Churches have been on fire all around Ferguson, Missouri, this month, and by that I mean mostly black churches. The press isn’t talking about it much. Last Saturday, the United Believers in Christ Ministries became the fifth church in the area to be set on fire. A sixth church was set ablaze Sunday, and a seventh church was set on fire Thursday. Five of these have been at black churches, while the sixth was at a mixed church and the most recent fire at a largely white church. In every incident, authorities suspect arson. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives is involved in the investigations. In each case, the church’s front doors were sprayed with accelerant and set on fire; in most cases the damage has not been too extensive. The first six fires happened in predominately black neighborhoods within a three-mile radius of Ferguson.
Following the murder of nine black worshippers at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June, churches started burning across the South. Several investigations concluded that this apparent pattern was chiefly confirmation bias at work, since some of those church fires were not clearly arson—although in at least three of the incidents last summer, arson was the cause, according to Southern Poverty Law Center. The National Review claimed at the time that the whole thing was fabricated by left-wing agitators.
This month, there is very little doubt that what has happened around Ferguson: arson, directed principally against black churches. Ferguson became the epicenter of rage against racially biased policing last year, following the shooting of Michael Brown and the publicizing of the fact that the police and court systems were operating under an entrenched system that exploited poor black residents. It is no surprise that Ferguson is again in the center of what looks like an attack on black citizens in their sacred paces, even though it has failed to make many headlines.
At the same time the nation has been mostly shrugging off the fires around St. Louis, it’s also been fairly bored by intentional fires set at Planned Parenthood clinics. As Nora Caplan-Bricker reported this week, despite a spite of attacks on clinics this summer, neither the media nor the public has evinced much concern: “Where is the outrage?” NARAL Pro-Choice America president Ilyse Hogue asked in a statement on Friday. “The media need to report these incidents as what they are: domestic terrorism.”
Anti-abortion terrorists have murdered at least eight health care workers and injured many more, as well as burning and vandalizing women’s health clinics across the country.
Why don’t we treat these recent fires as serious acts of domestic terrorism? Caplan-Bricker contends that we are simply desensitized to all acts of public violence. Writing at CNN this summer, Eliot McLaughlin warned that we should not be too quick to jump to conclusions. He quotes Marty Ahrens, senior manager for fire analysis services with the National Fire Protection Association, a nonprofit group that researches fire prevention and safety, pointing out that about half of people arrested for arson are younger than 18, and thus “the fires were more likely youthful indiscretion or stupidity than they were acts of hatred.”
But setting black churches ablaze has a long and sordid history in this country. While it may be tempting to say this is just “kids” or disturbed individuals acting out, which is then spun into a conspiracy theory by the left-wing media, burning a black church in a poor community sends a powerful signal. As Vincent Warren, executive director at the Center for Constitutional Rights, told Fusion last summer: “Black houses [of worship] have been disproportionately targeted for a few reasons. … First, depending on the community, the black church can symbolize a social stability, which the perpetrator seeks to disrupt.”
What do the data show about church burnings? The Southern Poverty Law Center has long been warning of the rise in domestic terrorism across the United States. The National Fire Protection Association says that an average of 1,780 churches, funeral homes, and other religious institutions per year have fires. About 180 of those per year were deemed intentional, according to an analysis by the Washington Post. But the NFPA data also show that church and funeral property fires have generally been on the decline for decades, down from about 3,500 in 1980 to about 1,700 in 2011. Every round of church fires launches a debate about whether correlation equals causation, and whether we are looking at an epidemic of racially motivated hate-crimes or a spate of unrelated acts of mostly juveniles acting out.
Amanda Marcotte made a strong argument Thursday morning that it’s hard to draw public attention to these aggregated acts of domestic terrorism in part because “in the past, when the Obama administration tried to address domestic terrorism, they faced an ugly backlash from conservatives who dismiss, despite all the evidence to the contrary, the fact that all this hateful right-wing radicalism does inspire violence.” Marcotte goes on to urge that drawing public attention to these instances is more important now than ever in part because it’s imperative to point out “how radical right wing politics are inevitably going to lead to some right wingers thinking violence is the solution when democratic methods fail.”
It’s tricky to turn this into a conversation about racism and domestic terror, however, when even the pastors of the churches themselves seem to be downplaying the extent to which this is a serious hate crime emblematic of a toxic level of racial violence in this country. Interviews with local clergy suggest that while some see deep-seated racial hate at work here, others dismiss it as the random act of a mentally ill individual. The Rev. Rodrick K. Burton, pastor of New Northside Missionary Baptist Church, told the New York Times this week he himself was uncertain whether race had played a role in what happened, adding that he thought a mentally disturbed person might be responsible. “I really believe that as African-Americans, you should not jump to that conclusion without evidence because then it damages when there is a real situation,” he told the Times. “People won’t take it seriously.”
While it’s good to be cautious, sometimes debates over whether a particular act of violence is motivated by mental illness or racial derangement can be a distraction from the fact that racial derangement exists and can be stirred up fairly readily when racial hatred and incitement become part of everyday political discourse. See, for example, Donald Trump, always. And arguably the kind of racial hatred we are looking at in America right now constitutes its own form of mental illness in the first instance. Either way, we ought to be talking about it.
Church burnings don’t happen in a vacuum, nor does abortion clinic violence. As Carolyn J. Davis wrote over the summer, there is a long and ugly tradition of under-reporting and under-reacting to racially motivated violence in this country. The same is true in cases of attacks on abortion clinics and their workers. Until we know what’s behind the recent rash of church fires, we can’t say with any certainty what motivated it. But we should be able to talk about the fact that black churches are burning around Ferguson, and that abortion clinics are being attacked, even in the absence of definitive proof of who did it and why. Whether isolated, damaged individuals are responsible for the attacks, or they reflect a worsening trend in domestic terror, the fear of talking openly about one thing or the other will not make either one go away. When churches burn, we should all be horrified, no matter what the reason.