Right now, there’s a federal manhunt for the man who burned a Baltimore CVS. After two months of prolonged public investigation, the ATF has finally fingered the man responsible: one Raymon Carter, age 24, black, five-foot-eight, 180 pounds. He’s probably “fit the description” for a decade now—but now, the description is of him.
Raymon Carter, of course, didn’t just burn down a drugstore. If you raze a building, it’s the synecdoche that falls down first. The human meaning of a pile of bricks inheres as soon as people enter it; the house stands in for family, the church for community, the black church for resistance, the White House for what in many cases needs resisting.
The convenience store is trickier, but its meaning is just as heavy. When the nation mourned one Quiktrip in Ferguson, we had cause to remember that what’s damaged in a convenience store riot is literal convenience, which in this country is often more precious than life. When a store is looted—whether what’s being taken is toilet paper or electronics or milk to pour on the faces of pepper-sprayed teenagers—what’s stolen first is the fantasy that American wealth and transaction and ownership could be ordered neatly by a building, washed clean of its context, erased by the white fluorescent light.
After America’s unnervingly heartfelt requiem for the Quiktrip, Tom Scocca wrote at Gawker:
The point is that there are people in this country so depraved that they think images of some spilled bags of chips somehow trump the slaying of an unarmed teenager. These are the descendents of the people who understood the tragedy of Do the Right Thing to be the destruction of Sal’s Famous rather than the death of Radio Raheem. The sight of property damage and merchandise scattered on the floor moves them in some way that the sight of a young body left in a pool of blood in the street does not.
In West Baltimore, five months later, Raymon Carter (allegedly) burned down the CVS on West North and Pennsylvania, drawing out much of the same. From the LA Times:
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake lamented the CVS destruction as a harsh blow to the community. [...]
On Tuesday, while other riot-damaged sites were largely deserted, the CVS hulk drew hundreds of protesters and a phalanx of police armed with shields.
On June 29, ATF agents filed federal arson charges and obtained a warrant for Carter’s arrest; if convicted, he could face up to 20 years in prison. He’s said to be running, and in the interest of catching him, ATF is offering a $10,000 reward.
And then, concurrent with the last two weeks of the ATF wrapping up its CVS investigation, seven black churches have burned.
On June 17, nine black churchgoers were murdered at Charleston’s Emanuel AME. A day afterwards, a white man banged down the door of a black church in Richmond screaming slurs and threatening churchgoers. On June 21, there was a fire at a black church in Knoxville, Tennessee (“vandalism, not a hate crime”); then on June 23 in Macon, Georgia (“no sign of a hate crime”); then on June 24 in Charlotte, North Carolina (being investigated as arson); on the same day in Gibson County, Tennessee (“appears to be an isolated incident”); another on June 26 in Warrenville, South Carolina (“looking into it”); on the same day in Tallahassee, Florida (probably “a tree limb”).
The latest fire was in Greeley, South Carolina, 400 miles away from Charleston, at a church that the KKK admitted to burning 20 years ago. The AP is reporting the Greeley story with the headline “Source: Fire at black church in South Carolina wasn’t arson,” although all they’ve got is an anonymous official saying he’s got a preliminary indication but still doesn’t know.
Church fires happen all the time, of course, although their frequency has decreased significantly in the last three decades, from 3,500 in 1980 to 1,660 in 2011. Church fires also mostly happen on accident, and arson has decreased even more than fires in general: the National Fire Protection Association currently estimates that only 16 percent of church fires are set intentionally, down from 37 percent in 1980. (The decrease is thanks in part, no doubt, to the now-defunct National Church Arson Task Force established by Bill Clinton after Greeley the last time.)
We don’t know whether these latest church fires were arson. I’m more interested in the fact that there’s a wide mainstream refusal to categorize them as such alongside a general desperation to know that they were arson—that these fires were what they feel like. Every fire happened at night, under cover of darkness. If the church is symbolic, its destruction is too. Just like the wrecked Quiktrip howled with the wreckage of respectability, these burned churches are telling us something. Seven of them in the two weeks after Charleston. Does it feel like lightning, a squirrel chewing into some wiring—these fires, one by one?
One of the reasons these burnings can’t feel accidental is the way we treat them, the way these buildings are different from a Quiktrip or a CVS. The estimated monetary damage to these churches starts at $250,000 and goes on up to a million. But this is mentioned only in passing in most articles, where there is an entire dismaying genre of miniature news stories devoted to estimating the possible damage to the Ferguson and Baltimore convenience stores, breathlessly and regretfully guessing about when and how these little temples can rebuild. There was no such follow-up for the community center in Baltimore that burned on the night of the riots; I doubt there will be CVS-level diligence about these churches, either.
Anyway, QuikTrip is a company with recent revenue of $11.2 billion per year; CVS Caremark’s current market cap is $117.4 billion. There is no equivalent corporation for the church, so as always, it will be the community, endlessly scrapping together, that rebuilds. “It was the church that saved the people until the civil rights revolution came along,” said Bill Clinton, in a 1996 speech at the restoration of Greeley’s Mount Zion AME.
The black church, like the Americans it’s synonymous with, is accustomed to having to brace and pray. NAACP has issued a warning to black churches to “take necessary precautions.” 29 other black churches have burned within the last 18 months. In a way, it’s impossible to know the meaning of those numbers, and still they mean something all the same. Jim Campbell, a history professor at Northwestern, writes at the LA Times:
So far, investigators have yet to uncover evidence of a “national conspiracy.” The bulk of the attacks appear to be “random” acts of vandalism, the work of “teenagers” and “copycats” rather than hardened conspirators.
It is worth observing that the absence of any organized conspiracy may make the phenomenon of church burning more, rather than less, disturbing. Far easier to abide the idea of a tight-knit group of racist fanatics than to accept the alternative that we live in a time when a substantial number of individuals, unconnected with one another or with organized white supremacist groups, regard burning black churches as a plausible act, worthy of emulation.
He adds: “Indeed, for as long as there have been black churches, there have been whites determined to destroy them.”
The first recorded black church burning occurred in 1822, in South Carolina. The following decades sustained a plague of black church violence: according to Campbell’s piece, there were six attacks in Philadelphia between 1825 and 1850—an 1834 riot where two churches came down, a day in 1825 where red pepper was poured into the church stove and worshipers suffocated and four people died.
While the circumstances of these riots were historically specific, there are patterns suggestive for our time. The 1830s and 1840s, like the 1980s and 1990s, were decades of momentous economic transformation, as Americans adapted to the opportunities and perils of an emerging national marketplace. Native-born whites, extruded from the countryside, competed for jobs and urban space with African Americans and a swelling tide of European immigrants. For many, the American dream of independence and upward mobility had gone aglimmering.
Right now we’re in another wind-whipped season. Blood on the leaves, the Confederate flags falling, the black churches burning. And what everyone in America is looking for, I think, is whiteness—to condemn its power, or to preserve it; to either way understand what it’s done. But you can’t spend two months searching for the face of whiteness; you can’t post a $10,000 reward. It’s already everywhere. It’s the backbone of American order, the anodyne glow at the CVS, the gun pulled, the eight bullets. The police will never pursue white supremacy, but they’ll sure as hell pursue the people who fracture it. If you come at American whiteness, you’ll burn.
Who is setting fire to black churches, and why does nobody seem to care? The answer is clear, and the same for both questions. It’s the poison in the power of whiteness that addled the policemen who killed Freddie Gray and Michael Brown; it’s the same poison that electrified the protestors who fucked up the Quiktrip and burned the CVS. Whiteness is the reason, but it doesn’t fit on a wanted poster, and in the end it’s still black bodies that end up on the gravel and in the grave, scattered as inconsequentially for us as candy wrappers in our precious American sanctuaries, forever and ever, amen.
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Image via AP