Fire, the Right to Breathe, and the Aesthetics of Protest in the Americas
Simone da Silva Ribeiro Gomes and Lara Sartorio Gonçalves
From Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
It is a recurring debate. In 2011 journalist and activist Darcus Howe commented on the civil unrest that had happened in England in August of that year saying, “I don’t call it rioting. I call it an insurrection of the masses of the people. It is happening in Syria. It is happening in Clapham. It’s happening in Liverpool. It’s happening in Port of Spain, Trinidad, and that is the nature of the historical moment.” It is now June 2020 and that quote does not seem figurative as we observe a growing wave of protests, riots, and violence met with harsh repression and the criminalization of activism. But we must also remember that this is often how important rights and changes are won.
Behind every protest and riot there is invariably a Black man or a Latin American Indigenous person lying on the street of any given city in the Americas: in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and New York, US in 2014; in Minnesota, US in 2015; in Santiago, Chile in 2017; in Tierralta, Colombia in 2019; in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2020, among thousands of others. The “No Justice, No Peace!” actions that have followed call attention to the killing of unarmed Black people in broad daylight by state agents (Abt, 2020). Then things invariably get complicated, with protests depicted as starting “largely peaceful, before taking a violent turn.” Outside of social movements and hegemonic narratives, what is violence, after all? Is it flaming objects?
Fire is commonly associated with riots, both in witness statements and in images of the events. The phrase “London is burning!” did not start with the 2011 riots, but with the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780 (Navickas, 2011). Social movements have historically experimented with violence, as illustrated by the suffragettes in 1918. While they are traditionally depicted as empowered young women holding placards, determined to win the right to vote and have a voice on equal terms with men, they also participated in numerous acts of violence, including explosions and bombs throughout the United Kingdom for several years prior to winning voting rights.
We would like to draw attention to the magnetic attraction to fire in protests. It is no wonder, humans have been using fire for over 400.000 years. The human ability to control fire is linked to our ability to evolve as a species, as we have learned to use it to cook, forge tools, and stay warm. Among the many things that fire may depict are passion, desire, rebirth, resurrection, eternity, destruction, hope, and purification. People have written extensively about fire and its ability to nourish and protect, but also cause harm and kill. Along with water, air, and earth, it is considered one of the four elements essential to life.
The images of burning buildings, stores, and public sculptures seem to fascinate humanity. But they are often misunderstood, even among activists and social movement scholars. Direct actions are often controversial. Public opinion has moral objections to civil disobedience, believing that violence is the sole prerogative of the State. Even the political Left sometimes creates a tight separation between spontaneous and organized actions. In this light, (literally) inflamed actions can be interpreted as a simulation of non-existent radicalism, if it is not accompanied by political strategy.
Therefore, what we propose is that burning should not be seen as an end in itself, but as a ritual with potential for communication and mobilization. Direct action has been recurrent in racial and food riots throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, most often used by those most directly targeted by the state and who, therefore, have less bureaucratic methods of response, since they are disconnected from the social compact. Fire, as a flaming symbol of a decaying world, is here understood to be a performative tactic that produces meaning and inflammatory reactions.
The current protests were sparked by the May 25, 2020 killing of George Floyd. An African American male, 46 years old, recently unemployed, father of a six-year-old girl, was savagely killed by a white male police officer named Derek Chauvin. This tragic event resulted in people going out into the streets in the midst of the COVID-19 health crisis. It all started in Minneapolis, but by the following Sunday, protests had broken out in 75 cities across the US, and many more in Brazil, shedding light on the persistent racism in our societies, with at least four deaths and around 1,700 arrests. A protest speech by #BlackLivesMatter activist Tamika Mallory went viral: : “We cannot look at this as an isolated incident. The reason why buildings are burning are not just for our brother George Floyd. They are burning down because people here in Minnesota are saying to people in New York, in California, people in Memphis, to people all across this nation: enough is enough.”
By late May 2020 the protests had taken on a certain aesthetic which has historical precedent. By now many of us have seen, read about, and probably shared pictures of the Midwestern city of Minneapolis and its flaming buildings. Those images are indeed very powerful and are assumed to be effective. If buildings are burning, then people are fed up and the protests must be working, demands will be met and minorities’ voices will be heard–or so other social movements will say.
But this is not always how protests operate. Literature on protests considers them to be key components of democracy, an expression of ideals and principles that necessarily challenge dominant orthodoxies. In the past, the civil rights movement applied many different tactics, from bus boycotts to sit-ins to freedom-rides to community-wide protest campaigns (Tufecki, 2017). In the last few years, actions have been more performative, in both strategy and tactics (Butler, 2015). Visual activism has ranged from protest graffiti (Thomas 2018) to fine art photography in which the protester has some control over the framing (Hallas 2012). This form of struggle is broadly related to forms in political protests that emerged following the economic and financial crisis of 2008.
Also, they happen when people come together to react against inequality, injustice, exclusion, and other vulnerabilities. The aesthetics of protest primarily include humour, graffiti, slogans, art, symbols, slang, gestures, bodies, colors and other elements of performance that can be digitally shared across media platforms. All protest aesthetics are both performative and communicative (McGarry, Erhart, Eslen-Ziya, 2019).
Visuals matter. But so does what happens following the protests. These fire-related protests are frequently followed by looting, and looting sometimes causes a setback for the movement. George Rudé, Edward Thompson, and Eric Hobsbawm have documented riots from the 18th to 20th century in Europe, and found that looting, plunder, and fire were rather common. In Brazil, although historically disputed among the Left (Gorender, 1987), since the 1930s, and particularly in the state of Sao Paulo in the 1980s, direct actions appeared spontaneously as a form of struggle with heavy repercussions. Looting can illuminate a specific historical moment by exposing the contradictions, conflicts, and tensions in the political, economic, and social spheres.
Accordingly, literature about riots (Briggs, 2012, Ferreira, 2009, Kelley and Tuck, 2015, Bowden, 2014, Abt, 2019, Abu-Lughod, 2006) indicates that when objects and buildings are burned in protests, this invariably provokes curfews, a police backlash, (un)justified repression, and even the rise of the far Right. We will not focus on these repercussions, but on the link between burning objects and people not being able to breathe. We are experiencing the systematic suffocation of Black people, which did not start with Eric Garner´s murder in 2014, when his dying words were, “I can’t breathe.” This is part of the long history of populations being enslaved based on the color of their skin. The subjugation of the original peoples of the Americas and the Atlantic slave trade are a large part of this vivid memory, forcefully kept alive through police brutality.
The idea that everything must burn down in order to start a new world is not new, but the mere act of burning is emblematic of contemporary struggles. A sort of pyromania is an integral part of these contemporary riots–including the response that these images invoke among both social movement protesters in the streets and scholars. Fire is fascinating to the broad political spectrum: from right-wing groups ready to incriminate as soon as they see flames, to left-wing activists celebrating what they consider to be a victory.
George Floyd´s horrific death at the hand of a former US police officer not only shows the murder of a human being, but the domination of one enormous group of people by another. Black people account for 13% of the US population and 55.8% of the Brazilian population, but persistent racial inequalities have triggered anger and distrust of institutions in the Americas. It is not far from the truth that fire implies radicalism to a certain degree, but protesters and scholars’ hypotheses must take into account the changing patterns of protest. The global Left seems to think that Revolution is coming when they see images of burning cars and buildings, knowing that history repeats itself and people have had enough.
In a brief semiotic exercise, the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation, we gather from the images below that victory, revenge, and fatigue have fueled the last few weeks of protest in the Americas. But since the extraction of meaning is not a straightforward process, it is evident that the burning of objects may be interpreted as success by the participants and scholars, while they are also quite likely to be both the cause and effect of repression of further protests.
Fire is a handy resource in protests because it does not allow the insistent actions and voices of rioters to leave the landscape unscathed, as Thompson once said about “hunger rioters.” Because fire is also a specific way to destroy what exists, “a complete destruction, because the trail that the fire leaves is itself, the fire that passed through here” (ILHARCO, 2008: 150). It also finds its way into mass media, since it becomes impossible for state agents not to respond, leading to increased repression. And there are variations on how much repression they will unleash: President Donald Trump enraged many with his tweet, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” giving an historic endorsement of police violence, and it is not far fetched to say, an endorsement of white supremacist shootings of rioters.
Breathing is not optional
Achille Mbembe (2020) calls our attention to the day after COVID-19 and how it ought not come at the expense of the same people the economy was sacrificing prior to these protests. The day after will come but only if there is a reinvention, since it has become evident that we are surrounded by rings of fire. The philosopher states that before this virus, humanity was already threatened with suffocation and unable to choose the terms of death, given that entire segments of the world population, entire races, are condemned to a life of oppression. Mbembe calls for the universal right to breathe–not just biological breathing–but breathing as full enjoyment of the human experience.
The mesmerizing, dystopian scenario that the pandemic unleashed paved the way for the moment we now face: the curious observation that the apocalypse is nothing more than our everyday existence. The survival mode the vast majority of the world’s population has been living in is like holding one’s breath, waiting for death, or rather, its relief. As Walter Benjamin said in 1940, “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, (…).” It is no coincidence then that red images of insurrection make us feel heat. Fire. The moment when the burning present day makes us face our fears, and we panic at the prospect of losing what little we have, is also seductive. Just as heat is agitation, fire can function as an extension of creative acts: transformation.
To the end
Disruptive events can cut history time, as Hannah Arendt once said. A significant example is 9/11 in the US, for which there is a before and an after. The world afterwards is marked by asymmetry and significant changes in global war paradigms, as highlighted by Chamayou (2015). Counterinsurgency was the effort to control those who, through their demands, confronted States, fighting as sectors of the population with fundamental rights. An important change occurred after 9/11, when fighting terrorism replaced counterinsurgency, and the enemy came to be depicted as a dehumanized, generic “terrorist.”
Consider hellfire, which plays a role in constituted memory. To put it in divine terms, we find ourselves in a world divided between good and evil – a form of Manichaeism appropriate to a context of (permanent) war. We know it is irrational, but different notions of “otherness” have been developed to define the terrorist enemy. This is not just semantics, but a legal concept. Following the example of the United States, most countries have adopted anti-terrorism laws in the last few years. The dynamics of this, the way collectives, political organizations, social movements, and protesters have been framed, allows them to be the best next terrorists.
For example, this was the first reaction of Presidents Bolsonaro and Trump when referring to the recent #BlackLivesMatter protesters. Use of the fire aesthetic seductively plays into this discourse, as we have become accustomed to political imagery that associates fire with terror. Explaining the problem of political violence as the reaction of the oppressed is, thanks to the politics of fear, fertile ground for authoritarianism, social control and increased surveillance of the population.
The two sides in the protests were never evenly matched. The weapons and subsequent violence one side can mobilize easily overwhelms the power of the multitudes. The growing state security apparatus to control and repress protests is worrisome, quite often enhanced by drones, which seem to “construct a bodiless force, a political body with no organs” (Chamayou, 2015). Drones have been increasingly used to monitor, repress and eliminate targets, while maintaining immunity since there is no logic of reciprocity in state violence.
Modern democracies, usually antagonistic to authoritarianism, are founded on inclusion of the masses in decision-making processes. This is supposed to coincide with the notion that fear of popular uprisings should guide the practice of political power. Indeed, the policy of fear, meaning fear of the most marginalized sectors of society, feeds into the aforementioned state of emergency. In the words of #BLM activist Tamika Mallory, “This is a coordinated activity happening across this nation. So we are in a state of emergency. We [as Black people] are dying in a state of emergency.” In these terms, the description of what is said to be an emergency–be it the burning of buildings and police vehicles or other forms of reaction–is instilling fear in the powers that be, which in turn is freeing for the protesters.
Simone da Silva Ribeiro Gomes is Associate Professor of Sociology at Universidade Federal de Pelotas (UFPel), and an activist on popular education.
Lara Sartorio Gonçalves is Phd Candidate in Sociology by Social and Political Studies Institute (IESP), of State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ).
Fred Mills and Jill Clark-Gollub assisted as editors of this article
[Main photo: protest in Rio de Janeiro, 2019. Credit: Thayla Fernandes da Conceição]
 “Black lives shattered: outrage as boy, 14, is Brazil police’s latest victim,” https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/03/brazil-black-lives-police-teenager
 “Suffragettes, violence and militancy,” https://www.bl.uk/votes-for-women/articles/suffragettes-violence-and-militancy
 “As “direct action” we understand actions which reject mediation instruments, that are not filtered by the institutions. They are situated in the field of civil disobedience and direct confrontation with the repressive forces of the State, […] involves damaging the private property of multinationals and other companies, looting of stores, graffiti on walls, breaking of shop windows and occupations of public spaces “. (SARTORIO, 2014).
 Numbers of Saturday May 30th, available at: https://www.gadsdentimes.com/news/20200531/protest-roundup-lsquowersquore-sick-of-itrsquo-anger-over-police-killings-shatters-us
 Available at https://www.facebook.com/164188247072662/posts/1871493659675437/?vh=e&d=n
 Following the trends of academic research on the theme of inequality, here we use Black to mean the sum of those who call themselves blacks and browns (RIOS, PEREIRA, RANGEL, 2017). Available from: http://cienciaecultura.bvs.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0009-67252017000100015
 Source: IBGE https://educa.ibge.gov.br/jovens/conheca-o-brasil/populacao/18319-cor-ou-raca.html
 “Racist History Behind Trump’s Threat to Shoot Minneapolis Protesters Spurs Twitter to Act,” https://theintercept.com/2020/05/29/twitter-restricts-access-trumps-threat-shoot-minneapolis-protesters/
 “Donald Trump threatens to send in troops amid Minneapolis riots sparked by death of George Floyd,” https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-05-29/donald-trump-tweet-minneapolis-violence-protest-police-precinct/12299136
 Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History, https://www.sfu.ca/~andrewf/CONCEPT2.html
 “Customs and Border Protection Is Flying a Predator Drone Over Minneapolis,” https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/5dzbe3/customs-and-border-protection-predator-drone-minneapolis-george-floyd
 Available from: https://www.facebook.com/164188247072662/posts/1871493659675437/?vh=e&d=n
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