Wednesday, October 21, 2015

This Is Not a Drill—Black Churches Near Ferguson Really Are Burning

The New Life Missionary Baptist Church was the most heavily damaged of 5 Black churches near Ferguson, Missouri attacked by arson.

Back early last summer in the wake of the Charleston church shooting, there was what seemed to be a spate of fires at Black churches across the South.   Activists saw a pattern and soon the Internet and social media were abuzz with stories and memes that connected the fires to arson and hate crimes by racists targeting the heart and soul of the Black Community.  The whole thing soon got a Twitter hashtag#WhoIsBurningBlackChurchesjust as Black Lives Matter did after the string of police killings of unarmed Blacks began last year.   Then church fires were caused by lightning strikes, electrical shorts, and other accidents.  The exact cause of several others could not be determined by investigators.  Two cases were pretty plainly arson and some others were suspicious and are still being investigated as possible hate crimes.  I covered all of this, including the doubts and questions in my July 2 post, Deja Vu—Who’s Burning Black Churches?   


Of course when every fire did not turn out to be arson the right wing media ravers and social media trolls were in gotcha heaven.  If some reports were in error it was proof that all of them were lies.  The usual dark conspiracy theories were trotted out against Black activists and their allies.  If there were fires, they were set by anti-Christian bigots, Muslim terrorists, or atheists without racial motivation.  Better yet, Black themselves set the fires to gain sympathy and to discredit honest patriots and supporters of the Confederate flag.  Or it was an Obama false flag operation to excuse declaring martial law and begin gun confiscation.  You know the drill.  Unless you have sealed yourself off of this vitriol you undoubtedly saw it.


When I shared my post as usual which acknowledged the errors and exaggerations but maintained that some attacks were real and that there was historic precedence for attacks on Black churches that made even the more paranoid claims understandable in context, with various Facebook groups, it unleashed a spate of personal attacks and vitriol like I have seldom seen and which were unmatched for the length of time they continued.  The only thing missing was the threats of physical violence to me and my family that accompany even the mildest suggestion that there should be some sort of rational restrictions on gun sales.  This post will undoubtedly set off the same reaction from the same goons.


Because I have news for them and everybody else—Black churches are burning in the northern St. Louis area, around Ferguson, ground zero of the Black Lives Matter movement.  And this time the evidence of intentional arson is irrefutable.  Six Black churches were attacked in just a ten day period.  In each case an accelerant was used to set fire to the church entry doors.  None of the buildings were destroyed, but some suffered substantial damage. 

This map illustrates how closely spaced the six arson fires were.


St. Louis Fire Captain Garon Mosby and local police sources have told the media that “It is arson. These [fires] are being intentionally set.”  The same authorities acknowledge that the arsons were likely hate crimes motivated by “racial or religious bigotry.”  The similarity of methodology, the geographic clustering of the targets, and timing of the attacks suggest that most if not all of them are the work of an individual or small group.  Copy cats can’t yet be ruled out in the later cases which occurred after the media finally began coverage of the fires.


All of the fires have taken place within a three mile radius of Ferguson.  The churches which have been attacked are:


Bethel Non-Denominational Church in Jennings on October 8.

New Northside Missionary Baptist Church in Jennings on October 10.

Minerva-St. Augustine Catholic Church in St. Louis on October 14.

New Testament Church of Christ in St. Louis on October 15.

New Life Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis on October 17.

Ebenezer Lutheran Church in St. Louis on October 18.


Damage to the New Life Baptist Church seems to be the most extensive burning not only the door but damaging the front of the building and entrance way.  Parishioners had to hold Sunday services on the front lawn.  Worship services and other activities were mostly un-interrupted in the other cases.


Some of the affected churches have offered small rewards for information and a $2,000 award is being offered by St. Louis Regional CrimeStoppers and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives which is taking a lead role in the investigation along with the St. Louis City Fire Department Investigative Unit and the St. Louis Regional Bomb and Arson Unit.


Meanwhile area churches are rallying in support of each other.  Today the Rev. Roderick K. Burton, pastor of New Northside Missionary Baptist Church, has invited the St. Louis faith community to come together at his church for a noon prayer service.  Public vigils are under discussion as well as other community action.


As usual the general lack of media attention has drawn criticism.  The local press and TV have responded slowly, but seem to be ramping up coverage, although it is not a top headline.  The national media has barely mentioned the rash of arsons at all.  Even the alternative media and the social media networks around the Black Lives Matter and new Civil Rights movements have been cautious, perhaps still gun shy from being burned over this summer’s church burning stories. 


Some attribute the relative lack of attention to the modest actual damage done.  But blatant intimidation cannot be ignored.  It can be contagious and levels of violence can escalate quickly.  It seems to me the time is now for the broader faith communities to rally and boldly speak up, even when it puts us at risk.


The first of a series of Black Lives Matter banners at the River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Bethesda, Maryland that were vandalized. 


In the last year majority white congregations have responded to police violence and other outrages by displaying Black Lives Matter banners on their property.  Unitarian Universalist Congregations as part of the Standing on the Side of Love campaign have been leaders in this show of support.  Over the past month more than a dozen UU congregations from coast to coast have seen their banners stolen, slashed, defaced, burned, or painted with the words “All Lives Matter” or even openly racist slogans or symbols.  Some churches, like the River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Bethesda, Maryland have seen their signs vandalized repeatedly.  


Among the churches victimized was the First Unitarian Church of Saint Louis, which has been actively involved in supporting the Black community since protests over Michael Brown’s death began and which still hold weekly Black Lives Matters roadside vigils.  When other congregations, including those from the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterians also experienced vandalism or theft of their signs, all of the churches together went together to rent a giant electronic billboard along busy highway U.S. 41 with the Black Lives Matter message.


Many churches displaying the signs and banners have been flooded with phone calls and seen their web pages and social media sites deluged with hateful and sometimes threatening messages.  Criticism of a message on the electronic signboard at Chicago’s Beverley Unitarian Church which is in a southwest side neighborhood heavily populated by members of the Chicago Police Department, was so vitriolic and ugly that the Congregation replaced the message with an innocuous “Life Matters Risk Loving Everyone” and has since kept a low profile on the issue in contrast to the defiant refusal to knuckle under to bigotry displayed by most other UU congregations.  Still, the experience shows that intimidation sometimes does work.


We must not allow it to triumph.  In the wake of the St. Louis arsons and continued routine violence against Black citizens we need to re-double our efforts to stand in solidarity with an oppressed community under concerted attack.  And we must do so as faithful allies, not seeing ourselves as rescuing heroes.  The attacks on our banners and signs, the harassment on-line, are not equal to the actual damage and pain experienced by our Black Church brothers and sisters.  Even under attack we are wrapped in white privilege.


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