Chapel Hill Murders Are About More Than a Parking Dispute

(Photo / Jenny Warburg)

Mourners at vigil in The Pit at University of North Carolina/ Chapel Hill on February 11, 2015, where the lives of Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Deah Shaddy Barakat, who were killed in Barakat's apartment, allegedly by neighbor Craig Hicks, who shot each of them in the head.


I have three categories of Facebook friends who are, like me, North Carolinians or University of North Carolina alumni.

The first are deeply crushed by the murder of three young Muslim people in Chapel Hill on Tuesday.

The second group is also horrified, but part — if not most — of their horror derives from their dismay that mass murder could occur in their idyllic and upper-class town.

Then there’s the third group whose members are, at best, are in denial; at worst, they’re willfully blind.

For those unfamiliar with the idiosyncrasies of my home state, Chapel Hill is known as a mythically progressive oasis in a red state, and it’s squarely in the Triangle, a region known for its concentration of PhDs and creative-class workers.

I lived not far from Finley Forest, the condo neighborhood that Deah Barakat; his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha; and her sister, Razan, were killed. For seven years of my life, I enjoyed the perks of Chapel Hill life: food co-ops and granola coffee shops; safe and cheap public transportation; balmy weather; and a cohort of young, intellectually curious, and lively people to call my friends.

But my nostalgia for my Chapel Hill years waned considerably when I lived there as a young adult. My partner—a tall, bearded black man with a naturally serious (read: threatening) demeanor—couldn’t walk outside my apartment to enjoy that balmy weather without questioning stares. When a Chapel Hill police officer pulled a gun on us for a routine traffic stop, we didn’t argue. He said we were speeding, but he was the quick one as he drew his weapon the moment he disembarked from his car. I was still wondering if we had a taillight out when he screamed for us to stay in the car and pointed his gun at us. It was an educational moment for me: I grew up among my father’s friends, several of whom were among the first black police officers in my hometown. But it was a wearying repeat for my then-boyfriend, who told me to pipe down when I asked the officer for his badge number.

Perhaps this is the moment that many of my Chapel Hill friends are having: the loss of an illusory community that didn’t exist for many of us. And it may be the first stage of grief: denial that “something like this can happen here” in a place where SAT scores and real-estate prices are high, where, one as one Facebook friend posted, “everyone’s home is your home.” But I no longer felt like Chapel Hill should be my home.

Eventually I moved to Durham, the larger city just down the highway and Chapel Hill’s dark twin—darker in terms of the complexion of its population, and also less idyllic, with more crime and more “inner-city” problems. Polite people say that Durham is “grittier” than Chapel Hill; I remember Chapel Hillians and Durhamites alike acting as if Durham was tantamount to a warzone to be avoided at all costs. But I would never move back to Chapel Hill if someone gave me a key to one of those million-dollar mansions on Franklin Street, the main drag.  

Denial may spring from the deep recesses of the unconscious—a protective mechanism that shields us from harsh realities until our minds can make sense of them—but it also comes from willful blindness. And that’s the distinguishing characteristic of my third group of Facebook friends. That final group insists that we should withhold judgment over the causes of Craig Hicks's mass killing and that, as much of the mainstream media have reported, the shooting was merely the  culmination of a parking conflict. They challenge their Facebook friends to prove that Hicks's fatal action was a hate crime, challenges they couch in terms of rationality, a desire to know all the facts and a belief that the law is the arbiter of fairness.

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 neighborhoods—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 overdetermined notion of what constitutes "us" gets in our space? A parking crunch—and I acknowledge the rancor that can come when fences have not made good neighbors—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.

And the fact that many of my Facebook friends are now doing particularly vigorous mental gymnastics to deny that ethnicity, race, or religious identity might have anything to do with this act of violence speaks loudly to the needs of a dominant culture to see itself as bearing no responsibility for hatred in its midst—even in a town where a black man simply driving down the street invites a potentially deadly encounter with the law. And the insistence that Hick’s anti-religious sentiments and Islamophobia, specifically, may not be a culprit in the killings is especially ludicrous in light of recent events at the University of North Carolina’s nearby rival, Duke University; in January, well-intentioned plans to broadcast the Muslim call to prayer from the campus’s iconic Chapel resulted in a media firestorm largely fueled by conservative Christians and talk radio, threats, and, ultimately, cancellation.

Arbitrarily dismissing North Carolina Muslims’ fears that three young people were killed because they were Muslims does nothing but affirm that Muslim lives don’t matter. Or at least, they don’t matter when we have to dislodge our prejudices and acknowledge that our white-picket-fence towns and our "safe spaces" aren’t safe for everyone.


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