Agents from the FBI and ATF are investigating possible connections among a number of suspicious fires at predominantly black churches in the South that occured in the week following the shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, according to a report Sunday from BuzzFeed.
The Southern Poverty Law Center wrote on its Hatewatch blog that at least three of the fires have been determined to have been deliberately set. The SPLC reports these possible arsons might have been motivated by the attention to Dylann Roof’s alleged murder of nine members of the Emanuel Bible study group, or the ensuing push to remove Confederate symbols from public spaces and state flags.
The Atlantic, which first noted the cluster of fires on Thursday, points out that federal authorities are routinely consulted in possible cases of arson involving churches, and the FBI’s spokesman cautioned BuzzFeed that he was unaware of “any reason to link them together at this point.”
The first fire came last Monday in Tennessee, where the College Hills Seventh Day Adventist Church sustained damage to its building and a van parked outside from what local authorities described as vandalism but not neccessarily a hate crime.
On Tuesday a larger fire “gutted” God’s Power Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia, and county investigators reportedly ruled out accidental causes and are treating it as an arson case. Authorities looking into a fire Wednesday at Briar Creek Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, are doing the same.
And on Friday the building housing Glover Grove Baptist Church in Warrenville, South Carolina, only a few hours’ drive from Charleston, was destroyed by a fire. State authorities have not yet determined the cause of the blaze, the Associated Press reports.
The timing of the fires could be just coincidental; even if all of them were motivated by the killings in Charleston and the political debate stirred up in their wake, there is so far no evidence to suggest that the fires were set as part of a coordinated effort. Other recent fires at black churches in Florida and Tennessee are thought to have started by accident.
Given the history of the use of fire as a weapon against churches as black cultural institutions, the possibility of a pattern is troubling. “Churches are burning again in the United States,” Emma Green writes in the Atlantic, “and the symbolism of that is powerful.”