them patrolling Prospect Park, scolding people through their Robocop megaphone, rolling past the graffiti that says, “Cops Are the Pandemic.” And now they are beating up protesters. Yet while this city faces austerity cuts to deal with the cost of the pandemic, including to health care of all things, the police department will no doubt be spared the brunt of the damage.

When I watch President Bush’s 1992 address to the nation about the Los Angeles riots, what strikes me is his unshakeable confidence, his optimism. The violence would pass; so, too, would the hatred it unleashed, in America’s long but steady march toward progress. “None of this is what we wish to think of as America,” he said. “It’s as if we were looking in a mirror that distorted our better selves and turned us ugly. We cannot let that happen.” He also said, “In a civilized society there can be no excuse—no excuse—for the murder, arson, theft, and vandalism that have terrorized the law-abiding citizens of Los Angeles.” I agree, but the sorry fact is that we do not live in a civilized society. What I admire about the protesters is that they still have enough belief in this country to demand one.