Aaron Bushnell’s Self-Immolation Was A Hard But Important Story To Tell

Lifestyle

Sunday afternoon, I opened Twitter to see a report circulating that “someone attempted to set themselves on fire” outside the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C. I reposted that report and noted that this is second such incident to occur (information about the first, in Atlanta, Georgia, in December 2023 remains largely unknown), and wrote that, generally, self-immolation is an “extremely rare, extremely disturbing form of protest whereby a person commits to end their life as a final act of desperation for their cause.” Soon after, I received a message from an editor at Atlanta Community Press Collective with a link to a Twitch channel. “Here’s the video,” he wrote. “We aren’t releasing it yet.”

I clicked. It was immediately clear that current reported statements were soft-shoeing what happened, and that dissemination of fact was urgently needed. Watching the footage, my brain became a piece of Velcro pulling away from reality. I took a deep breath and proceeded to do the job, as comprehensively and sensitively as I could.

I’ve covered a lot of protests in my time as an independent reporter, most not even garnering local coverage and some instantly historic, like the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. I’ve covered dozens of protests for Palestinian liberation, both before and since October 2023. I’ve documented (and experienced) extremist violence. I’ve been arrested while operating as press. Twice. As an indie, I am my own editor, fact-checker, cameraman, video editor, licensing desk, tips line, and researcher. It’s a lot to carry on a good day.

Reporters who received Bushnell’s email before the livestream were reeling, understandably so. A researcher sent me Bushnell’s LinkedIn, at the time unconfirmed, and said there had been intense collective efforts to locate him and intervene, unsuccessfully. Reporters who watched events unfold live were too shaken to proceed.

There are plenty of media guides and examinations about best practices for reporting graphic content. There is nothing about how to navigate the scrambled fog your brain becomes after witnessing a man burn himself alive. To watch him choke on the smoke of his own flesh to scream “Free Palestine” until he no longer can, to watch him stand at attention, silent, before finally collapsing, only his charred leg visible on screen — and then to try to ethically and comprehensively report what is clearly a major breaking story, absent institutional support to help gather, process, and publish information. As my brain spun, I operated on reflex, a mechanical series of choices. Screen record the video. Screenshot the channel. Archive the LinkedIn. Find a way to communicate a massive action in the fewest possible words. Select a photo, not too graphic, verifying it all.

I got to work reporting the specifics in lieu of posting the video, as I’ve done in the past, to offer people an alternative to consuming highly graphic content: Aaron Bushnell’s exact words and tone while speaking them. The type of container he carried his accelerant — I couldn’t find the word “thermos” and struggled to find the words “water bottle” for a long time, the sound of the metal clanging and rolling down the embassy’s driveway so loud in my mind I couldn’t hear my own thoughts. I checked timestamps to note how long it took for officers who were present to provide aid (61 seconds). I transcribed their statements, now seared in my brain (“I don’t need guns, I need fire extinguishers!”). The world dissolved around me, leaving only the work of reporting it out. Most people call it tunnel-vision. It feels more like being one of the cows in the tornado from Twister, a million things flying around and just bracing for impact as long as it takes to report out the story.

The public response was jarring: Early reactions were normal, shock and horror. But then I began getting flooded by people badgering me to post the video (many of the demands callously just wanted gore) some accusing me of suppressing news I broke to repress a movement. One person called me a “Deep State piece of shit” for not immediately posting the video, and then called me a “hack” for providing only a blurred version — the most I could ethically do, and even that was a step further than any major media outlet. The flood carried to emails, where people made all sorts of claims about why they needed the video. Multiple people claimed to be students working on a paper, which makes no sense. Friendly queries unanswered turned into follow-up insults. I removed my email from my Twitter bio and the cascade slowed to a trickle.

Provocative news stories always bring out the crazy, as people cope with difficult reality by writing more comforting fiction and opportunistic figures try to profit from that need for answers. Conspiracies swirled about the incident, some accusing me of involvement, of filming it and lying about the livestream, or claiming that the incident was fake. I wish it was fake! I wish a young man with the world ahead of him was not dead, that his family and friends were not heartbroken and traumatized, that Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024 was a boring day where nothing happened.

Amid this flurry, I was receiving DMs and emails from reporters requesting the footage to verify it, requiring me to sift through the muck to make sure I didn’t miss any. I probably did. Before the Twitch channel was taken down, I sent the link to a reporter at the New York Times to verify the authenticity of the incident and my reporting. They did not cite me in their reporting, probably for the best. CBS, CNN, Al Jazeera, and other outlets requested as well. I spent hours writing the same email: It’s unclear if his family has been notified. The footage can’t be released yet because he says his name at the start, and that is also unconfirmed. The ignition begins at 1:29. If you do not need to watch the remainder, I strongly advise you stop there. WeTransfer incoming.

I debated publishing the footage, worried about sensationalism versus pragmatism. I spoke with other reporters, who determined it was newsworthy. I spoke with Aaron’s close friends, who determined that because it was Aaron’s expressed wish for it to be published, it should be. It was decided by Aaron’s community that if the most I could reasonably post contained a blur, it should be posted. I posted the video fifteen minutes after Aaron Bushnell succumbed to his injuries, and half an hour before his loved ones learned he had.

Bushnell emailed multiple alternative news outlets, including Atlanta Community Press Collective, with a link to the Twitch channel and an announcement that he would be partaking in an “extreme act of protest against the genocide of the Palestinian people.” Some didn’t see the email until it was too late. Others did, and worked tirelessly with researchers to identify, locate, and stop whatever he meant by an “extreme act of protest.” I hope people know how hard they worked to intervene — and how severely it shattered them that they couldn’t. In spite of that, I’m still baffled that I became the one to carry this story forward. I hope those reporters and researchers know I was working to do justice to the story on their behalf, holding them with me as they grappled with the unimaginable shock of witnessing, in real time, what he meant.

Critics eager to denigrate Bushnell’s action claim Bushnell’s self-immolation will inspire “copycats,” inaccurately dismissing the most extreme form of political protest as just suicide. They insist, detached from reality, that those in mourning are “glorifying suicide.” That “no one will remember” his protest, which “does nothing” and is merely a result of “mental illness.” These are voices who have panned pro-Palestine protests, crowing their absurd claims that sitting in the road to call for a ceasefire is “terrorism” and opposing mass death is “antisemitic.” It’s almost laughably ignorant, seemingly desperate to delegitimize Bushnell’s action and, in so doing, the overall movement for which he did it. Liberatory movements are never so shallow as to be guided by the lazy dismissals from selfish detractors, and the Palestinian liberation movement is no exception. It’s plainly absurd to suggest Bushnell will inspire more people to burn themselves alive: The political framework he contributed to is driven by a desire to improve social well-being. The communities that surround that framework are simply heartbroken by this loss. The denigrations-as-distraction are just more of the same marginal white noise that has always hovered around the pro-Palestine movement.

After breaking news of Bushnell’s death, social media flooded with expressions of love and mourning for him, the name “Aaron Bushnell” a top trending term on Twitter for a full day. People sent me images of their art and poems they made for him. Activists are doubling down on calls for a permanent ceasefire and end to Israeli occupation, invoking Bushnell’s name to demand his death not be in vain. Vigils are sprouting up across the country. The movement is rife with immeasurable pain, not glorification. A movement of people drawn together by empathy is collectively heartbroken. Heartbreak breeds compassion, and compassion has been a core motivator of the protests for a free Palestine.

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On Tuesday night, I went to Times Square where a vigil was held for Bushnell outside a U.S. Armed Forces recruitment center, inherently a protest against the building and the wars it facilitates. Hundreds gathered in the heavy downpour, seemingly unbothered by the rain. It felt like an anarchist’s winking sabotage in the vein of Joe Hill’s “Don’t mourn, organize!” I lingered for a long time after the soggy attendees trudged back home, desperately trying to take photos and video better than my skills allow, wishing to capture every facet of the scene before it was inevitably swept up by Times Square Alliance workers. A lot of passersby, more than I expected, stopped to take in the vigil, read its messages, and upright fallen plastic candles.

It was overwhelming to take in on its own: A 25-year old — beloved, intelligent, kind, and thoughtful — now gone. A sign reading “I will no longer be complicit in genocide” collected rain drops between bouquets of flowers. My head swirled thinking about how my reporting contributed to this vigil. In response to the facts of the situation presented plainly, hundreds of people stood together in the pouring rain to mourn a man they never met, whose message they heard in his own voice before any outlet considered airing any of it. I wish I could freeze the vigil, shrink it down and keep it in my pocket, carrying it with me everywhere I go. A totem of the pain that comes from truth denied, and the responsibility of reporters to fight against that denial by any means necessary.

Read original source here.

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