Column: What images of burning buildings and broken windows tell us, and what they don’t

A man runs from the Sake House restaurant as it burns in Santa Monica on Sunday.
(Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

People tend to look for answers after a fire, but we’re rarely satisfied by the ones we get.

A few years ago, reporting on wildfires in Northern California, I arrived in Calaveras County just as residents returned and a painful quest for answers was beginning. Why did the wind carry the spark to my home but not my neighbor’s? Why did I survive while my friend died? Why this town? Why me?

So far this season there have been more than 800 fires burning across California, and all of them will leave some of these questions in their aftermath. Fires have this visceral, visual quality that shapes the stories we tell about them. A burning building is its own self-contained narrative, implying victims, villains and heroes within a single frame.


But the real narrative of wildfires offers no simple answers to its victims. The vast majority of wildfires are started by human beings: a utility company delaying repairs, a careless smoker, a sloppy camper. Homes are destroyed and people die because we keep building communities in areas we know will burn. And the biggest root cause is human-led climate change. The painful questions often had a painful answer: The fire burns because of us.

I think the same is true for the fires that burned in cities across America this past week as protesters took to the streets to demand justice for the death of George Floyd while in the custody of four police officers. They happened because of us.

And as the protests continue, I see us again searching for easy answers.

We try to paint the police officers involved as the perfect monsters, and George Floyd as the perfect victim, because it’s easier for us to believe that this violence can be explained by the moral failings of individuals, rather than by the racist systems that enable these behaviors across the country — systems that we ourselves enable.

Minneapolis restaurant Gandhi Mahal is damaged in the protests over George Floyd’s death. The owner’s family expresses solidarity with protesters.

So it was not hard for us to condemn Derek Chauvin, who on Friday was charged with third-degree murder, after we saw the clip of him slowly strangling Floyd, handcuffed and helpless on the ground.

And when the protests began, we could acknowledge that black communities around the country are justifiably angry at a criminal justice system that demonizes them, treats them as subhuman, and has done so for centuries. But then the protests turned violent — a manifestation of that anger — and some of us thought, well, we can’t support violence.

And because we can’t comprehend an anger that justifies the destruction of property and businesses, we decide that it can’t be justified — rather than trying to understand the magnitude of the anger. We describe the violence as senseless, but it is not.

We ask the protesters to wait for an investigation because we want to believe that our court system can deliver justice, but we can’t accept that for black Americans it never has.

These fires burn because of us. And to understand what’s happening, we need to try to deny ourselves the easy answers and understand these incidents as part of a larger story of how racism fuels American policing and inflicts daily violence on black people.

What happened to George Floyd, Christian Cooper and Ahmaud Arbery shouldn’t be characterized as sad anomalies, columnist L.Z. Granderson writes.

I know that the families who lost money and property during the riots in downtown Los Angeles and the Fairfax district this past weekend don’t want to read this. I can’t think of a less deserving target for violence than small businesses, exhausted from battling the twin existential threats of the coronavirus and a quarantine-led recession. I understand why they ask the question, “Why me?”

A common sentiment I hear is that rioting is not the answer. But the painful truth is that rioting is not supposed to be an answer to anything. It is explicitly an expression of anger and frustration, a fire whose sparks land indiscriminately. A city burning is what happens when people have abandoned hope for answers.

In Los Angeles, many residents remember what it’s like to try to answer the questions that images of a burning city raise. And if we have found a meaningful answer to the questions raised by the 1992 riots, or the Watts riots, or the Zoot Suit Riots, I’ve never encountered it. Every few decades in this city, violence reminds us that we have not solved these problems. And when we focus only on the fires and why they ignited, we fail to grasp that they have been burning for centuries.

The ‘92 riots can’t be understood through a few days in April. And I don’t think what’s happening around the country can be understood through a few video clips.

Videos on social media are becoming the primary way we form our understanding of incidents like this, and their power as a medium is both a blessing and a curse. They offer us an inarguable account of what is happening, and bystander videos have brought attention to issues of racial injustice that would otherwise be ignored and downplayed. But the story of a protest is complex and long, and images of burning buildings are just a small part of it. And these images contain embedded, repetitive narratives that lock us into the same tired debates, with the same easy answers.

There will be more violent images and videos to pore over and interpret in the coming days and weeks. It’s important to think hard about what the videos of burning buildings show, and don’t show.

They don’t show the generational trauma of racism and the pain of countless lost brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers. They don’t show the brutality of the police violence that black communities live under. And they don’t depict all the protesters trying to get the looters to stop, or the thousands of people who demonstrated peacefully, or the people who show up the next day to sweep up broken glass and offer a shoulder to cry on.

I don’t point this out to excuse violence, but to prevent it. The fires we’re seeing were lit when our nation was founded, and they won’t be extinguished until we can understand why they burn.