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Aaron Bushnell. Free Palestine.

kp. A story We All Need to Hear.

By Proud ViM ProductionsPublished 2 months ago Updated 2 months ago 6 min read

A feature piece by kp:

Having asked the incredibly talented kp if they would be willing to write a feature, carte blanche we felt that the story they share needs to be heard. What we recieved was stark, powerful and utterly horrifying. Resultingly, we've interrupted the rather loose 'schedule' because some things are just more important.

In the process of publication, another piece by River Joy paid tribute and homage to the very same selfless man, Aaron Bushnell, you can read it here:


Self-immolation has long been a useful, albeit final, tool in the activist’s arsenal, used to send a message in the most desperate of times. It has a robust political history, one which often goes overlooked. From Buddhist monks, military personnel, journalists, environmentalists, and everyday citizens, protest suicide has served as an essential means to raise social awareness of political issues. Thích Nhat Hanh said, “To burn oneself by fire is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance.” While others may vehemently disagree with this course of action– maybe justifiably so– I’m afraid I must draw the line at slandering this calculated and often only viable choice that people have made. From Alice Herz, on a street corner in Detroit, near my home of Ypsilanti, protesting the Vietnam war, to Thích Quang Duc himself in busy downtown Saigon protesting the U.S.-backed Vietnamese persecution of the Buddhists, we must see this act as a viable political statement of utmost importance.

The dogmatic narrative around protest suicides diverges once the identity of the protestor is released. A person is said to be either mentally ill or a terrorist based on the country they are in and the color of their skin. The Tibetan monks and nuns who self-immolate to protest Chinese domination of Tibet and the ongoing cultural genocide there are called terrorists by the government. “Terrorism in disguise.” In Western countries, we’re more likely to discredit the protest by questioning the sanity of the individual actor. Mental health is a popular topic of conversation when such immolations occur in the United States, for example. The “despair” and “depression” of the individual are spoken of as if they existed in a vacuum. The isolation and depoliticization of these feelings involved in the protestor's decision-making process are how the media strips the act of its affective power.

The narrative will differ from country to country. The Western world will report protest suicides in rival countries more authentically, highlighting the act as a protest against some egregious human rights violation the government of that country is perpetuating. In contrast, a protest in a Western country will be interrogated, doubted, and mocked if it is reported on at all.

On February 25th, the world was perhaps shocked to hear about the self-immolation of a young, 25-year-old Aaron Bushnell. Video of the act, live-streamed on Twitch, circulated quickly. If you haven’t seen it yet, I’ll spare you the abject horror and tell you his final words, words screamed in agony as many times as he could in the seconds it took his combat fatigues and body to ignite and collapse, “Free Palestine. Free Palestine. Free Palestine.”

It haunts me. Aaron spoke confidently and moved purposefully as he positioned himself at the embassy gates. Even as he died, his resolution was apparent: he would not stop crying out for the end to the genocide in Gaza until the last breath left his body. He would not be complicit in ethnic cleansing.

What I find most distressing, however, is the quickness with which the Western media has attempted its usual work to erase the protest’s purpose. It is, yet again, gaslighting the masses, as if a video of the entire event isn’t making its rounds on the internet, as if the clarity of Aaron’s speech and purpose isn’t abundantly clear, as if his face isn’t seared into our collective consciousness and his final words still ringing in our ears. Headlines do not mention why this man lit himself on fire outside the Israeli Embassy in D.C. They initially stated a man “allegedly” set himself on fire despite the video evidence. If you read further into the subject, you find phrases like “he called the Israel-Hamas war a ‘genocide,’” a sort of dog-whistle to those who consider such beliefs terroristic. There are ample articles and comments meant to call his mental health and background/beliefs as an anarchist into question as well.

We know such rhetoric means to invalidate the act and delegitimatize the person doing it. It attempts to lead us to believe that there is moral ambiguity about what has been happening in Palestine. We are meant to read these articles and come away feeling as though this single radical actor was misguided and alone in their psychotic attempt at being heard. It was simply a desperate cry for help. We pathologize and don’t derive any real political value or meaning from it—a hollow cry into an indifferent void. Lather, rinse, repeat.

However, we must acknowledge the truths which Aaron knew he could exploit. His act will receive more attention than similar ones before him because he live-streamed it and ensured it was shared widely, but also because of his social positionality. He was a cis-straight, white, able-bodied, military man, so we know his name, unlike the “unidentified woman,” draped in a Palestinian flag, who did the same thing in December outside the Israeli Embassy in Atlanta. We may never know who she was. We know his message was derived from his experience serving in the Air Force, the act itself potentially spurred by the intel he had access to in the 531st Intelligence Squadron. We also know that his willingness to sacrifice his life for a cause he believed in didn’t stem from mental illness– he was in the military, after all, an institution that lauds people who die for their country.

Aaron was an agent of a genocidal state who ultimately chose an act of protest that we often only see from the most oppressed in our societies. He chose to draw attention to a genocide that our government is currently supporting, providing weaponry to, and funding. This fact seems a clear indication of how our country, culture, and politics fail everybody, not just the dispossessed. Even from a position of privilege and power, he felt self-immolation was nothing compared to “what people have been experiencing in Palestine at the hands of their colonizers.” He was willing to wield the privilege of his positionality one last time by surrendering it entirely. This event also highlights the unwillingness of the masses to contend with the truth that Aaron offered us. It is easier to say he was depressed and mentally unwell and that the depression he experienced existed independent of his political context. This disservice disrespects not only the act but also the people for whom the act was done.

Aaron died for Palestine. Not because he was anti-American. Not because he was depressed. Not because he wanted to die. He wanted a life in a world that didn’t defy his values and was willing to die for his morals to be known. It is possibly one of the bravest and most selfless things a person can do. No matter how it is received here in the U.S., his act will be remembered by those resisting imperialism around the world. A white man, living in the belly of the beast, died to bring awareness and change to these murderous regimes. That offering is one of hope. One which I believe will grow. We must nurture it, though, and never forget the sacrifices of those who believed so fervently in freedom for each of us that they offered their lives as a wake-up call.

Rest in power, Aaron Bushnell. Free Palestine.


About the Creator

Proud ViM Productions

Alone, we are letters floating in the wind. Combined, we are an Opus. We hold community in our core, "We all rise when we lift each other up"

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Comments (5)

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  • PJ Watts2 months ago

    Thank you for writing this - for being so compassionate and yet measured. It is such mess, as Caroline said. What's happening will be measured in shame and horror for generations to come.

  • Caroline Craven2 months ago

    Excellent article. I was in D.C. on Sunday and was shocked to hear about this. I hope Aaron is at peace. What a bloody awful mess we’re in.

  • Bullies and dictators are always condoned and accommodated and the innocent pay the price. Excellent article

  • Oneg In The Arctic2 months ago

    I really appreciate this feature and that the conversation is being shared and carried on Vocal. I hope that Aaron's actions will have at least shaken those who feel that the genocide in Palestine (among other countries, like Sudan, DR Congo, etc.) is not so removed from their reality and lives. May his actions cause a ripple effect in those who have yet to stand up and speak out about these horrific events and histories of erasure.

  • River Joy2 months ago

    This was emotional and highly informative. Well done. there aren't many words for this, I think you did it well

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