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.

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