Holden and the Phonies

A white man whose father works as a local sheriff’s deputy was arrested for burning down three black churches in a case that earned national headlines. While investigators should be praised for tracking down the culprit, the decision to not immediately charge him with a hate crime is inexcusable.

Almost immediately after authorities had apprehended 21-year-old Holden Matthews of Leonville, Louisiana for allegedly burning down three historic, African American churches in rural St. Landry Parish, they suggested to the public the young man may have been brainwashed by Norwegian “black metal” music, an esoteric sub-genre of heavy metal that had been popular in pockets of Europe among neo-nazis and self-proclaimed satanists nearly 26 years ago.

In a nationally televised press conference held the morning after Matthews’ arrest, Louisiana State Fire Marshal Butch Browning told the media the suspect appeared to have been influenced by the music, suggesting that this could be an explanation about his motive. By then, however, the media had been aware of Matthews’ activity on social media, including a Facebook profile in which he claimed to be the lead singer of a band that, at the time of his arrest, had a total of six likes online. More importantly, though, Browning seemed to believe that racist music causes racism instead of the obvious explanation: Racists listen to racist music.

Louisiana’s hate crimes statute not only provides enhanced sentences for simple and aggravated arson committed by an individual who selects their victim “because of (their) actual or perceived race, age, gender, religion, color, creed, disability, sexual orientation, national origin, or ancestry,” it also allows for prosecutors to tack on a charge when a person communicates false information about a planned arson.

Holden Matthews struggled as a musician.

If there is a legitimate reason to believe Matthews did not intentionally burn down those three churches because of their place in the African American community, it has not yet been disclosed to the public.

What has been revealed, however, is that Holden Matthews wrote on Facebook specifically about his disgust with black Baptist churches. In a thread about “afrikan spirituality,” Matthews, writing under a pseudonym, said he could not “stand all these baptists around here, bunch of brainwashed people trying to find happiness in a religion that was forced on their ancestors just as it was on mine.” He subsequently elaborated on his belief that “blacks people” should instead adopt the beliefs held by those in pre-colonial Africa.

On social media, Matthews expressed a generalized preoccupation with Norse mythology, and some have suggested that his “faith” in an esoteric paganism was more of a factor than any racial antipathy he may have harbored. But this obscures the fact that groups like the Ku Klux Klan have been appropriating and distorting pagan rituals, symbols, and mythology since the early 19th century.

Even if one were to suspend all disbelief and assert Matthews was motivated by religious hatred and not racial antipathy, that’s still a hate crime.

Thus far, Matthews has been charged with three counts of simple arson of a religious building, which carry a maximum sentence of fifteen years behind bars. If prosecutors ultimately decide to add three counts of hate crimes, his sentence could be doubled to thirty years.

Holden Matthews, 21, was taken into custody by the St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s Department on April 10, 2019.

Just as we should be outraged and repulsed by those who seek to terrorize the institution of the black church, we must also guard against anyone who would attempt to obfuscate or excuse racial hatred.

In the past three days, the arrest of Holden Matthews has received coverage in every major national news publication and network and cable news channel, and much of the coverage has exposed the resurgent acceptability of white supremacy and the ways in which the Trump presidency has provided validation to people like David Duke.

Make no mistake: Matthews exclusively destroyed historic, African American churches. This was not intended to merely send a message against Christianity, and it’s unlikely that Matthews’ distorted understanding of pagan mythology was ever anything other than a manifestation of social alienation. No, this was about sending a message to black people.

Yesterday, a white conservative blogger in Baton Rouge, after expressing his frustration with “the usual racially-charged controversy we’re all so tired of enduring,” sought to reframe these burnings as an attack against Christianity by “hostile cultural forces,” even suggesting that white supremacist Dylann Roof’s mass murder of nine African Americans at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. in Charleston, South Carolina was really just an example of anti-Christian brutality.

A day before, a Republican Louisiana state senator criticized the governor for not also condemning murderers when he denounced the destruction of the three churches.

The impulse to deflect from confronting the realities of racial violence and hatred is not because any of these critics feel vulnerable as a result of attacks on their Christian faith; it’s because their support of Donald Trump requires “alternative facts” in order to explain away people like Holden Matthews.

It’s far easier to blame the music than it is to face the music.


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Lamar White, Jr.
Lamar White, Jr. is an award-winning writer and the publisher and founder of the Bayou Brief, Louisiana’s only statewide news and culture publication. Born and raised on the banks of the Red River in Alexandria, he is a proud product of the Louisiana public education system and a graduate of Rice University in Houston and SMU’s Dedman School of Law in Dallas. Lamar has been writing about politics and public policy in Louisiana for twenty years, beginning as a weekly youth columnist for his hometown paper, the Town Talk. After earning his undergraduate degree in English and Religious Studies, Lamar moved back to Alexandria, where he launched a popular blogsite, CenLamar, and worked for five years as the Special Assistant to the Mayor. He exposed significant problems with Louisiana’s school voucher program, which resulted in a series of other investigations and ultimately in the removal of several schools from the program. He was the last person to argue online with Andrew Breitbart. He investigated and then broke the report that U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise had once attended a white supremacist conference. He was the first to share a photograph of Bobby Jindal’s portrait in the state Capitol. He exposed U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy’s incomplete timesheets while the then-representative moonlighted as a physician. He earned headlines in Texas after the gubernatorial campaign of Greg Abbott falsely claimed he had been exploited as a “campaign prop” by Abbott’s opponent, Wendy Davis, and after exposing U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s campaign for relying on online “bot farms” to counter Beto O’Rourke, and he earned headlines in Mississippi after publishing videos of U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith making bizarre comments about public hangings and voter suppression tactics which were both perceived as racist. Lamar was the recipient of the 2011 Ashley Morris Award, given to the writer who best exemplifies the spirit of New Orleans, and in 2019, he was honored as one of Gambit’s Top 40 Under 40 and as the year’s Outstanding Millennial in Journalism at the annual Millennial Awards. He has been the subject of profiles in the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, Above the Law, and the Advocate and has appeared multiple times as a guest on CNN and MSNBC. Lamar currently lives in New Orleans with his two golden retrievers, Lucy Ana and Ruby Dog.