An African-American church in Greenville, Miss., went up in flames on Tuesday, adding to growing concerns about the possibility of violence on and around Election Day.
The words "Vote Trump," spray painted on the side of the Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church has led the local police to investigate the arson as a hate crime, said Police Chief Delando Wilson.
"We feel that the quote that was placed on the church was basically, it’s an intimidation of someone’s right to vote whatever way they choose to vote," said Chief Wilson in a news conference. "So that would be definitely considered a hate crime."
The burning of churches, those of both black and white congregations, is not a phenomenon unique to this election cycle. But the Greenville attack comes less than a week before Americans cast their ballots in one of the most polarizing – and racially divisive – elections in the country's history.
The church is not the first building to go up in flames in the name of the 2016 presidential election: Last month, the Orange County Republican Party headquarters in Hillsborough, N.C., was firebombed, with an anti-GOP message referencing "Nazi Republicans" spray-painted on the wall.
The Greenville fire also comes at a time when racial tensions have been in the forefront of election rhetoric, and acts of blatant racism are on the rise, as Patrik Jonsson reported for The Christian Science Monitor in October:
The trend is partly a new age manifestation of age-old problems – in essence transferring what used to be anonymous wall scribbles to the center of the public square. Indeed, some are seeing the First Amendment right to free speech as an invitation to incite.
But in that way, social media – along with the racially charged nature of this year’s presidential election – are forcing the most entrenched forms of racism to the surface in new ways. While shocking to some to hear, the outbursts give a more accurate portrayal of how much further America needs to go to heal race relations – and can sometimes be a catalyst to accelerate that progress, some say.
In the police news conference, Wilson said it was unclear whether the crime was racially motivated. As of Wednesday, a "person of interest" was being interviewed by the authorities.
There appeared to be some disagreement as to whether the arson was politically motivated as well, as Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann said Wednesday that "the initial work here indicates this is not of a political nature, even though there may be something that says 'vote Trump' on the side of the church. So everybody needs to calm down here until we get to the bottom of this."
Local authorities said Mr. Hosemann and his staff had not been in touch with them or involved in the investigation.
The mayor of Greenville, which is about 20 percent white and 78 percent black, told The Washington Post that the city had not experienced a noticeable change in race relations in correlation with the election. Every fifth Sunday, he said, white and black people gathered together at Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church to pray together.
"I talked to folks who were fearful," Mayor Errick Simmons said. "I talked to people who were intimidated. I talked to people who, quite frankly, were saddened and crying last night. This should not happen in 2016. It happened in the ’50s. It happened in the ’60s. But we’re in 2016."