How to Burn What Can’t Catch Fire

An unfinished history of the digital fight against racism.

Editor’s note: In the four-part series After the Fire, The Root looks at the growing social-justice movement, from traditional players to #BlackLivesMatter, examining where the movement has been, where it is now and where it’s going. After the Fire was reported and written by Associate Editor Danielle C. Belton. Illustration by Jada Prather.  

Something every week now. That’s how it seems. As if there is something every week that scares you, chills you, makes you lose faith.

An overly aggressive officer tossing around a teenage girl at a pool party. Nine churchgoers massacred during a Bible study by a white supremacist. A woman, ready to start a new career, arrested and jailed after a routine traffic stop and found dead three days later. Authorities said she committed suicide in jail, but many think she should never have been arrested in the first place. A man shot and killed by a police officer at a traffic stop in Cincinnati, and an officer who is now being charged with his murder.

Violations, both large and larger upon the black body, taking a toll. They keep coming, as they’ve always come, and things keep happening, as they always have, but now there is more awareness, more attention. More of CNN running the mug shot of the victim and the beauty shot of the perp. More of people in the streets protesting, shouting that “black lives matter.”

To quote the popular saying: It’s not a moment; it’s a movement. And it’s been growing for years, especially in the last three, since the death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin. After talking to nearly 40 people, many pivotal figures in this current social-justice movement, The Root, in a four-part series, is taking a look at where we’ve been, where we think we’re going and where we are.

And where we are is searing.

If the movement were a person, that person’s temperature would be hot and rising, yet he or she would not be ill. The fire would be in that individual’s touch. From Baltimore to Ferguson, Mo., it’s all a bright blaze. The boiling of the blood to the fever of the flesh.

The social-justice movement, particularly the movement for black lives, is hot. But it’s society, not the body, that must feel the burn. If the movement’s passion is fire, then the opposition—systemic racism and white supremacy—is a long-tried, fireproof house of stone, one that has weathered slave revolts, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the civil rights movement, the election of President Barack Obama, and countless uprisings and revolutions and has remained stubbornly pristine. It is a house carefully maintained by hands, at times not even aware that they are tending the gardens of bigotry or repainting the walls of hate. Invisible hands that care for it and are not touched or moved by the black blood spilled on this house’s steps. Just another thing for those invisible hands of polite society to quickly paint over and move on. 

But what if we didn’t move on? What if we finally had the tools to keep a fire burning, nonstop, with a 24-hour news camera that couldn’t turn away and an endless stream of user-generated social media, of tweets and posts, created by eyewitnesses and witnesses to the eyewitnesses, a perfect loop of feedback? Inexhaustible.

We’re all complicit. But we are not all aware. And awareness, for some, is a choice. So those with fire in their blood “stay woke.” Those with the fever that can’t be remedied with aspirin and bed rest stay restless. They plot and plan how to burn a fireproof house down.

Success depends on whether or not you think they can do it. In this movement, the power is in the people; communities lead the way, not modern messiahs; and the movement for black lives is only as strong as the black people it seeks to protect. It’s going to take everyone. Are you down?

In the Beginning …

Tara Thompson remembers not feeling welcome.

Born and raised in St. Louis, she attended college at Xavier in New Orleans. It was there that she got her first taste of activism, working with impoverished kids. After she finished school, she returned to Louisiana in 2007 to the town of Jena to help out six students (Robert Bailey, Mychal Bell, Carwin Jones, Bryant Purvis, Jesse Ray Beard and Theo Shaw) facing attempted-murder charges after a schoolyard brawl. It was cited as an example of the school-to-prison pipeline, in which black and brown students are often disciplined much more harshly than their white counterparts. In Jena, white students who had also been in fights around the same time were charged as juveniles, while then-16-year-old Mychal, one of the “Jena Six,” as they became known, was charged as an adult.

Jena, a small town of fewer than 4,000 people, was not enthusiastic about the protesters and young people who’d come to town to show their support for the Jena Six. Thompson remembers slurs being hurled at her, and she remembers signs in stores flipping from “Open” to “Closed” like a scene from an old movie. She remembers a small tense town resisting the organizing black bodies descending upon it.