Before You Say It Wasn’t Arson…

Black churches are once more burning across America. For those paying attention, that means something important. There’s a long and brutal history of burning Black churches in this nation. It is arguably one of the longest standing forms of American terrorism — an attempt to destroy what is often far more than a place of worship to its congregants. So when reports surface of multiple Black churches burning in the night in the course of one week, it takes a great deal of mental acrobatics to deny a broader problem is in play. But with the news providing caveats about the ongoing investigation without context, those who don’t want to process the significance of what’s happening have an easy way out.

Vox, for instance, reports:

Since June 21st, there have been at least five mysterious fires at black churches in the South — at least two of which were likely deliberate. In two cases, law enforcement officers have said that there’s evidence that the fire was deliberately set. In two other cases, investigators still don’t know whether the fire was intentional or not; in one case, investigators believe it was not an intentional fire but don’t know the cause yet.

Many media reports have referred to fires at “seven churches.” But those include one white church that was struck by lightning, and another church where the cause of the fire was likely an electrical failure.

For those unwilling to acknowledge the fact that racism is alive and well in this country, that Black lives are perpetually at risk in this climate, that there is a growing storm on the horizon, reports like these are the out they crave. They point to the fact that no evidence has yet been found or that the investigations are incomplete and beg those asking #WhoIsBurningBlackChurches to calm down.

The problem is that such pleas display ignorance on how potential arson cases are investigated, and what statements about these cases actually mean.

Perhaps of greatest relevance is this fact: just because no evidence of arson can be collected does not mean that the attack was not an act of arson. The nature of the crime itself destroys most evidence that might be found; it’s how fire works. But flames aren’t the only source of evidence destruction. As 40 year veteran Russell K. Chandler explains in his book Fire Investigation, extinguishing those flames can do just as much damage. Essentially, investigators need the match in hand to make the case that it was indeed an act of arson.

And even when there is evidence to be found, investigative teams often don’t have the resources or expertise to effectively do their jobs. The subsequent spoilation of evidence can undo a case entirely, Chandler explains.

Of course, one can make the argument that the very well funded FBI probably has superior expertise and no shortage of resources at their disposal, especially for investigations as high profile as these. But there are reasons that may not matter.

For starters, the FBI has to tread very carefully in terms of how these cases are described, no matter the type of target in a potential arson case. The threshold for proof of arson has gotten much higher in recent years after it was revealed that prior investigative tactics were little more than junk science, overturning many prior convictions. Of course they’re going to say they can’t be sure; there are no other answers they can responsibly give, especially when you consider the way fire and attempts to put out the flames damage potential evidence.

But it’s worth noting that there is certainly an incentive for investigators to be more cautious than usual here. An official determination of arson is more likely to prompt outrage and protest from a beleaguered community than an indeterminate result. That caution is further evidenced by the unwillingness of investigators to label these fires a hate crime, despite the racial distinction of the targets, the timing in the wake of the Charleston shooting and Confederate Flag debates, and the historical significance of burning Black churches. No one wants to be the person who lights the match over the proverbial powder keg.

You also have to remember that the FBI was not the first on the scene in most of these cases. These scenes were instead initially processed by local investigators who may or may not have the level of training that FBI officials can boast… but probably don’t. While that doesn’t necessarily mean mistakes were made, it does mean that there are no guarantees, and introduces doubt to these evaluations.

Knowing this about how arson investigations are conducted, those arguing that there is clearly not a broader trend are doing little but minimizing the problem with racism in America. They’re searching for any reason not to grapple with that reality. But at the end of the day, the application of Occam’s Razor renders that search a fool’s errand.

After all, what’s more likely? That an onslaught of Black churches are rapidly, randomly bursting into flames across the country following one of the most brutal racist massacres in recent history? Or that heightened tension due to elevated discourse is bringing out a level of ugly among racists that we’d rather not admit exists?

Hint: it’s not the former.


Ash and Blood Stained Hands

Dozens of survivors, their faces dripping blood from the glass that flew out of the church’s stained glass windows, staggered around the building in a cloud of white dust raised by the explosion. The blast crushed two nearby cars like toys and blew out windows blocks away.

The Washington Post, September 16th, 1963

The Sunday School lesson that day had been about reacting to physical injustice. The youth of the church were taught to contemplate how Jesus might react to violent acts against him — a lesson as relevant to Bible study as the safety of the Black children in attendance. This was the 1960s in Birmingham, after all. It didn’t matter that they were mere children. We’re talking about a function of survival in a hostile, dangerous world. In the comfort of their safe haven, they had to prepare to confront the monsters that lurked outside its doors.

But on that dark day, the monsters came to their house of worship with fire and hate. In the blink of an eye, the safe haven was an inferno, flames stealing the lives of four young girls and the peace of an entire community in one fell swoop.

The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church was not the first church bombing of the civil rights era, nor would it be the last. As symbols of Black empowerment and equality going back to the days of Nat Turner’s slave revolt organization, churches were intuitive targets for White supremacists, especially during the years leading up to desegregation. As Michael M. Simmsparris explained in the 1998 University of Pennsylvania Journal of Constitutional Law:

In church-centered Black communities, the relationship between one’s community and one’s church was intimate. Far more than just a place to worship, the Black Church was a nation within a nation. The meshing of Black community life with the religious experiences of African- Americans precipitated the birth of the dichotomy between church and religion found within the construction of Black religions. For many African- Americans, church was not only a place to receive religious instruction on the doctrines of Christianity, church was a community in which to learn about one’s world.

Black churches were organizational sites for social and political activities, centers for economic development and growth. As microcosms of the larger society, Black churches provided an environment free of oppression and racism for African-Americans. In Black Churches, African-Americans were consistently exposed to social, political, and economic opportunities which could be sought and had by all members equally.

The representational structure of African-American churches confirmed Black preachers as both religious and community leaders. The sermons of many Black preachers expounded messages of Christianity analogized to the daily experiences of African-Americans. Thematic expressions of overcoming oppression and “lifting while climbing,” were first articulated in church sermons.

Using their authority as religious leaders, Black preachers incorporated the teachings of Christianity into political manifestos. Slavery, emancipation, and the continued struggle for civil rights, provided the context for analysis of Biblical stories such as the escape of the Jews from Egypt. The idea of “freedom through collective deliverance,” as articulated in the Book of Exodus, gave African-Americans a sense of political and community direction through religious belief and expression. The notion of divine intervention which permeated the lessons of Exodus did not translate seamlessly into a positive mandate for African-Americans to overcome oppression. Yet, the teachings of African-American churches nurtured the motivations of Black people to oppose and overcome racial persecution. African-Americans’ belief in divine intervention, coupled with a community spirit to struggle and to overcome social, political, and economic hardships, inspired many Black Church members.

So of course attacks on Black churches struck directly at the heart of Black communities. With one blow, the attacks would destroy a space holy in more ways than one — a place of worship, education, organizing, security, hope. The utter violation was profound.

Accounts of such attacks reach throughout history, from before the official end of slavery to the tragic modern day. Whether we’re talking about mobs of White racists descending upon urban Black communities in the 1800s with destruction in mind, the night riders of the Reconstruction era setting fires throughout the countryside, civil rights era targeting that belied fear of the power of the preacher, or the resurgent wave of attacks that leveled more than 40 Black churches in a six year span in the 1990s, the intent was the same: hit them where it hurts, keep them down and afraid.

And here we are again. In the past week alone, at least five and possibly six Black churches have been set ablaze. The burning houses of faith rest in the shadow of the recent shooting at Charleston’s historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church — a crime unambiguous in its racist motivation. For those who have been paying attention, this recent spate of racial violence seems the crescendo of two years that have highlighted the inherent danger associated with inhabiting a Black body in this country. From Trayvon Martin to Michael Brown to Rekia Boyd to Tamir Rice to Eric Garner to Dajerria Becton and beyond, case after case have echoed what statistics demonstrating racial inequity have been telling us for years.

Black lives, despite our insistence otherwise, matter less in our modern day reality than any of us would care to admit.

And yet, despite the mountains of evidence threatening to bury us in an avalanche of horror stories, we continue to tip toe around calling a spade a spade. We tolerate racist rhetoric and policies from our politicians for fear of losing our power and we flatly refuse to call it out in our peers for fear of losing our acceptance. We swallow it when leaders insist on flying a flag dripping in the blood of enslaved Black bodies in the name of “culture” and “heritage” and “tradition” — the same arguments used to justify segregation and anti-miscegenation laws. We give our attention to “news” outlets where transparent racial code serves to radicalize folks like Dylann Roof, ultimately funding homegrown terrorism with our advertising dollars. We insist, again and again and again, that racism isn’t real, willfully ignorant and deplorably defensive as Black souls beg us to stop killing them.

We may not have struck the match, but as surely as if we had, we burned down those churches last week. If we can’t admit as much and begin to correct course, it’s only a matter of time until we’re once again mourning children amongst the ash-stained rubble of our own failures.

This whole country is burning. Wake up.