America is burning.
In multiple cities across the country, images of banks being set on fire, Molotov cocktails thrown at police cars, and buildings ablaze are displayed everywhere from our television screens to social media. Americans are enraged. They’re mourning. They’re tired. Protestors are marching against police brutality – most of them peaceful, others anarchist – with the same message: They demand change and they need it now.
Black Americans are exhausted from waiting for America’s promises for change, what Roxanne Gay writes have been “comfortable lies.” After all, our country has yet to own its oppressive history that’s caused deliberate damage against black and brown bodies. Its nefarious structures have continued to propel disadvantages for black communities that can still be seen today. This, from our school systems, neighborhoods, employment, incarcerations, to hospitals now with disproportionate amounts of COVID-19-related deaths.
One of the most egregious examples of injustices have stemmed from decades of police brutality. What Huey P. Newton once fought against during the Black Panthers era is still what we are facing today. In the past month alone, we’ve witnessed George Floyd murdered by a policeman; Ahmaud Arbery gunned down by white vigilantes; Breonna Taylor killed by cops, mistaking her home for another’s, and many, many others who didn’t make the news. For Black Americans everywhere this painful reality isn’t new.
It’s a cruel reminder that our country has never been great, rather, a capitalistic system made off of the backs of people of color. While white folks have reaped the benefits of America’s promises, they have long neglected how it only benefits people who look a certain way. But the blinders are now being torn off to show how evil and ugly America has always been. The bandages are now unraveling to reveal a country that’s never healed from slavery to Jim Crow. Instead, it’s exposing rotting flesh, infected by a virus called hate, with a president who chooses not to find a cure, hoping that it will finally destroy the people he’s willfully ignored.
But the world is waking up to the madness of the Trump administration. Black Lives Matter is no longer a movement for black Americans only. On the streets from Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Denver, New York City, to Salt Lake City, people from all backgrounds are marching in solidarity, allying with their brothers and sisters. It’s catching on overseas as well. From London to Tokyo, people are demanding change. They’re observing from afar, showing strength and solidarity, validating how America is not the “world’s greatest country” it’s purported to be.
And it’s sparking real change. For the first time in four years, we’re witnessing a boisterous president suddenly shrink away. He’s not only unhinged, he’s alone. Sitting on his throne inside the White House, he has little to no more moves left. His greatest fear is facing millions against him. To destroy Trump and his cronies means erupting with collective anger and disempowering him once and for all.
In order to do so, we must burn America down.
For centuries, native peoples in continents around the world have understood human relationships to fire. Fire could destroy their land if inadvertent, but could allow it to prosper if used deliberately. Since, fire has become an essential tool used to continue the livelihood of any ecosystem. In order for land to prosper, forest fires are necessary to start anew.
From an ecological standpoint, healthy forest fires turn dead, decaying, or damaged plants to ash, returning precious nutrients back into the soil. Another study published in National Geographic found that fire was the only way to clear underbrush so thick it’s prohibited the sun from ever shining onto forest floors. The only way forward is to set it ablaze – the future of the forest’s living, breathing ecosystem depends on it.
The World Wildlife Federation has since called this method “backburning,” a technique that involves a controlled path of fire. The fires are not only well-managed, but controlled, and are effective in stopping out-of-control aspects of land. But backburning isn’t only for destroying unwanted vegetation, it’s also to prevent uncontrolled forest fires. Natural, low-intensity wildfires have occurred in the wild to burn dead, old, discarded trees, plant debris, excess insects, to make way for young, new flora to thrive. “The new growth in turn supports forest wildfire,” the WWF writes on their website. In the long term, forest managers have discovered that controlled, deliberate fires are the only way to make room for the future generations to bloom, grow and flourish.
A few years ago my friend who I’ll call Chris, and I were at a local bodega. It was a sweaty, humid, New York City summer and we were in Chinatown after slurping on soup dumplings. We were buying seltzer and I offered to pay. Chris asked me matter-of-factly if I was getting the receipt. I don’t care, I replied, shrugging it off playfully. Should I use it as a tax return? You don’t always take receipts with you? He asked. No need, I replied.
For Chris, who’s a Black American, getting a receipt had been taught by his mother since he was a child. Growing up in the South, his mother would instruct him to ask for receipts after every purchase. It was one way to prove to anyone that he hadn’t stolen anything. A preventative measure to prove his innocence. That receipt, he was told, could mean life or death.
It was humbling and made me realize how I, as an Asian American, have lived with so much privilege. I would never need a receipt from a local bodega. I would never have to prove my innocence. I would never have to fear being perceived as guilty. That moment, while small, was extremely telling of the disparity between me and him. Until his life was seen as equal to mine, we would never be freed.
It’s why we, as non-black people, must continue to support our Black American brothers and sisters. We must swallow hard pills, have difficult conversations, and center their voices. We must protect, enact, demand change in big ways and small. After all, we’ve been blind to certain privileges our entire lives, reaping the benefits off those who have been oppressed. Until Black people can have all of the same privileges — until Chris can walk into any store without fear of being accused — we must all bear the burden to make change.
Which is why we must burn our system down completely to ashes. We must smash white supremacy and its laws down to mere bits of fleeting dust. We must use our power to vote out policies to unfetter ourselves from the chains of brutality. We must tend to our collective rage and turn it into an inferno so great — so hot — that it decimates America’s outdated, unjust systems forever. Only then can we resurrect our country and move forward.
Like wild forests, we must burn dead debris, singe the decaying trees that do not serve future generations, and char excess underbrush that attempts to suffocate life below. Let’s take our torches and take out the old regime, planning where to burn, where to grow, where to take life from here.
To burn it all down is the only way out.