Top St. Louis officials on Wednesday visited one of the black churches that have been torched by an unknown arsonist — a show of unity that included a vow from the city's police chief that the perpetrator "picked a fight they cannot win."
The chief, Sam Dotson, told an audience at the New Northside MIssionary Baptist Church that the arsonist "underestimates the strength we have," the St. Louis Post Dispatch reported.
Dotson was joined by Mayor Francis Slay, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar and the president of St. Louis University, along with leaders of churches representing a variety of denominations.
New Northside Missionary Baptist Church is one of six houses of worship with predominantly black congregations that have been damaged by fires since Oct. 8.
Local and federal authorities are investigating. That includes the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which released a statement this week saying investigators believed the "fire-setting activity is meant to send a message." The agency did not elaborate.
Police, clergy and civil rights groups have been careful to note that no one has determined whether the fires were motivated by racism.
But that possibility is on many minds.
St. Louis has spent more than a year attempting to confront and quell racial tensions inflamed by the August 2014 shooting of a young black man, Michael Brown, by a white police officer, Darren Wilson, in the suburb of Ferguson.