Wednesday night, I gathered with thousands for a vigil to honor the lives of three young Muslims who were murdered by their White neighbor, allegedly over a parking spot. We assembled somberly in “The Pit” at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill where 23-year old Deah Shaddy Barakat was enrolled in the dentistry school. A newlywed of less than 7 weeks, his 21-year old wife Yusor Mohammad was set to join him at UNC in the fall. Her 19-year old sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, was a student at North Carolina State University.
“Was,” as in past tense. At dinner time the day before, each were shot in the head, execution-style by their 46-year old neighbor Craig Stephen Hicks. According to family members, Hicks behaved aggressively towards them in the past, sometimes with the butt of his gun positioned visibly above his belt line. No one thought he would go this far.
Amid the candles, that’s what Muslim family and friends murmured ever-so-quietly, still in shock: no one thought he would go this far. Embedded in this statement is a sense of desperate optimism and a reality check, a true barometer of how much hatred Muslims in America endure regularly.
Indeed, anti-Islamic sentiments are growing quite loud, especially here in the South.The day of the UNC vigil many kept their children home from school, concerned that the murders were a part of a larger plot. Just an hour down the road at my alma mater Wake Forest University, a single White alumnus has been leading an aggressive campaign against Imam Khalid Griggs, a Black man who was named the Associate Chaplain for Muslim Life in 2010. Said alumnus has inappropriately mass emailed other alums calling for a donor boycott because he believes that Griggs is a “radical jihadist.” In January, Duke University (Durham, North Carolina), cancelled plans to broadcast a Muslim call to prayer from the university chapel, caving to threats of violence and backlash that conflated a sacred act of worship with promoting recent terrorist attacks that happened overseas.
The night of the vigil, I could not help but to feel vulnerable being at such a large gathering with my Islamic brothers and sisters.
Hicks’ wife held a press conference the day after the murders, insisting that her husband killed their neighbors, over a parking dispute. She wants us to believe this is no hate crime, as if murdering someone half your size and half your age, in an apartment complex that offers ample parking is somehow more loving than to have simply murdered them because you’re a bigot.
His Facebook posts indicate otherwise. A self-avowed atheist who was rumored to have mental health issues, among his more innocuous shares are cute animals; among his more ominous, boastful photos of his gun and judgmental statements that critiqued multiple religions, but especially Islam. In the tradition of their people, Yusor and Razan wore Muslim head wraps. They told their parents that Hicks disliked them for who they were and what they looked like.
While mainstream media may be hesitant to call this a “hate crime,” as Black people we know all the formulaic components of state-sanctioned violence – an expansive media campaign that mischaracterizes one group of people as evil and worthy of retribution, based upon the isolated actions of a much smaller group; a willingness among law enforcement and media to simplify the resulting acts of violence as merely circumstantial and to disconnect those acts from any larger world view that targets and dehumanizes the person or people who have been violenced.
As a Queer Black Indian woman, I must tell you: these things are connected. Anti-muslim rhetoric and terrorism comes from the same dark, vicious caverns that aim to subjugate Blacks, Latino/as, LGBTQ people, women – in other words anyone who is not White and male. And, lest we forget, many of us who are Black, are also Muslim.
Now that they are gone, media seems overly invested in proving to us that Deah, Yusor and Razan were stellar human beings, with heavy-handed emphasis on explaining them as American citizens who happen to be Muslim, a justification for why we should pay attention — this time — instead of dismissing them as valueless in the ways we are otherwise encouraged to disregard the humanity of Muslim people.
By all accounts, these young people were winning at life. Friends refer to them as angels, and lament plans that will never come to be – first marathons, basketball games, and study groups. Deah and Yusor collected dental supplies for local homeless communities and had recently raised thousands of dollars for dental interventions in Syria, their homeland.
Less than 24 hours after the vigil, all three have been laid to rest in Raleigh, three bright lights snuffed out, simply for being alive and having made the mistake of believing that human kindness would intercede and spare their lives. It did not.
In this era of hyper-aggressive White supremacy, during this resurgence of terrorist agency against Black and Brown people, expressed through brutal physical, spiritual and psychological attacks, I am left wondering what we will do to protect one another from those who feel so threatened by our desire to breathe/dream/love/overcome the overwhelming odds that White supremacy and patriarchy perpetuate, that they will unapologetically murder us for being alive, and for no other reason, but for being alive.
What will we do to protect one another? What will we do?