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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.

Mike Huckabee

Mike Huckabee Solidifies Asshole Status

There are a lot of reasons to not like Mike Huckabee if you’re a progressive. He’s an extreme social conservative who’s terrible on subjects like reproductive justice and marriage equality. His understanding of the separation of Church and State is that he doesn’t like it and it shouldn’t exist. He continues to insist that climate change isn’t a real thing. That’s really only the tip of the iceberg. Like I said, lots of reasons.

But if you’re a progressive who makes an effort to be an ally on issues of race, gender, and more, you should be equally enraged that when it comes to attacks on neurodiversity, Mike Huckabee is an unapologetic jerk. As USA Today reports:

Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee came under fire Monday for using a disparaging reference to mental illness in describing a U.S. Supreme Court justice.

The criticism came from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which took issue with a comment the former Arkansas governor made Friday on Des Moines radio-host Jan Mickelson’s conservative talk show.

Huckabee said Chief Justice John Roberts “apparently needs medication for schizophrenia” for his allegedly inconsistent opinions in two prominent cases last week.

Only an emotionally dead and illiterate tool would make such a statement. For starters, it shows a gross misunderstanding of what, exactly, schizophrenia is, based on factually incorrect stereotypes promoted in media and propped up by colloquial use of the term. Most frequently, it’s used to disparage someone with labile moods and seemingly divergent or rapidly shifting perspectives. This characterization would be laughable if not so inappropriate. As advocacy group Mental Health America explains:

Schizophrenia is a serious disorder which affects how a person thinks, feels and acts. Someone with schizophrenia may have difficulty distinguishing between what is real and what is imaginary; may be unresponsive or withdrawn; and may have difficulty expressing normal emotions in social situations.

Contrary to public perception, schizophrenia is not split personality or multiple personality. The vast majority of people with schizophrenia are not violent and do not pose a danger to others. Schizophrenia is not caused by childhood experiences, poor parenting or lack of willpower, nor are the symptoms identical for each person.

This isn’t the punchline to a joke. Individuals with schizophrenia comprise more than a third of America’s homeless population. Their symptoms can be so terrifying that they are sent into a deep depression that is too often fatal. As Schizophrenia.com points out:

People with the condition have a 50 times higher risk of attempting suicide than the general population; the risk of suicide is very serious in people with schizophrenia. Suicide is the number one cause of premature death among people with schizophrenia, with an estimated 10 percent to 13 percent killing themselves and approximately 40% attempting suicide at least once (and as much as 60% of males attempting suicide).

You’re not laughing now, are you? That’s because jokes like the one Huckabee made aren’t funny. They’re offensive, and more importantly, they’re dangerous. When mental illness is cast as something worthy of mockery, is it any surprise that people don’t seek out health? Is it really all that shocking that our leaders don’t take it seriously enough to fund the public health initiatives we so desperately need when diagnoses make such convenient political barbs? Can we blame the neurodiverse for feeling shame and despair as they try desperately to find their way to stability and fulfillment when we’re laughing at them for their courageous efforts?

Mike Huckabee is an asshole. And if you can’t understand why, then you are too.

Chris Christie

The Bully Steps Up to the Pulpit

He’s in. At a high school suffering from the more than $1 billion in educational budget cuts pushed through by his administration, Chris Christie announced that he is gunning for the GOP nomination in the 2016 presidential election. It wasn’t unexpected, but all eyes were on New Jersey today, looking to see how he’d frame his campaign.

If you watched the speech, there’s no denying the man has charisma. He meandered casually about the stage with the intensity that’s become his trademark, his delivery as direct and energetic as ever. The refrain wasn’t unique. Most of his speech echoed what we’ve already heard from other GOP candidates. Arguably, most of it was fluff.

And then he actually said he was running. Suddenly, angry Chris Christie was back in full force. He railed against social safety nets, proclaiming their very existence a form of institutionalized theft. He spoke passionately on the importance of American hegemony, sneering contemptuously at Obama’s attempts to cultivate soft power through diplomacy. You could see him struggling to reign in the rage. The faltering composure and fuming rhetoric hardly aligned with his intermittent insistence that leaders needed to learn to work together.

Still, love him or hate him, Chris Christie is definitely a firebrand. But does he stand a chance? If we’d asked that question four years ago, it might be a different story, but things have changed dramatically for the governor since then. As Andy Kiersz wrote for Business Insider:

Many Republican donors urged him to run against President Barack Obama in 2012. His popularity soared in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. And he cruised to a blowout re-election as governor in 2013.

But over the past year and a half, different elements have pummeled his image in and out of his home state. There’s the Bridgegate scandal, to which he was never directly linked but which clearly damaged his reputation as an executive. Then there’s the economic story under his governorship: He has endured nine credit downgrades under his watch and has had continual problems with his state’s budget.

These problems have taken a toll on his approval ratings. The most recent polls put him at an all time personal low, with only 30% of New Jersey voters believing he’s doing a good job in office. Indeed, the local media has skewered Christie, warning the nation of what his presidency might look like. Some of it, like an editorial claiming Christie would launch America into WWIII, comes off as just as full of bluster as Christie himself, but others have been more sobering, like veteran journalist Tom Moran’s thorough account of the governor’s dishonesty from the inception of his career to today. He pulls no punches, writing:

Most Americans don’t know Chris Christie like I do, so it’s only natural to wonder what testimony I might offer after covering his every move for the last 14 years.

Is it his raw political talent? No, they can see that.

Is it his measurable failure to fix the economy, solve the budget crisis or even repair the crumbling bridges? No, his opponents will cover that if he ever gets traction.

My testimony amounts to a warning: Don’t believe a word the man says.

The article is as much a worthy read as it is a nauseating reminder of what passes as presidential material among GOP voters. But even if the approval ratings don’t matter, even if his track record doesn’t ruffle feathers, even if his lies don’t hurt him, the fire that gained him national attention may be his undoing in the end. Christie is well known for being a bully. As the Washington Post pointed out last year:

The reason Chris Christie is so good at this is that Chris Christie is actually a bully. That doesn’t mean he’s not also a nice guy who cares deeply about his family and his constituents and his country. It doesn’t mean he’s not an unusually honest politician who’s refreshingly free of cant and willing to question his party. There’s a lot about Christie that’s deeply appealing. But there’s one big thing that’s not: He’s someone who uses his office to intimidate people and punish or humiliate perceived enemies.

Watch this video of him screaming at a guy on the New Jersey Boardwalk. Watch him stalk toward the man, flanked by security and aides. Listen to what he actually says. “Keep walking. Keep walking.”

That’s not typical behavior for an adult. It’s definitely not typical behavior for a national politician. But it’s typical behavior for a bully. In fact, it’s not even very creative bullying. Anyone who’s ever been a boy in an American middle school has heard “keep walking!”

What makes Christie unusual is that he’s a bully with power. That can be a dangerous combination.

It can indeed. It also gives his opponents ample opportunity to talk about just how ill-suited he is to hold the highest office in the land; Rand Paul started with that last November. Put him on a debate stage, let his temper flare, and things could get ugly in a hurry for Christie. There’s only so much negativity that the electorate can stand.

Then again, Donald Trump’s racism pushed him within 3 points of Jeb Bush in New Hampshire. Who knows? Maybe a bully is exactly what Republicans want — capabilities and character be damned.