Exactly one week after the deadly mass shooting in the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) in Charleston, a fire erupted at a black church 200 miles north. NBC News reported last week:
A predominately black church in North Carolina was intentionally set ablaze, authorities said.Charlotte fire officials are looking into whether Wednesday morning’s arson at Briar Creek Baptist Church was a hate crime, NBC station WCNC reported. Although there were no initial indications that the crime was motivated by hate, officials haven’t ruled it out, fire investigator David Williams told the station.
Fortunately, no one was killed, though the blaze reportedly caused about $250,000 in damage.
The same night, God’s Power Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia, was set ablaze. Around the same time, the Glover Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Warrenville, South Carolina caught fire. Last week, College Hill Seventh Day Adventist burned in Knoxville, Tennessee.
A report in The Atlantic pointed to some other fires at churches over the last two weeks, though in those cases, the circumstances appear to be less suspicious, and in one instance, the church does not have a predominantly black congregation.
Nevertheless, given the number of incidents, and the possibility of arson in some of the cases, federal investigators are taking an interest. BuzzFeed reported yesterday:
The FBI and ATF are cooperating with local authorities to investigate the recent spate of fires at black churches, a spokesperson for the FBI confirmed Sunday.In recent days, there have been four fires at churches across four states – Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia. Three of the four have been ruled arsons by investigators; a cause for the fourth, at Grover Grove Baptist in Warrenville, S.C., had not been determined by investigators on Friday.
As FBI spokesperson told BuzzFeed, “They’re being investigated to determine who is responsible and what motives are behind them. I’m not sure there is any reason to link them together at this point.”
It’s a key detail: we know the fires happened, but at this point, we can’t say with certainty if they’re connected. Coming against the backdrop of a white supremacist murdering nine African Americans in a church, fears of a pattern are obviously understandable, but investigators are still getting to the bottom of what happened.
The report in The Atlantic added:
In recent years, it’s been harder to get a clear sense of the number of church fires across the country. The National Fire Protection Association reports that between 2007 and 2011, there were an average of 280 intentionally set fires at houses of worship in America each year, although a small percentage of those took place at other religious organizations, like funeral homes. One of the organization’s staffers, Marty Ahrens, said that tracking church arson has become much more complicated since reporting standards changed in the late ’90s. Sometimes, fires that are reported to the National Fire Incident Reporting System are considered “suspicious,” but they can’t be reported as arson until they’re definitively ruled “intentional.” Even then, it’s difficult to determine what motivated an act of arson. […]The investigations in North Carolina, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, Ohio, and Tennessee are still ongoing, and they may end up in that broad category of fires of suspicious, but ultimately unknowable, origin that Ahrens described.
Watch this space.