On the Burden of Proof: Racialized Violence and the Limits of Public Mourning
She was more than just a snapshot you have seen on television, more than just a victim of a terrible crime, more than just a woman in a hijab who apparently inspired anger in a man she hardly knew. She loved and was loved; she cared for others and was cared for by them; she had dreams and ambitions and a laugh that changed things for the better. She was a friend, a daughter, a sister and a wife. She was someone you should’ve known, and someone I am better for having known.
In the days following the tragic murder of her close friend, Rana Odeh composed a public eulogy to honor the life of Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha. I begin with her words because they illustrate courage cultivated by deep love. I also begin with her words because I read her public document as testimony of dehumanization that renders certain bodies unmournable.
I read Odeh’s public eulogy as a document that anticipates the logic that would perceive Abu-Salha as un-American, and therefore unmournable. She articulates the ways that Abu-Salha was “more than” by listing the ways that the public would come to know or see Abu-Salha as first “a snapshot” on the news, then a “victim of a terrible crime” and finally, as “more than just a woman in a hijab who apparently inspired anger in a man she hardly knew.” Her continual return to “more than” reflects a call for the public to recognize Abu-Salha’s complex personhood. Her words are critical because they name the various narratives that would define and thus limit the public’s understanding of Abu-Salha’s life. Significantly, her words make clear that Abu-Salha’s death was inextricably linked to her hijab. She then continues to render Abu-Salha familiar by naming her “friend,” “daughter,” “sister,” and “wife.” This act of public mourning anticipates the narrative that will not otherwise be given to Abu-Salha if not by her family and friends.
On February 10, 2015, the local police department arrived at the Finley Forest Condominiums in Chapel Hill after receiving reports of multiple gunshots. Once there, they found twenty-three-year-old Deah Shaddy Barakat at the entrance with multiple fatal gun wounds. Inside the home, his wife, twenty-one-year-old Yusor Abu-Salha and her younger sister, nineteen-year-old Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha were found with close-range fatal gun wounds to the head. Later that evening, their forty-six-year-old neighbor was taken into custody after turning himself in. The immediate message from the police reflected the confirmed suspect’s version of the event—that the murders were motivated by the usage of a parking spot.
What happened in the immediate days following the murders reveals much about the racialization of Muslim Americans, the construction of narratives by both the state and the media, and the limitations of mourning in America. To allow the suspect to forge the narrative as related to a parking dispute reveals much about the workings of white supremacy. To render the gruesome murders a consequence over a dispute imagines that the three victims participated in the conflict, and by extension, were responsible for provoking the deadly rage that ended their lives. To suggest that their murder was a result of a disagreement over a parking space illustrates a disregard for the daily and deadly vulnerability of Muslim Americans as well as the impossibility of measuring hate when it is so pervasive and so deeply embedded in the quotidian. Finally, to require a grieving family to summon evidence that would prove the violence was motivated by hate reproduces, reopens, and furthers suffering.
In the hours following the murders, Dr. Suzanne Barakat, Deah’s sister, acquired a photograph of the empty parking space to rebuke the constructed narrative of a neighborly dispute. While experiencing unimaginable grief caused by the violent murders of three people she loved dearly, she also fulfilled the role of investigator to prove that the parking spot in question was empty. Like Odeh, Barakat anticipated the refusal to recognize the deadly violence as an act of unprovoked hate. In her grief, Barakat composed herself to issue an interview immediately following the news of the murders. She expressed,
I’m not sure who they spoke to, because it took me all of five minutes of talking to [Deah’s] former roommate, whom they had not reached out to, to give me details, information, text messages….To call it a parking dispute when in fact no one was parked even in that visitor’s spot that does not belong to him, is outrageous to me, and it’s insulting and it trivializes their murders.
She needed to capture the evidence of an empty parking spot to dismantle the narrative that was crafted by the suspect and then circulated by both officials of the state and the media. She anticipated that if not for her labor culling together the “details, information, text messages” their deaths would be ignored. This anticipation that death and the narrative surrounding it will be severely mishandled if not from one’s own labor comes only from the lived experience of being in a body that is marked as other and read as un-American. The burden of performing the labor of locating evidence of emptiness in the hours after the murders of her loved ones illustrates the experience of continually having one’s body speak upon arrival.
In light of the evidence and accounts provided, what can be made of the fact that the suspect was still invited to define the narrative? This man entered the home of his neighbors and killed them senselessly after terrorizing them for months, but was still given the power to dictate the narrative. The attempts to center the narrative around the marked concrete mapping a parking spot is a white supremacist sleight of hand that shifts focus away from the tremendous loss of life. This exhibits how white supremacy operates to assume and claim space. This is how white supremacy maneuvers to then name the victim not as the dead or the murdered but as the one who assumed and claimed that space. This is how the white supremacist desire to manage space becomes deadly.
When considering Barakat’s need to act in these moments of grief, we are left imagine what the world might look like if a family was genuinely given the space and respect and love to mourn a deep loss. In the absence of that space, her acts must be read as a continuation of loss as the possibility of grieving is interrupted by the demand for her labor. The impulse to gather visual evidence assumes that if the emptiness could be photographed then the murders would be, without question, measured as a hate crime. But as Deepa Iyer notes, “The standard of proof to show actual or circumstantial bias on the part of the perpetrator remains high.” Most often, she writes, “Federal prosecutors are unable to bring hate crime charges in a wide range of cases—such as the shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in 2012—because of this high standard of proof.”
A questioning of the need to summon evidence of horrific violence comes from Saidiya Hartman whose choice to “Not reproduce [Frederick] Douglass’s account of the beating of Aunt Hester in order to call attention to the ease with which such scenes are usually reiterated, the casualness with which they are circulated” offers a critical point of entry. Hartman asks, “Are we witnesses who confirm the truth of what happened in the face of the world-destroying capacities of pain?” What is to be confirmed and for whom? Who is being asked to issue testimony? What counts as proof? Even when the visual evidence exists, as David Joselit highlights, there is a “Difference between what an image seems to show and what it can actually do.” Which is to say that there is a critical distinction between evidence and what is accepted by the state as proof of a crime. This distinction reveals much about visuality insofar as there is a determination to not see what bodies who have been violently othered experience on a daily basis. It is important to note that the necessity of naming this gruesome violence a hate crime does not derive from the potential of an increased severity in punishment, but rather from an accounting of racialized and gendered violence that goes undocumented, unmeasured, and unseen.
My citation of Hartman and other influential scholars working in Black Studies comes from a recognition that if we are to talk about gendered and racialized violence against any vulnerable group in America that conversation must draw from the historical specificity of anti-blackness in the US. We cannot talk about the hateful violence as new or post-9/11. Though the circumstances and contexts differ, there is horrific commonality in both the vulnerability of certain bodies and the absence of accountability of white supremacy and anti-blackness. We must address this violence not as distinct or aberrant but as a continuation of what has been occurring to indigenous and black bodies on this soil for centuries.
As the narrative surrounding the murders was quickly and negligently disseminated, the association of the parking spot in relation to the murders was impossible to undo. As William C. Anderson has written, “Media surrounding death and injustice are all around us, and they’re often disseminated in careless practices that are empty in meaning or purpose—or used at odds with the interests of those who are depicted.” More specifically, Anderson argues, “Black people whose lives have been taken become a commons of sorts: their bodies are utilized as rallying points, and also as media commodities. We must be aware that this metamorphosis of their bodies into perdurable tools puts us at risk of desensitizing ourselves to their fatalities.” Though Anderson writes with critical specificity about the unnatural deaths—the killings—of black lives, his writing offers much when discussing the vulnerability of life that has been rendered unmournable. He reminds us how deaths are recorded and documented publicly must begin first with a respect for the unique and complex life of the individual(s).
The Parking Lot in question
Beyond bearing the responsibility to render the dead relatable and photograph the evidence of an empty parking space, we must also contend with the immediate responses by friends and family members who exhibited a call to define the victims as exceptional American citizens. The need to do this—to explain the victims as both exceptional and also distinctly American—highlights the experience of being continually read as un-American as a consequence of one’s ethnic and religious background. Their being both Middle Eastern and Muslim in contemporary America positioned them as always already in a deficit, meaning that they must be proven exemplary to be mourned. As Muslim Americans, their families preemptively recognized that to be considered mournable, they had to be understood as also American first.
In anticipation of the narrative that was to be constructed publicly, the family and friends explained the ways in which the three young students were exceptional so that it would be legible to the public. To be clear—the three young students were role models for their peers as each individually had a record of hard-work, ambition, and a devotion to serving their community. Deah was a student at UNC School of Dentistry, Yusor was a NCSU student studying biological sciences, and Razan was a NCSU student studying architecture and environment design. Each were pursuing careers that placed them in a position to help others. The potential that each of the three individually illustrated to contribute to their communities and beyond in ways that would materially improve the lives of others for the better must be recognized. Their families have followed the aspirations of the three by devoting time and resources to organizations that are centered upon supporting those deeply in need. Simply put, these three individuals exuded the qualities anyone would hope to see in a loved one. Yet this exceptionalism or an imagined Americanness cannot be a prerequisite for mourning.
One year after the shooting, Barakat courageously spoke at TED conference in San Francisco. She began her talk by stating, “Last year, three of my family members were gruesomely murdered in a hate crime. It goes without saying that it’s really difficult for me to be here today, but my brother Deah, his wife Yusor, and her sister Razan don’t give me much of a choice.” Her words remind us that the burdens placed upon a grieving family experiencing unthinkable loss illustrate the relationship between racialization and public mourning in the US as the limited potential for a family to grieve and the degree to which a death is publicly mourned is proof of the racialized injustice that persists.
Allia Ida Griffin earned her Ph.D. in Literature from UCSD and currently teaches in the Ethnic Studies Department at Santa Clara University.