Vigils held across US for airman Aaron Bushnell who self-immolated against genocide in Gaza

Vigils held across US for airman Aaron Bushnell who self-immolated against genocide in Gaza
In cities across the US, vigils were held to honour a US airman who died after lighting himself on fire in protest of US support for Israel's war on Gaza.
5 min read
Washington, DC
27 February, 2024
Vigils for Aaron Bushnell, an active-duty service member who took his own life over US support for Israel's war in Gaza, were held across the US on Monday. [Brooke Anderson/The New Arab]

In cities across the US on Monday evening, vigils were held to honour the life of a US service member, Aaron Bushnell, who died after lighting himself on fire the previous day in front of the Israeli embassy in Washington in an act of protest against the US government's support for Israel's war on Gaza.

On Sunday, Bushnell, a 25-year-old member of the US Air Force, filmed himself wearing his military fatigues as he walked in front of the Israeli embassy, firmly declaring why he was there and that he was about to engage in an extreme act of protest.

"I am an active-duty member of the United States Airforce, and I will no longer be complicit in genocide," he said. "I'm about to engage in an extreme act of protest. But compared to what people have been experiencing in Palestine at the hands of their colonisers, it's not extreme at all. This is what our ruling class has decided will be normal."

He then doused himself in flammable fluid and lit himself on fire as he uttered his final words, repeatedly yelling "Free Palestine" before collapsing engulfed in flames.

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As he was burning alive, an officer could be seen aiming his gun at Bushnell, while another could be heard in the background yelling that they needed a fire extinguisher, not a gun. The image of a man pointing a gun at someone in the midst of taking his own life quickly became a symbol of the brutality Bushnell was protesting and then experienced in his final seconds.

Shortly after the news was reported of the young airman's name, identity and background, people were organising vigils in front of Israeli missions and on street corners. One of the main organisers was the women-led anti-war group CODEPINK.

"I felt like we needed to respond to the self-immolation of Aaron Bushnell, a 25-year-old active-duty service member who lit himself on fire in front of the Israeli embassy," Cynthia Papermaster, an organiser with CODEPINK, told The New Arab, her voice shaking. "He said he could no longer be complicit in genocide and Israel carrying out a genocide with our tax dollars. It was too much for him, and it is for me too."

Unlike many other gatherings in protest of the war on Gaza over the past five months, Monday's vigils were eerily quiet, with the occasional words spoken quietly, often through tears. 

"His act of self-immolation yesterday is very hard to face. Every time I think about it, my entire body comes out in chills. And I understand that his act is an act of heroism and comes from the deep wound that being complicit in genocide leaves on all of us. And that's why he did this act that is horrific," Tarnel Abbott, a union activist, told TNA as she fought back tears. "I'm here to honour him, to honour his sacrifice."

Mourners left flowers and candles and wrote in chalk on the sidewalks, many expressing their admiration for Bushnell's final act of protest while condemning the US government for its support for Israel's war, which has caused more than 100,000 casualties, including 30,000 Palestinian deaths.

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In front of the Israeli Consulate in San Francisco, messages in chalk included Bushnell's own words from his final act, as well as a widely circulated social media post, his last on Facebook, in which he wrote, "Many of us like to ask ourselves, 'What would I do if I was alive during slavery? Or the Jim Crow South? Or apartheid? What would I do if my country was committing genocide?' The answer is you're doing it. Right now."

Some were already reacting to what they expected would be a narrative of Bushnell having a mental illness as the cause of his self-immolation, with one message reading, "Sane man in an insane world." Another person referred to his military service, writing, "This is the only time I've said, 'Thank you for your service.'"

As the small crowd of around two dozen were gathered around the makeshift memorial, Julian Bermudez, himself a military veteran who served in the US Army, asked if he could do push-ups in front of Bushnell's picture as a symbol of showing respect to a superior in the military. After he finished his square-shouldered push-ups and saluted the picture, the mourners applauded.

"Once the video came out this morning, and I actually saw somebody in a uniform that I would wear every single day — the only difference is the name stitching is a different shade," he told TNA he had to come out to pay his respects. 

"The part that hit me the most was exactly what they drew over there, was a police officer drawing a gun on, basically, me," he said. He referred to the words "support the troops" used by politicians, but he believes they are often empty words.

As someone who went through wartime basic training but wasn't sent abroad, he says he and others like him struggled with having a sense of purpose.

"Finding a purpose is something I've been struggling as a veteran. I know they're struggling to believe in something and being part of that that's oppressing," he said. "That's why I had to leave. As much as I loved the people I was working with, I just didn't like what I was working for. So, I came here mostly because that could've been me. I see myself."