Arson is suspected in the burning of several predominantly Black churches in and around St. Louis, with at least six torched in the past 10 days. So far, no one has been hurt, but the incidents are finally being investigated. After local pastors spoke out about the anemic response to these suspiciously similar incidents, police are offering a $2,000 reward for information about the arsons. Although the St. Louis police and fire departments and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms issued a joint statement Monday that avoided speculation about possible motives, they did say that "we believe that this fire-setting activity is meant to send a message." All of the fires were set at the church entrances when no one was inside.
After more than a year of protests that exposed deep-seated racism and unfair policing practices in St. Louis and the communities surrounding it, it's impossible to see this string of fires outside the context of race. According to Fusion, 53 church fires were classified as hate crimes between 2009 and 2013. Black churches are often the center of community organizing and activism, so attacks on them can chill the sort of political movements that have brought the killings of African-Americans by police to the center of so many debates across the country. All of the churches burned have mostly Black congregations. Earlier this summer, churches in Florida, Tennessee, and North and South Carolina were set aflame, although only three were classified as arson. Even if these new fires are not classified as hate crimes, the impact on parishioners is still clear — houses of worship are not safe spaces for African-Americans.