Pressure Mounts for Berkeley Police to Investigate Fire Outside Black Church as a Hate Crime

The Way Christian Center in Berkeley. A set of trash bins outside the church were set on fire early Wednesday morning, a day after the church hung a 'Black Lives Matter' banner above its front entrance. (Courtesy of Michael McBride via Facebook)

A small but growing number of Berkeley faith leaders and elected officials are calling on police to investigate as a hate crime a fire outside of a Black church in Berkeley that had recently put up a Black Lives Matter banner above its front entrance.

Police said officers and firefighters responded early Wednesday morning to the fire, ignited in a set of plastic trash bins in the rear parking lot of The Way Christian Center on University Avenue. The fire burned the church’s outside wall before firefighters extinguished it.

During a press conference Thursday morning, the Rev. Michael McBride, said his church has never experienced a problem like this in its 40-year history, and thinks it was targeted because of the banner.

"The fire was going up the building," McBride said, who for decades has worked against police brutality, registered people to vote and spoken out against white supremacy. He wondered if the sign had irritated the suspect, and called the fire an act of racial terror.

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“The day we put up the Black Lives Matter sign, I guess it's a coincidence that somebody wanted to burn trash cans attached to our building and set it on fire,” McBride said.

"Regardless of the intentions of the suspect, we will not be silenced or intimidated," McBride said in a separate statement. "Were it not for an alert and courageous neighbor, my entire church could have been burned to the ground."

Damage to the wall of The Way Christian Center in Berkeley caused by Wednesday's fire. (Courtesy of Michael McBride via Facebook)

McBride said the only notice he received from Berkeley police was an incident report slid under the church door. And he said that while he did receive a consolatory email from Berkeley Police Chief Andrew Greenwood late Wednesday night, he was disappointed that neither the chief or the mayor had called him directly.

"For decades, church fires were used as a means of terrorizing Black clergy and the Black community," McBride said. "I guess in Berkeley, it's not something worthy of special attention by law enforcement officials."

Well-known comedian W. Kamau Bell, who joined McBride at Thursday’s press conference, directly criticized Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín for not attending showing adequate support.

“I'm talking to the mayor and the people who run this town to live up to the reputation of Berkeley or give up the reputation of Berkeley,” Bell said, who recently worked with McBride on a fundraiser to buy personal protective equipment for low-income residents.

Shortly afterward, Arreguín issued a statement calling for the suspected arson to be investigated as a hate crime and asking the city's police and fire departments to prioritize the case, Berkeleyside reported.

“As our nation continues to confront our dark history of racism, I am glad that the parishioners of The Way and Pastor Mike McBride, who have been at the forefront of social justice and the Black Lives Matter movement, are safe,” Arreguin said in the statement. “However, the fear and trauma this incident creates is unacceptable. … Anti-Black hate, and all forms of racism, has no place in Berkeley.”

Officer Byron White, a spokesman for the Berkeley Police Department, said police are investigating the fire as an arson and looking into whether it was indeed a hate crime.

“This is important to us,” he said.

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White said police are seeking more information about the suspect, who they described as possibly male of “unknown race/age, wearing a tan poncho/jacket with reflective material,” who was seen walking east on University Ave. away from the church. He said it is protocol to leave a report at premises when an incident happens late at night and there hasn’t been any evidence of a break-in or significant damage.

However, Berkeley Councilman Ben Bartlett said following protocol wasn’t enough in this case.

“I think if they understood the true context of this incident, they would have given it greater attention,” Bartlett said. “And my assumption and my hope is that they are giving it the attention it deserves right now.”

Bartlett, a member of The Way congregation, called the “act of burning a Black church” a “deep, scarring wound.”

“For this to happen in Berkeley — as opposed to Alabama or Mississippi or somewhere — the home of social justice and the home of progressivism, is truly shocking,” he said.

This story contains additional reporting from Bay City News.