On Arson and its Social Causes

burning the guillotine

The Burning of the Guillotine during the Paris Commune. Author Unknown.

By Duncan Riley



I was not there, but I know who burned down the Third Precinct. I was not part of the massive crowd that lapped up against the edges of that burning facade, but still, I can relate what occurred. Even though I may not have seen the projectiles wheel through the air, or the flames leap up to kiss the sky, there remains no doubt in my mind as to what caused the conflagration. I hope then, that, despite its manifest limitations, my brief account here might be of some use in illuminating the nature and causes of arson in our society, and the ways in which we might go about preventing it.

The day before, on Facebook live, I watched a line of police standing atop the roof of the Third Precinct, firing rubber bullets and tear gas down into the crowd. My ears reverberated with the screams of the frightened, the cries of the wounded, and, worst of all, the endless, monotonous banging of gunfire, drilling down into my brain. And, through the haze of smoke, it was as if I could discern the light of torches gleaming at those officers’ belts. Later, I looked on as the Mayor called for the National Guard to be deployed, and I could sense the scorch marks on his hands. One night, I heard the governor speak, I listened as he blamed anarchists and “outside agitators” for everything that had happened. I could almost smell the stench of petrol on his breath. Arson has its origins at the top of the social pyramid, not the bottom.

Indeed, as these past few weeks have made abundantly clear, our whole social order is based upon arson. There is a fire burning at the heart of every center of power in our society, always threatening to burst into an inferno which devours human life. The police go about their business every day with the legal right to commit arson, a right they always exercise with the greatest degree of prejudice and discrimination possible. Judges and prosecutors spurt fire out of their mouths as they condemn people to suffering and death inside cages. Worst of all, politicians and bosses give orders that arson be committed, and then have the audacity to give speeches on their deeply held desire to live in a world free of arson. These austere and uniformed arsonists have no excuse for being as surprised as they are when the fires they set spread so far that they spiral out of their control. It certainly does not shock those who they have kept, for far too long, tied to the pyre.

Fortunately, this world is not made up of arsonists alone. There are a great many fire-fighters as well, even more than the arsonists. The fight against fire in our society can take many forms. Sometimes it consists of individuals and groups, gathering together in moments of crisis and transformation, providing for mutual aid and the collective good. It can be as small as a smile or kind word shared between friends during a hard time, and as large as a great and diverse mass of people standing firm and spitting in the face of injustice. And sometimes, paradoxically, it can even mean burning down the buildings and institutions that lit the fire in the first place.

To be completely honest, I do not really know which particular individual or group burned down the Third Precinct. No one does. It does not matter how many hours one spends pouring over footage or social media snap shots, there will never be a definitive answer to that question. On the night of the 28th of May, the rage of uncounted generations exploded onto the stage of history, and no effort to transform that immense collectivity into a few isolated individuals will ever be able to explain what truly happened. Indeed, this endless search for the culpable, the frantic shrieks demanding guilty parties, these issue not from a strident call for justice, but from the agonized screams of a mortally wounded legitimacy, which even now demands that yet more lives be sacrificed to restore its injured pride. So, when the first flames licked up the walls that night, they were kindled not by an individual’s anger, but by the collective condemnation of thousands of people which fell like a bolt of lightning on the Third Precinct and all it represents.

This then, is how I know who burned down the Third Precinct. Five centuries of colonialism, capitalism, and white supremacy doused it in gasoline, the horrific murder of a black man sent the spark flying, and a burst of tear gas, rubber bullets, and empty words carried it with them on the wind until it caught against that decrepit monument to State power. May its empty halls never again be filled with the sound of bullets flying or feet marching. May its ashes provide the fertilizer for a new, better, and more human world to sprout up and burst its ruins asunder. And, most of all, may the arsonists at least have the decency to stop laying the blame for their crimes at the feet of those who are trying to extinguish them.

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