U.S. Air Force Member Self-Immolates In Protest for a Free Palestine: USF Reacts to Aaron Bushnell’s Death 

A vigil for Aaron Bushnell took place on Feb. 26 in the Castro district, a historically queer neighborhood. Alongside images of Aaron Bushnell were images memorializing queer community members, like non-binary student Nex Benedict. Screenshot courtesy of @aroc_bayarea on Instagram.

On Sunday, Feb. 25, Aaron Bushnell, an active duty member of the U.S. Air Force, lit himself on fire in protest, known as self-immolation, for a “free Palestine” in front of the Israeli embassy in Washington D.C.. Livestreaming on Twitch, Bushnell pronounced that he “will no longer be complicit in genocide” before covering himself in flammable liquid and lighting himself on fire. 

Bushnell shouted “Free Palestine” as one Secret Service member pointed his gun at Bushnell’s flaming body before two other individuals extinguished the fire. Bushnell later succumbed to his injuries.

“It’s a really impressive sacrifice, and I think it’s particularly potent because it was from a white man who was part of the U.S. military,” said sophomore critical diversity studies major Aderet Parrino. 

“I think we should absolutely talk about this great act that he did, and at the same time, not let him be the hero of the story, and the main idea isn’t about him. The main idea is the people who are suffering without choosing to,” Parrino continued. “I just hope that, if we really want to honor the reason that he died, the focus shouldn’t be on him, but the reason why he did that. My feelings are mixed about it, not about him, but about people’s reaction to it.”

Self-immolation has been a form of protest since 1963. The Vietnam War, China’s rule of Tibet, corruption within the Tunsian government and climate change have all been previous causes for protest by self-immolation. Before Bushnell, an unidentified woman self-immolated outside of the Israeli consulate in Atlanta, Georgia on Dec. 1, 2023. She was also protesting for a free Palestine.

Professor Oren Kroll-Zeldin, who is the assistant Director of the Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice, said, “Aaron Bushnell is no longer alive, so he can no longer do anything to help. I think any and all forms of nonviolent protest is very useful and very effective, so that means, really, all kinds.”

“In a multi-pronged approach, extreme acts of protest like self-immolation might have an impact,” Kroll-Zeldin continued. “On the other hand, we see that war is ongoing, there is no [permanent] cease-fire, and the self-immolation has certainly sparked conversation, but it has not done anything to bring about an end of war.” 

Kroll-Zeldin, who is also a professor within the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, was not fully surprised by Bushnell’s self-immolation. “The U.S. government has been supplying the Israeli military with a lot of arms and weaponry and support, and it makes a lot of sense for dissenting voices inside the U.S. military to want to protest these decisions.”

Professor Stephen Zunes, a leading U.S. scholar in Middle East policy and nonviolent action, said, “Two thirds of Americans, including [about] 80% of Democrats, support a cease-fire.” His claim is supported by a 2023 poll conducted by Data for Progress. 

Zunes, who is also the founder of USF’s Middle Eastern Studies Program, continued by saying that only 74 members of Congress have called for a ceasefire, which is supported by reporting from the Working Families Party.“That’s an even bigger gap than we’ve had on Iraq, or Vietnam, or Central America, or the nuclear arms race, or Apartheid South Africa. Think of all the foreign policy issues that have inspired protests in the United States. The failure of the system to respond to the will of the American people is such that it contributes to someone doing…such an extreme act. The system has failed,” Zunes said. 

The Foghorn has granted anonymity to a USF graduate student for their safety who provided comment on this issue. They said, “Aaron was literally burning alive in the video when we saw a white police officer pointing a gun at him, as if somehow Aaron is a threat to the officer.” 

“He has power in that he is white. He understood that he would not be called a terrorist. This is why white allyship is important. Unfortunately society’s biases make it more difficult to listen to a person of color,” the student continued. “If he were Black or Arab, would they have shot at him? If he had set himself on fire for any other reason other than Palestine, would they have been pointing a gun at him or mourning him?”

Vigils for Aaron Bushnell have been held in San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose, among other cities across the U.S.. According to Fox KTVU 2, dozens of attendees turned up for the vigil in San Jose, where the conversation quickly shifted to the Biden administration’s failure to call for a ceasefire.

In a speech on Sunday, Mar. 3, Vice President Kamala Harris called for an “immediate ceasefire” in Gaza. She continued, saying “Our hearts break for the victims of that horrific tragedy and for all the innocent people in Gaza who are suffering from what is clearly a humanitarian catastrophe.” According to Harris, the “deal on the table” is a temporary, six-week ceasefire.

Editor-in-Chief: Megan Robertson, Chief Copy Editor: Sophia Seigel, Managing Editor: Jordan Premmer, News Editor: Niki Sedaghat 

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