Letter from the US: Black churches burn as media pushes 'terror plot' scare

July 12, 2015

In the wake of the political assassination of nine African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17 by a white supremacist, racial tensions remain high.

Since that incident, seven Black churches in the South have suffered fires, recalling many such incidents in the past.

So far the authorities claim that there is no evidence that these burnings were carried out by racists, but they do admit that three were likely arson. Whatever evidence may surface — or be suppressed — these church fires are viewed with suspicion by many Black people.

“The idea that this could be about hate, no outlet but to do something so tragic — we were devastated, I mean heartbroken, terrified,” said Reverand Rhonda Kinsey, pastor at one of churches in North Carolina badly damaged by arson.

Such suspicions are justified in light of attempts to play down white supremacist and other right-wing acts of terror. After the Charleston murders, FBI head James Comey said the perpetrator, Dylann Roof, was not a terrorist because what he did was not politically motivated.

Comey’s assertion flies in the face of everything Roof said and wrote about his motivation. But the facts are not the issue for the FBI. Rather, the agency is driven by a political need to play down the issue.

A new report on politically motivated killings by the research centre New America found that since 9/11, there have been twice as many political killings by white supremacists in the US as by Muslims.

But the white supremacist killings are barely mentioned in mainstream media, while killings by Muslims are sensationalised.

The report also left out some killings by right-wing extremists that were clearly politically motivated. These included the murder of three Muslim students in North Carolina by a white bigot. Attacks on Muslims and mosques are also increasing.

Terror hysteria

The media discussion about race that broke through after Charleston has been drowned out by a government-pushed blitz around vague charges that ISIS operatives planned to carry out attacks in the US over the Independence Day holiday weekend this month.

Federal, state and local forces were put on a virtual war footing in what has been billed as the greatest such mobilisation of police forces in recent memory — if not ever. No such mobilisation has been launched to protect Black churches in the South.

The media scare tactics included many interviews with federal and local police forces and other “experts” on the “danger”. One talking head on CBS solemnly intoned: “The greatest threat to liberty is terrorism.”

Actually, the greatest threat to the civil rights and liberties of US citizens comes from the US government, as Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and many others could tell you.

It turned out that the “ISIS is coming!” scare was a dud.

Confederate flag

Fears of further white supremacist attacks, however, are not the only developments since Roof’s attack. Blacks and their allies have focused on taking down the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina capitol grounds and other Southern state sites where the symbol of the defeated slave states still flies.

Video footage of 30-year-old African American woman Bree Newsome climbing the pole to take down the racist symbol at the South Carolina capitol ground has been seen across the world.

The police arrested Newsome and a white accomplice, and charged them with defacing a monument — in this case, a monument to slavery and opposition to the civil rights movement. The cops ran the flag back up in time for a racist rally in defence of the flag to take place that morning.

Newsome and her accomplice face maximum penalties of three years in jail and US$5000 in fines. It is unlikely, however, that such punishment would actually be imposed, given the huge response it would be likely to generate.

Since Charleston, many other Confederate “monuments” have been “defaced” with the spray-painted slogan, “Black Lives Matter”.

Newsome is a young filmmaker and political rap artist known for her activism. She exemplifies the kind of young African American leaders that have come forward in the Black Lives Matter movement.

The Ku Klux Klan is planning a rally in South Carolina in defence of its flag later month. But the KKK is fighting a losing battle. In the wake of the Charleston massacre, the flag has become so discredited that even the racist South Carolina state legislature voted to take it down, as the state governor has already proposed.

On July 8, the South Carolina state senate — of which one of Roof's victims, Clementa Pickens, was a member — voted 37-3 to remove the flag. The vote easily exceeded the two-thirds majority needed to recommend the bill to the state's House of Representatives, which voted 94 to 20 in the bill's favour.

Many businesses also want to get rid of the stigma the flag represents. Many companies, including big German and Japanese car companies, as well as US firms, have opened factories in the South in recent decades, drawn by lower wages and more favourable conditions for capitalists in the non-union region.

You know that something is afoot when Walmart and other big retail outfits suddenly decide to remove all their merchandise with the Confederate flag symbol.

Deeper issues

Almost the entire spectrum of Black spokespeople, from establishment figures to the new generation of radicals, have noted that while the Confederate flag is a symbol of racial oppression that must be taken down, the underlying reality of Black segregation must be addressed. This includes inferior housing and education, police violence against the Black communities, Black unemployment and underemployment, poverty and a host of other issues.

After her release on bail, Newsome posted online: “It is important to remember that our struggle doesn’t end when the flag comes down. The Confederacy is a Southern thing, but white supremacy is not.”

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