Big Fires Everywhere: How the Haitian Revolution Inspired Today’s Protesters
The sparks of global rebellion we are seeing today are rooted in the Haitian Revolution, the first successful Black-led uprising for racial equality and independence in the modern world
“What’s his name?! George Floyd! What’s his name?! George Floyd!” a crowd of hundreds of protesters shouted on May 28 as they watched Minneapolis’ third police precinct be engulfed in flames. The precinct was the workplace of the four officers who murdered George Floyd during his arrest. Protesters had stormed the precinct earlier that evening to demand justice for the assassination of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. In a surreal scene, the crowd cheered and fireworks exploded into the night sky.
The burning down of the third precinct was the beginning of fires ignited in over 100 cities throughout the country. Political unrest erupted as protesters took to the streets to reject the state-sanctioned violence against generations of Black people. The month of May was heavy for Black Lives Matter protesters. During a global pandemic, the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and Breonna Taylor were the sparks that led to explosive outcries across the world to abolish the police and overhaul a social system that has deliberately hindered Black safety and progress.
When fires erupted across U.S. cities and towns in defiance of police brutality, it was compared to the long hot summers of the 1960s civil rights movement and the Red Summer of 1919. However, I was also reminded of the roots of Black revolutionary fire: the Haitian Revolution, the most important rebellion for the cause of racial equality in our modern world. Although the French and American Revolutions are touted as the greatest upheavals, the Haitian Revolution is the most significant example of how the enslaved used fire to overthrow their oppressors in the name of liberation and equality.
In 1791, enslaved Africans in the island colony of St. Domingue, now known as Haiti, scorched sugar plantations. Black struggle has always been global, and kidnapped Africans were forced to work on the sugar plantations of St. Domingue. They lived in constant terror under the rule of the French slave owners who used violence to force them into backbreaking work from dawn to dusk.
One day, the enslaved collectively said that they would prefer to die than to live another day under White supremacy.
Before the revolution exploded, Africans gathered around a campfire deep in the woods of Haiti for a secret Vodou ceremony known as Bois Caïman. Led by the skilled Boukman Dutty, they launched an epic slave revolt. Boukman organized tens of thousands of slaves throughout the island. With a fire of freedom in their souls, one by one, they set fire to plantations and massacred pro-slavery Whites.
Although the French and American Revolutions are touted as the greatest upheavals, the Haitian Revolution is the most significant example of how the enslaved used fire to overthrow their oppressors in the name of liberation and equality.
They fought a 12-year war against the largest, most powerful European empires and won. The enslaved achieved the inconceivable at that time. From Brazil to Boston, racial slavery was the core of the economy. Africans across the Americas had resisted slavery from the beginning; however, Haiti was the site of the first successful slave insurrection, and they achieved a dual victory: abolition and independence. They ended racial slavery and created the first free Black republic in the world.
Toussaint Louverture is the most well-known leader of the Haitian revolution. However, the revolution was a collective effort, led by both men and women. Skilled freedom fighters Sanité Bélaire and Jean-Jacques Dessalines courageously helped the enslaved conquer Napoleon’s French army, the most powerful in the world at the time. Dessalines’ unapologetic war strategy was “Koupe Tet, Boule Kay” (Chop off heads, burn down homes), which helped the Haitian army literally and symbolically scorch the tools of their oppression: plantations and slave owners.
Whites saw Haiti’s bold actions as a threat to racial slavery, an economic system that had made them wealthy. After the revolution, Haiti moved from freedom to debt. The French demanded that the Haitian government pay them millions of dollars in damages for the lost profits from the disruption of the slavery economy. This debt crippled the nascent Haitian economy for generations, as did the unwillingness of the U.S. to recognize Haiti as a sister nation for half a century after their independence.
Colonial Haiti was the sugar capital of the world. The exploitation of Black labor and status as chattel property made France the most powerful empire in the world. Today, the U.S. is the prison capital of the world, and like racial slavery, the abuse of Black men and women are at the center of this system.
As Minneapolis’ third precinct burned, it was like watching the 21st-century neo-plantation system being set ablaze.
The current mass incarceration system is a major moneymaker. The prison industrial complex costs $182 billion a year, generates salaries and profits largely for White people, and inflicts violence, control, and financial hardship on Black folks, beginning with bail bonds. This system thrives on the criminalization of Black and Latinx people, who are 57% of the jail and prison population, although they only make up 28% of the U.S. population. This system begins at the street level, with cops engaged in a range of punitive policing tactics that restrict Black freedom.
As Minneapolis’ third precinct burned, it was like watching the 21st-century neo-plantation system being set ablaze. When the enslaved sought liberation, the plantation was the first place to be burned down. Black people today want to break the chains of the prison industrial complex. The fire smoke rising into city skylines from torched precincts, police cars, and crooked courthouses contained the freedom dreams of protesters in the spirit of Haiti’s legacy.
As the U.S. has moved from a plantation to prison system since emancipation, police precincts are the entry sites of a system that commits gross human rights violations. The police station is where the Exonerated Five entered as children but were charged as adults for a crime they did not commit and separated from their families. The precinct is also where Sandra Bland was found dead by hanging after being detained for a minor traffic violation. The war against Black people is centralized in precincts, and it therefore, for protesters, needed to be torched.
From the ashes, we have an opportunity to reimagine the future of the democratic experiment called America. The movements for Black lives echo the burning desires for liberation that ignited the Haitian Revolution. The outcomes of the revolution, however, are as important as its roots. The goal of Haitian revolutionaries was Black economic and political self-determination and true equality between Blacks and Whites. Whites, however, have demonstrated that they don’t want Black people to be great, and therefore, the freedom fire of the Haitian Revolution has been actively extinguished — it remains an unfinished project.
The abolition of police is an important first step in the right direction. Minneapolis City Council members have committed to disbanding the Minneapolis police department. They are developing a plan for local community policing units and eliminating the harm caused by militarized policing. Reinvesting tax dollars into segregated Black communities is the ultimate goal. Officials are envisioning increased budgets for education, work, housing, and health care, critical resources that are often in short supply in this apartheid state. The long-ignored calls of Black feminist abolitionists to defund and demilitarize the police movement has spread like wildfire in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. It has even been embraced by celebrities and politicians.
A total redistribution of wealth and opportunity is also crucial to address the centuries of exploitation that has resulted in Whites having more than 10 times the wealth of Blacks. From the revolutionary fires of June 2020, a new global society can also emerge. Anti-Blackness is a global project, and Whites will need to reckon with their colonial roots and abolish neo-slavery practices. Black liberation from not just from racist policing but from transnational White supremacy is what the Haitian revolution was all about. The longer the wait, the larger the freedom fires of our time might be.