A white man with a gun and a grievance

A white man with a gun and a grievance
Comment: The Chapel Hill shootings look to have been a hate crime one way or another. Arab and Muslim Americans hope they may shine a spotlight on what they see is a frenzy of anti-Muslim fervour in America.
7 min read
16 Feb, 2015
Chapel Hill protests have spread around the world... here from Gaza (Anadolu)

It was just after 5 pm on Tuesday, 10 February 2015, when two women called 911 to report multiple gunshots and screams echoing through a condominium complex in a quiet Chapel Hill neighbourhood.


In the chilling 911 tape, the dispatcher asks how many shots the woman heard. She responds: "multiple gunshots; at least five or ten." Then she tells the dispatcher about hearing screams to which the dispatcher asks what kind of screams? Screaming words or what? The (young) woman says "just screaming; from multiple voices."


     Was Hicks annoyed by his neighbour’s intrusion...or a bigot who loathed all Muslims.

The dispatcher assures the woman on the phone that the police will be on their way, and sure enough they were. But by the time they arrived to a neighbourhood that is also home to the University of North Carolina, UNC – a renowned academic institution with a decent basketball team - three people lay dead, each executed with a bullet to the head.


They were a newlywed couple, Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, a dental student at the UNC, his wife Yusor Abu Salha, 21, recently also accepted into the UNC’s dental school, and Yusor’s younger sister, Razan Abu Salha, 19, another UNC student. All three were born in America and of Palestinian background. Deah was tall and lanky, at 6 feet 3 inches. The women both wore hijabs.

Multi-faceted controversy

A neighbour of the slain victims, a middle-aged white man, Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, went missing for a while, then turned himself in and was placed under arrest. He would then be charged with three counts of murder. The police said the shootings appeared to have been motivated by "an ongoing neighbour dispute over parking", but that they were investigating whether religious hatred had been a motivation.


The heinous murders would soon spark a multifaceted controversy. Was Hicks, the self-proclaimed atheist who – we are told – hated all monotheistic religions equally, annoyed by his neighbour’s intrusion, be it on a parking spot or the occasional loud noise in the quiet neighbourhood? Or was he a bigot who loathed all Muslims, especially those transplanted across the hallway infringing upon the purity of his race? Was the media purposely missing in action by its tardiness in reporting the crime? Was it too willing to abandon its traditional affinity for sensational news because the victims were quickly identified as Muslim and the perpetrator a white, middle-aged man? Or were they exercising a kind of cautious professionalism, lest they stir unnecessary outrage?


US President Barack Obama would finally break his silence late Friday, 72 hours after the crime had been committed. He issued a reserved and implicit condemnation of the killings, telling Americans that the “FBI opened an inquiry into the brutal and outrageous murders of Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, Deah Shaddy Barakat, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. In addition to the ongoing investigation by local authorities, the FBI is taking steps to determine whether federal laws were violated."

Police in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, say they’re investigating the role racial hatred might have played. But they’re also saying the 46-year-old white man had a history of fights over a parking space with the victims, suggesting the murders might have been a question of extreme road rage.


Hicks’ social media posts paint a picture of an ardent atheist, who equally mocked Muslims and Christians, an avid defender of the American constitution’s separation of church and state, and a gun nut who posted pictures of his handgun. Neighbours described Hicks as someone who “always seemed angry and frequently confronted his neighbours". Even "his ex-wife said he was obsessed with the shooting rampage movie Falling Down (1993)and showed "no compassion at all" according to an Associated Press story.


The Wall Street Journal quoted the father of two of the victims, Yusor and Razan Abu Salha. "This man was hateful. He was picking fights, knocking on their door." The WSJ also said Hicks obsessively called tow truck companies to have his neighbours’ cars towed, and once even met tow truck drivers in the street waving a gun.


The victims, from left to right: Deah, Yusor and Razan

In an email sent by Yousef Abu Salha, the older brother of Yusor and Razan to my colleague and friend Abdelhamid Siyam, (who kindly shared with me for publication) said: "The crime was indeed a hate crime full of terror. That's evident by the brutal way they were taken. In the weeks prior, my dearest sweetest Yusor complained about Hicks and she was terrified of him. She knew she was hated because of the way she dressed and looked. The reason for that being that Deah lived at the same condominium for close to two years before Yusor moved in. During that time, Deah never complained about Hicks."

A hate crime, this way or that

AlterNet News says it best. It says, "We can safely say that Craig Hicks fits the profile of the most common type of domestic violent extremist — a white man with grievances and guns. Whether Hicks was provoked by road rage, rage against neighbours who wore traditional Muslim clothing, or other simmering grudges and pathologies, his alleged killing of three young Muslims underscores a trend that mainstream US media avoids: that the face of violent extremism in America since 9/11 is predominantly white. Muslims in America, while not exempt from crime, simply do not compare."


So, no matter how you turn it, the killing of three American students of Arab and Muslim background, and whose Americanness seems to have been lost on the media, domestic or foreign, is a hate crime, even if an argument begun over a parking space – which is unlikely.


Cynthia Greenlee, an African American writer and a former Chapel Hill residents puts it this way, "The point they miss is that the rationale for Hicks’s rampage need not amount to an either/or. It’s not hate crime or parking dispute. Parking disputes are rarely just about occupying one asphalt rectangle. Fights over space — whether in subways or suburban neighbourhoods — are more often contests about privilege: Who gets to be in this space? Who dictates the use and control of the space? And what happens when people who aren't like some pre-determined and over determined notion of what constitutes "us" gets in our space? A parking crunch — and I acknowledge the rancour that can come when fences have not made good neighbours — did not pull the trigger. A man did, a man we know, at the very least, to have a measure of antipathy toward the religious of all faiths. Of the three people he shot, execution-style, all were observant Muslims and two were women who wore a style of headscarf that made that clear."


Alas, hate crimes are hard to prove and even harder to prosecute. The reason according to experts, is that prosecutors have to get into someone’s mind at the time a crime was committed and prove to a jury not that someone perhaps hated but that "hate" was the motive. The most plausible way for this to happen is if Hicks comes out and confesses, in sound mind and beyond reasonable doubt, that he intentionally and wilfully killed Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu Salha and Razan Abu Salha because they were Muslim. That isn’t likely.


Hicks will likely be convicted of murder in the first degree. He may be sentenced to death or sentenced to life imprisonment. We don’t know. In the days and weeks to come, we will more than likely begin to learn bit by bit what the police are learning from Hicks who, so far as we know, hasn’t pleaded or issued a statement.


Muslim Americans feel a sense of overwhelming injustice and foreboding fear. They want to prove that the crime was motivated by hate; that there is an anti-Muslim frenzy in the country fuelled by films like 'American Sniper' and the 24 hour news-cycle that has painted them all as extremists and terrorist sympathizers.


Without exception, everyone I spoke with from the Arab and Muslim community said the same thing. Imagine if things were reversed; the murderer was a Muslim and the victims were Christian or Jewish? The crime would be called terrorism and the community would pay the price.


They are probably right.