National Beat Reporter
Three young students were shot dead by a neighbor in their apartment near the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Feb. 10. The death of these students has sparked a flurry of investigations and debates over whether or not the killing was an anti-Muslim hate crime, and has put the news media’s representation of Muslims under a microscope.
Local authorities received 911 calls from neighbors who said they had heard multiple gunshots fired and screams coming from the condominium complex in the quiet Finley Forest neighborhood, about a mile and a half from the main campus.
The victims were Deah Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister Razan Abu-Salha, 19. The victims were Muslims of Arab descent and were regarded by friends and family as model citizens with high achievements who regularly volunteered in their communities.
Barakat was a student at the UNC Graduate School of Dentistry. During his time there, he was involved in a project that gave free dental care supplies to the homeless in nearby Raleigh and Durham. He was planning on traveling to Turkey to provide much-needed dental care to Syrian refugees of the Syrian Civil War. His wife, Yusor, planned on attending the same school later this year.
Razan was an undergrad at North Carolina State University, where the newlyweds Deah and Yusor had also completed their undergraduate education.
Craig Stephen Hicks, their neighbor and former car parts salesmen, was studying to be a paralegal at Durham Technical Community College. Later that Tuesday, he turned himself in to the police, taking responsibility for the murder of the three students. The 46-year-old has been indicted by a grand jury on three counts of murder and one count of discharging a firearm into an occupied dwelling.
According to a statement by the Chapel Hill Police Department, the initial police investigation showed that the shooting resulted from “an ongoing neighbor dispute over parking” and that they were investigating whether the shooting was motivated by anti-Muslim sentiment.
While the victims’ families describe the shooting as a hate crime, the U.S. Attorney for the region claimed that the dispute was over parking and that the murder was “not part of a targeted campaign against Muslims”. These two conflicting claims have sparked a major backlash in social and news media over whether or not the death of these three students was an anti-Muslim hate crime.
Dr. Mohammad Abu-Salha, father of Yusor and Razan, said in a television interview, “With the media bombarding every American every day with news about what they call Islamic terrorism, none of which is Islamic at all, they are really preparing people for such tragedies and triggering them and provoking them.” Abu-Salha also claimed that his daughter, Yusor, had told him that a neighbor with a gun on his belt had been harassing them over parking.
Social media even took to using the hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter, echoing the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag that grew popular in the aftermath of the cases of police brutality in Ferguson and New York. The families of the victims asked supporters to stop using the hashtag and to adopt the hashtag #OurThreeWinners, fearing that #MuslimLivesMatter reappropriated the rallying cry that started trending after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. Like in Ferguson, accusations began to arise about the news media’s role in shaping the way the public reacts to crimes against Muslims.
Hicks seemed to have a history of disliking and criticizing religion in general, aligning himself with atheism or anti-theism, as evidenced by his posts on social media. Karen Hicks, Hicks’s wife, insisted in a news conference that her husband was not a bigot and that he believed in equality, even supporting issues like gay rights and abortion. Those who argue that the shooting was not a hate crime have used Hicks’s anti-theist beliefs to support their claims that the dispute was simply about parking and was not motivated by hate towards Muslims.
According to the Associated Press, the police found “an arsenal of a dozen firearms… and a large stash of ammunition” in Hicks’s home during a search. Four handguns were found in Hicks’s home “in addition to a pistol the suspect had with him when arrested. The warrants also list two shotguns and seven rifles, including a military-style AR-15 carbine. Police also recovered numerous loaded magazines and cases of ammunition.”
The U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division launched an investigation into the murder. The U.S. Attorney’s office for North Carolina and the FBI have also opened similar investigations. These investigations will help determine Hicks’s motive for committing these murders, whether the shooting can be considered a hate crime, and whether any civil rights were violated in the process.
The day after the shooting, thousands gathered at UNC Chapel Hill’s central plaza known as “the Pit” in a silent show of solidarity for the deceased and their families.
President Obama called the death of the three students “brutal and outrageous”. “As we saw with the overwhelming presence at the funeral of these young Americans, we are all one American family,” the President said in a statement. “Whenever anyone is taken from us before their time, we remember how they lived their lives – and the words of one of the victims should inspire the way we live ours.”
Obama quoted Yusor Abu-Salha from a StoryCorps radio interview in which she talked with her former third grade teacher and discussed growing up as a Muslim in the U.S. “Growing up in America has been such a blessing,” Yusor said. “It doesn’t matter where you come from. There’s so many different people from so many different places, of different backgrounds and religions – but here, we’re all one.”