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After authorities deem 7 church fires deliberate, St. Louis Rev. Sekou argues that black faith community members, should now look at larger systemic issues not just respectability

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore. In the past two weeks, seven black churches have been set on fire across the St. Louis metropolitan area. The St. Louis fire captain says there’s no doubt the fires are deliberate. But police officers have been hesitant to declare these arsons as being race-motivated attacks. Here’s what St. Louis fire chief Dennis Jenkerson had to say about it. DENNIS JENKERSON, ST. LOUIS FIRE CHIEF: It can be everything. You know, it can be somebody who’s got a beef, say, against the church, or somebody that might have had some mental issues. Somebody–it runs the gamut until we actually capture a person, or persons. DESVARIEUX: With the latest attack happening early Thursday morning the total recorded church burnings nationwide is now more than 100 since 1956. Now joining us to put all of these church burnings into context is our guest Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou. He is a Freeman Fellow with the Fellowship of Reconciliation and is based in St. Louis, Missouri. Thanks for joining us, Rev. Sekou. REV. OSAGYEFO SEKOU: It’s a pleasure to be here, thank you. DESVARIEUX: So Rev. Sekou, you heard what the St. Louis fire chief said, that we don’t know for certain who is behind these attacks, so we cannot declare these attacks as being racially motivated. What’s your response? SEKOU: I mean, well, it is clear that the vast majority of these seven churches that have been burned have been African-American congregations, and that the way in which there is the perception of the black churches, the historic space of black freedom-making, both in terms of the ways in which people engaged in worship, singing of songs, but also often plotting their liberation. And so the vast majority of black churches in the United States as denominations emerged out of the fact that white folks would not allow us to worship with them. And so we created spaces that were both safe and sacred, that were sanctified and often had an eye towards justice. And so although these churches, many of them that were attacked in St. Louis, have not necessarily been at the forefront of the freedom struggle that we’ve seen emerge in Ferguson, they are part of a, a fabric of black freedom which is under attack. DESVARIEUX: We should mention there are protections under the law for church burnings. In 1996 the Church Arson Prevention Act was passed following a spike in the ’90s when more than 65 black churches were burned down in 18 months. So federal authorities can prosecute arsonists, and it comes with a pretty hefty sentence, too, Rev. Sekou. We’re talking about 20 years. But that clearly hasn’t dissuaded enough people from committing the crime. What do you think is really needed in order to protect black citizens? SEKOU: I mean, part of what we face in terms as not only black citizens but black humans in the context of this Western democracy, the United States of America, has to do with what is the kind of spirit of the nation. And the spirit of the nation is such that the stating of the obvious is a revolutionary act. So the saying that black life matters triggers a multiplicity of responses, often negative, within a broader cultural context. And so what we essentially need is a nation to be born again. And by that we mean by placing a premium on black life. And that premium on black life is not simply the rejection but begins with the rejections of various forms of arbitrary violence, due process under the law, access to decent education, decent housing, decent wages, to start with. And so I think that part of what we are in the nation has to do with that this is a direct backlash against the movement that was born in Ferguson and that has sustained itself longer than the Montgomery bus boycott. And so my read until all the facts are in, my suspicion, my hunch, perhaps educated and experiential guess, is that these fires may be racially motivated, and may be part of a way in which the pushback against the youth-led rebellion that has taken place in Ferguson, that has caught on fire across the country. DESVARIEUX: So you see these church burnings as being a direct backlash from that movement that you spoke about. But you also mentioned that these churches also weren’t very much on the side of that movement. And some of them were actually on the side of the police. Can you unpack that a little bit? What has been the response of the black faith community after these arsons? SEKOU: Well, there is no singular black church. When we speak of the black church we’re speaking of a rubric of predominantly black worship institutions that may or may not be inside black denominations that deploy certain forms of black polyrhythms or black call and response, and black [homalytical] tradition. But–and to be sure, just as the black church is not monolithic the black community is not monolithic. And so there are ideological divides. Oftentimes in recent history those divides have played themselves out in those who are willing to be more respectable in terms of how they encounter state violence and protest, and then those young folks who have shaken off, many of them being young people who have shaken off the shackles of respectability. And in many of these instances, the vast majority of churches in the greater St. Louis region did not support the rebellion. Have at minimum inquired and at times been vocal in their opposition to the youthful resistance that has taken place. But what is clear about these burnings, right, that this is a kind of sign to the black church, that even though you may be respectable, even though you feel as though you’re engaging in the work that is necessary to protect your community vis-a-vis respectability politics, no black people are safe in the context of the American empire. And hopefully these fires will wake many of them out of their slumber. DESVARIEUX: All right. Rev. Sekou, very well said. Thank you so much for being with us. SEKOU: It’s a pleasure. Thank you. DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou is a Freeman Fellow with the Fellowship of Reconciliation. A St Louis, MO, native, the Rev attended high school there and has strong family ties to the area. He is the Pastor for Formation and Justice at the First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain, MA, and is spending the summer as a Scholar in Residence at the Martin Luther King Education and Research Institute at Stanford University. Rev Sekou was born in St Louis, MO and graduated from Soldan High School, where many of his family remain. He is in Ferguson organizing on behalf of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (the largest, oldest interfaith peace organization in the United States). Rev. Sekou served as youth pastor at Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Saint Louis, taught alternatives to gang violence at Stevens Middle School, and directed the Fellowship Center in the Cochran Housing Project in the city. He is the author of collection of essays, Urban Souls, which is a meditation on working with at-risk youth in Saint Louis, hip hop and religion. He is also the author of the forthcoming Riot Music: British Hip Hop, Race, and the Politics of Meaning.