If you’ve ever sat around a fire, you know how it can draw you closer. You know the way it consumes the attention of the circle like oxygen. The heat, the light, the way the flame redacts everything beyond its reach into darkness — the intimacy of fire is optic, but it’s no illusion.
I think about this a lot when I see videos of people burning their Nikes, or New Balances, or NFL jerseys, or season tickets, each of which I’ve seen flare up on social media over the past couple of years.
“OK Nike,” a voice narrates over a low-res pyre in one of dozens of examples, “Hope you’re happy. Those are all of my Nike shirts that just went up in flames.”
“Not only am I burning my favorite pair of Nikes, you’re burning your sales,” says another with an audible pout.
And while Nike stock did indeed drop 3.2 percent following the sneaker behemoth’s announcement that controversial kneeler, real-American-enrager, and also football player Colin Kaepernick would be the face of its newest ad campaign, it’s unclear whether the destruction of tens and tens of already purchased tennis shoes will be what finally brings Nike, too, to its knees.
Just kidding. They’ll be fine. (Or at least, better than the people who made less than pennies making the sneakers you’re setting on fire.)
And while outraged NFL fans, professional point-missers, and white supremacist style mavens have loudly defected their delicate footsies into other proud American brands like Adidas (actually based in Herzogenaurach, Germany, but sure, that’s fine) and New Balance (bizarrely designated in 2016 as the “Official Shoes of White People” by edgy neo-Nazi fashion blog Daily Stormer), even the rubber-burners must know that clipping the logos off their socks won’t shave a cent off of Nike’s bottom line.
So why set your own clothes on fire?
Apologies. You’re looking at me like I was setting up an answer there. I actually have no idea. It makes about as much practical sense as burning your lunch to fight hunger.
A quiet protest (like, say, kneeling during the national anthem to acknowledge and protest systemic police violence against black people) can be as powerful as one that blocks an Interstate, or brings millions to march on the Washington Mall. There’s a passive theatricality that gives gravitas to a die-in that strews live bodies over the floor of a grocery store to protest its support for a NRA-backed candidate, or to a flock of silent Handmaids ominously standing watch at the hearing of a Supreme Court nominee.
Silence and subtlety can confront injustice as effectively as any sign, slogan, or sit-in. But setting shoes on fire doesn’t seem to hold anyone’s feet to the fire. (Well, unless you’re wearing them.)
There must be something to the act itself — the burning. When riots resolve into flames, it’s an articulation of widespread desperation — destruction emerging as the only imaginable correction. And I suppose these more personalized cremation ceremonies carry a version of this sentiment that is either more or less desperate depending on your perspective.
Yes, the destructive impulse is there, but the motivation behind it doesn’t seem to be a hunger for social change or a restoration of justice. (Are the sneaker burners waiting for an apology and a new spokesperson?) The effigy is more a way of saying “You’re dead to us.”
Which is perhaps why this round of willful destruction of one’s own property on the Internet carries a slightly more primal vibe than, say, smashing your Keurig when sponsors ditch your favorite news program.
The burning of a Nike taps into a long tradition of Americans gathered in circles around fires to change the world within eyeshot — burning witches, burning books, burning crosses, burning their neighbors. In these contexts, fire was both the method of consumption and the means for gathering, illuminating a community that assembles in darkness only to scatter by daylight.
There’d be no such historical weight to tossing one’s Jordans in the trash and letting time and the landfill do its work; no sense of being seen at the scene; no circle to join; no heat to absorb; nowhere to dip your tiki torch. But fire can spread, even when safely contained in your smartphone.
The message of the Nike burners may be unclear, but the method is something we’ve seen again and again — it’s a pantomime of protest that really just functions to burn off the methane of fear, hatred, bigotry, and pettiness. It may seem outrageous at first glance to compare YouTubers incinerating their sneakers to the darkest images in our country’s history, but as one cliche goes, they didn’t start the fire.
And as another one goes, if the shoe fits. . .