BERKELEY (CBS SF) — A suspicious early morning fire set in a trash bin outside a Berkeley church, charring the wall of the building before it was extinguished, was under investigation Thursday by Berkeley police and fire officials.

Authorities said police and fire personnel responded to calls of a fire at The Way Christian Center, located in the 1300 block of University Way, at 12:43 a.m. on Wednesday.

When officers arrived, they learned that an unknown suspect set a plastic trash bin on fire in the rear parking lot of the building. According to the witness, the suspect was seen standing over the fire and then walking away eastbound on University Ave.

Pastor Michael McBride, who leads the LIVE FREE gun violence prevention campaign and who co-founded the Black Church PAC, said the church had just hung a Black Lives Matter banner on the outside of the building just hours before the fire.

Church leaders said the timing is suspicious and that it points to a hate crime. They are pressuring the police department to investigate it as such.

McBride complained of not receiving a call from police, and said he received an early morning call from one of his ministers informing him of the fire.

“But we know that this is a historical legacy of intimidation. Certainly of negligence and timid responses by city leaders and others,” said McBride. “Too many of these coincidences happen in the black people over the last 400 years of our sojourn in this country. Too many coincidences.”

Police have classified the incident as an arson investigation and not a hate crime.

“For decades church fires were used as a means of terrorizing Black clergy and the Black community. I guess in Berkeley, it’s not something worthy of special attention by law enforcement officials,” McBride said in a prepared statement. “Regardless of the intentions of the suspect, we will not be silenced or intimidated. Were it not for an alert and courageous neighbor, my entire church could have been burned to the ground.”

Officers searched the area for a suspect, but did not anyone. The suspect was described as a person of unknown race/age person (possibly male), wearing a tan poncho/jacket with reflective material.

If anyone has any information about this arson, please call BPD’s Property Crimes Unit at (510) 981-5737.

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