The Arson Riot Image

Why do news outlets keep publishing iterations of the same photograph?
The Arson Riot Image, published on front pages across the country, May 31, 2020.

On May 31, 2020, subscribers to national newspapers unfolded their broadsheets and saw variations on a key image: a nighttime scene in which a protestor (or small group of protestors) raises their fists near burning structures, police cars, or trash cans. Outlets including the New York Times and the Washington Post published these front-page photographs following a weekend of demonstrations against the state-sanctioned murders of Black Americans. In many of these photos, the brightness of the fire contrasts with the darkness of the night, silhouetting or illuminating the protestors in one or another urban environment.1No liberal or centrist newspapers featured images of goods being removed from stores. This suggests newspaper editors think that images of arson are less sensationalistic than those of “looting” (or what some call “affirmative shopping”). Many newspapers, especially local ones, also published front-page images on the morning of May 31 that seemed to suggest progressive perspectives, for instance showing lines of police in riot gear attacking or standing off with protestors. For a record of many front pages of American newspapers on May 31, 2020, see Kristin Hare, “In Nearly Every State, Front Pages Capture Outrage after George Floyd’s Death,” Poynter (May 31, 2020).  The tableau forms a microgenre that I call the “arson riot image.”

On May 31, readers of national newspapers saw variations on a key image: a nighttime scene in which a protestor raises a fist near burning structures.

The arson riot image is an overtly politicized variant of “ruin porn,” and it produces an effect similar to that of images of people removing goods from stores. As constructed by photojournalists, the image creates a “self-contained narrative,” as journalist Frank Shyong recently argued.2Frank Shyong, “What Images of Burning Buildings and Broken Windows Tell Us, and What They Don’t,” Los Angeles Times (May 31, 2020). By analogizing the person with fire, the arson riot image suggests that all protestors are irrational and indiscriminate; this visual trope not-so-subtly reinforces a white-supremacist morality, positing that those aligned with property destruction, especially Black individuals, are less than fully human and deserve the state’s violent control.

The New York Times front-page photograph by Victor J. Blue shows a solitary figure raising a fist, silhouetted by the burning structure just behind.3John Eligon, Matt Furber, and Campbell Robertson, “Spreading Unrest Leaves a Nation on Edge,” New York Times (May 31, 2020). Their gender or racial markers are obstructed. The protestor is shown as isolated yet powerful, the photographer ignoring the masses of people at the demonstration in favor of the iconic individual. The fireball rising into the sky takes the same shape as the figure’s fist.4In first half of the 20th century, the raised fist typically signified solidarity amongst union organizers, antifascists, and Communists, and in the second half was used to celebrate power by minority-rights organizers, from the Black Power Movement to second-wave feminism. See Basil Rogger, Jonas Vögeli, and Ruedi Widmer, eds., Protest: The Aesthetics of Resistance (Zurich: Lars Müller Publishers, 2018). While the photograph does not suggest that the subject is responsible for the fire, it does signal their tacit approval of it. The visual analogy between protestor and fire suggests that the protest is not something tactically enacted by rational people, but that it is like fire — “spreading” of its own accord to damage the urban environment. The image has an ahistorical, aspatial quality, which suggests that it goes beyond its purported truth-value into the realm of cultural tropes and social constructions.

Viewers’ interpretations of the arson riot image are informed not only by other journalistic images of unrest, but also by the visual language of Hollywood disaster films. In “The Imagination of Disaster” (1965), Susan Sontag notes that images of destroyed urban spaces create “primitive gratifications” in the film viewer, who sees destruction from “a dispassionate, aesthetic” point of view.5 Susan Sontag, “The Imagination of Disaster,” Commentary (October 1965), 44–45. While the arson riot image may gratify certain viewers, however, it is not constructed to be viewed dispassionately. Rather, it is coded to make an implicitly white, centrist reader respond with fear to the urban destruction that, the image suggests, is enacted by rogue arsonists.

The arson riot image inaccurately shows Black Lives Matter as a band of isolated rebels, rather than as a grassroots network.

In the arson riot image, as in disaster films, the villain is often figured literally or analogically as a racialized “other.” The dissident in the arson riot image is typically turned away from the camera, silhouetted by flames, concealed by a mask, or obscured by smoke. Such depersonalization is a technique common to sci-fi and horror films — as Sontag observes, villains must display “no personal characteristics whatsoever” in order to maintain their moral deficit in the viewer’s eyes.6Ibid., 47. The faces of Black men, however, tend to be clearly shown in the arson riot image — not to depersonalize, but to criminalize them. Front-page images from the San Francisco Chronicle and the Salt Lake Tribune clearly identify the faces of Black protestors near burning buildings, placing them within what Maurice O. Wallace calls the “picture-taking racial gaze” that reifies stereotypes of Black men and criminality, and puts the individuals depicted in further danger of reprisal by police or civic authorities.7Maurice O. Wallace, Constructing the Black Masculine: Identity and Ideality in African American Men’s Literature and Culture, 1775–1995, A John Hope Franklin Center Book (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002), 135.

Arson itself can serve as “a ritual with potential for communication and mobilization,” in the words of Lara Sartorio Gonçalves and Simone da Silva Ribeiro Gomes. But mainstream platforms document such acts as calls for law and order.8Lara Sartorio Gonçalves and Simone da Silva Ribeiro Gomes, “Fire, the Right to Breathe, and the Aesthetics of Protest in the Americas,Council on Hemispheric Affairs, (June 30, 2020). (Of course, right-wing outlets instrumentalize such images as well.9The affective power of this microgenre is often harnessed by the right, for example in Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign advertisements. Fox News also recently presented a fake image of the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in Seattle that shows a person running down an urban street engulfed in flames. The title of the article-cum-image is “Crazy Town,” a less-repressed articulation of the idea. See Jim Brunner, “Fox News Runs Digitally Altered Images in Coverage of Seattle’s Protests, Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone,” Seattle Times, June 12, 2020.) By promoting the arson riot image, these media inaccurately show Black Lives Matter as a band of isolated rebels, rather than as a grassroots network. Academic and activist Aren Aizura has noted that news stories about recent protests “draw on a long and deadly imaginary of Black and brown people as naturally ungovernable,” and that the law “equates civility with whiteness” and sees “any insurgency as illegitimate.”10Aren Aizura, “A Mask and A Target Cart: Minneapolis Riots,” The New Inquiry (May 30, 2020). The arson riot image builds on this imaginary, suggesting that arson delegitimizes protest, and that those associated (even visually, circumstantially) with illegal acts should be subject to state violence through incarceration.

Notes

  1. No liberal or centrist newspapers featured images of goods being removed from stores. This suggests newspaper editors think that a focus on images of arson is less sensationalistic than publishing photographs of “looting” (or what some call “affirmative shopping”). Many newspapers, especially local ones, also published front-page images on the morning of May 31 that support social progress, for instance showing lines of police in riot gear attacking or standing off with protestors. For a record of many front pages of American newspapers on May 31, 2020, see Kristin Hare, “In Nearly Every State, Front Pages Capture Outrage after George Floyd’s Death,” Poynter (May 31, 2020).
  2. Frank Shyong, “What Images of Burning Buildings and Broken Windows Tell Us, and What They Don’t,” Los Angeles Times (May 31, 2020).
  3. John Eligon, Matt Furber, and Campbell Robertson, “Spreading Unrest Leaves a Nation on Edge,” New York Times (May 31, 2020, A1).
  4. In first half of the 20th century, the raised fist typically signified solidarity amongst union organizers, antifascists, and Communists, and in the second half was used to celebrate power by minority-rights organizers, from the Black Power Movement to second-wave feminism. See Basil Rogger, Jonas Vögeli, and Ruedi Widmer, eds., Protest: The Aesthetics of Resistance (Zurich: Lars Müller Publishers, 2018).
  5. Susan Sontag, “The Imagination of Disaster,” Commentary (October 1965), 44–45.
  6. Ibid., 47.
  7. Maurice O. Wallace, Constructing the Black Masculine: Identity and Ideality in African American Men’s Literature and Culture, 1775-1995, A John Hope Franklin Center Book (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002), 135.
  8. Lara Sartorio Gonçalves and Simone da Silva Ribeiro Gomes, “Fire, the Right to Breathe, and the Aesthetics of Protest in the Americas,Council on Hemispheric Affairs (June 30, 2020).
  9. The affective power of this microgenre is often harnessed by the right, for example in Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign advertisements. Fox News also recently presented a fake image of the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in Seattle that shows a person running down an urban street engulfed in flames. The title of the article-cum-image caption is “Crazy Town,” a less-repressed articulation of the idea. See Jim Brunner, “Fox News Runs Digitally Altered Images in Coverage of Seattle’s Protests, Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone,” Seattle Times (June 12, 2020).
  10. Aren Aizura, “A Mask and A Target Cart: Minneapolis Riots,” The New Inquiry, (May 30, 2020).

About the Author

Nolan Boomer

Nolan Boomer studied English at Oberlin College and architectural history at the University of California, Berkeley. They edit the architecture zine Take Shape, and previously served as editorial assistant at Princeton Architectural Press. Next year, as a Fulbright-García Robles Student Researcher in Mexico City, they will study the legacy of furniture designer Clara Porset.