Kristen Clarke, President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the Justice Department’s civil rights division, called for a hate crime investigation into the burning of a black church in Mississippi that turned out to have been set by one of its parishioners.
“We are deeply concerned regarding last night’s attack on Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church in Greenville, Mississippi,” Clarke, the president of the Lawyers’ Committee on Civil Rights Under Law, said in a statement on Nov. 2, 2016.
“We are even more concerned that this church, a cornerstone of this majority-Black community located in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, was vandalized and targeted on the eve of the upcoming 2016 general election. The toxic rhetoric of this election cycle continues to cast a dark cloud.”
The Hopewell church, built in 1905, was vandalized with the graffiti reading “Vote Trump” and set on fire on Nov. 1, 2016, a week before the election.
News outlets, activists and Greenville’s mayor initially suspected a hate crime.
Clarke’s group called on the Justice Department to open a “full investigation of this incident to determine if this was indeed a racially-driven hate crime and to identify the perpetrators behind this attack.”
The FBI opened a federal hate crimes investigation into the incident and determined the arson was not a hate crime.
More than six weeks after the incident, investigators charged Andrew McClinton, a member of the church, with setting the fire.
He pleaded guilty to arson March 28, 2019, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Prosecutors said that McClinton set the fire to cover up “illicit” activities he was involved in, the Associated Press reported.
The incident is not the first hate crime hoax to have fooled Clarke.
In 2019, she jumped to the defense of Jussie Smollett, the actor who made the since-debunked claim that two white Trump supporters attacked him in Chicago because he is gay and black.
Smollett filed a police report claiming that his attackers shouted “This is MAGA country,” a reference to the pro-Trump slogan, poured bleach on him, and put a rope around his neck.
To be clear — This is a BAD move by the Chicago Police Department. This is NOT how you treat survivors of a hate crime. Stop demonizing survivors and casting doubt on their claims if you want communities to trust that you will take #HateCrime seriously. @StopHateProj https://t.co/RIvF2tltly
— Kristen Clarke (@KristenClarkeJD) February 1, 2019
Clarke called the incident a hate crime at the time, and said that Smollett was “subjected to a racist and homophobic attack.”
Clarke also criticized Chicago police for requesting access to Smollett’s cell phone during the investigation.
“This is NOT how you treat survivors of a hate crime. Stop demonizing survivors and casting doubt on their claims if you want communities to trust that you will take #HateCrime seriously,” she tweeted on Feb. 1, 2019, several days after Smollett reported the incident.
Smollett was charged weeks later with felony counts of filing a false police report.
Two men who Smollett knew, both of whom are black, told investigators that the actor paid them $3,500 to stage the hate crime attack.
Clarke has not addressed either of the two hoaxes, the Smollett incident or the Hopewell church arson. Her group has not responded to several requests for comment.