At the Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church in Greenville, Mississippi, firefighters rushed to control flames last night that had apparently been set by an arsonist. Flames flickered in the windows of the historic brick structure and smoke poured from the roof. On the side of the church, they saw the words “Vote Trump” spray painted on an exterior wall.
 
Local media reports that investigators are already suspecting that the fire at the historically black was ignited on purpose. Local law enforcement is investigating it as a hate crime, as well as state and federal law enforcement agencies. Federal ATF agents were on hand in the aftermath of the fire. Firefighters were able to put out the blaze in less than 15 minutes. The church sustained heavy damage, while the kitchen and pastor’s office were also damaged. No one was present at the church at the time of the fire, and no injuries sustained.
Republican vice-presidential candidate Mike Pence called the incident an example of “terrorism,” and the Trump campaign issued a statement deploring the arson. Mayor Errick Simmons of Greenville defined the fire as a “hateful and cowardly act” that has its ultimate cause in the rhetoric used by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during the campaign. He told the Washington Post that black churches are a place where people assemble, not only to pray, but also to “pray and strategize on how to get civil liberties and rights that were denied to them.”
 
Simmons, the first black man to occupy the mayoralty of Greenville, which is 78 percent black. Police security has been increased in the northern Mississippi city, and police will be evident on Election Day next week. Saying that the church burning is a “direct assault on black folks,” Simmons said his objective is to reduce any fear of going to the polls. 
Simmons said that authorities have identified “a person of interest,” but have not named a suspect or made any arrests. According to DailyKos, the person of interest is currently being interviewed by law enforcement. Greenville police chief Freddie Cannon called the incident a "a form of voting intimidation."
Progressives have suggested that the purpose of the fire was to intimidate voter in the majority black city. For example, Thandisizwe Chimurenga of the leftist DailyKos website, wrote "It is too early to tell if the crime was actually carried out by Trump supporters or was a hoax, but the current climate in the country makes such destruction more than plausible … it makes such an event actually seem overdue."
 
 
Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hoseman tried to ally such fears. "I would be very careful about jumping to conclusions as to why that occurred." Hosemann said, "I've been in contact with the Mississippi Highway Patrol and authorities in Greenville concerning that and any effect it may have on the election. Before we start going back that this was somebody of a political nature, we need to get all the facts because my discussions indicate that that may not be the case."
 
Hosemann said the arson is unacceptable, regardless of the motive. "Any burning of any public facility or church should be prosecuted to the maximum as far as I can tell," Hosemann said. "Then that individual should be held accountable immediately, but in this instance, I want to make it clear 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, but when we get there, whoever did this needs to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Period."
 
Other observers saw political motivations, but not on the part of the Trump campaign or Republicans. Scottt Adams, the creator of the "Dilbert" cartoon series, opined that the incident was inspired by the Clinton campaign. He tweeted, "That's a probably false-flag event, brought to you by Team Clinton."

During the Bill Clinton administration, 145 black churches burned from 1995 to 1996, in a wave of arson attacks. According to the Church Arson Task Force Report of 2000, which was commissioned by President Clinton, of the 145 fires at African-American houses of worship that were investigated across the country, the report found that whites made up 63 percent of those arrested, while 1 percent were Latino. Hispanic. In the South alone, more than two-thirds of the perpetrators of arson at black churches were white and 29 percent were black. In 1995-96, incidents of arson occurred once about every five days at black churches.  The number of church arsons fell 82 percent from 1980 to 2002, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Authorities are still investigating seven recent fires in the South, of which at least three have been ruled as arson. 

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Spero News writer Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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