The death of David Buckel, a prominent gay rights attorney in New York City, made waves a couple of weeks ago after he self-immolated at Prospect Park in New York City. His death received major attention for a few reasons: his death occurred in a populated area with heavy foot traffic (making it inherently public) and he had a clearly stated goal in his “suicide” letter, asking people to fight against the destruction of the environment.
His act was covered by all of the major news outlets, including the New York Times, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune.
While Buckel’s self-immolation is unique via circumstance, the choice of the flame itself is not that rare to the rest of the world and has even occurred in America a handful of times the past few years.
But these deaths often go unnoticed.
To begin, an uptick in self-immolations has occurred over the past decade. In Tunisia and much of North Africa, self-immolation became an en vogue form of protest in 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi infamously self-immolated on a Tunisian street corner to protest the police harassing him and confiscating his wages. Many experts claim Bouazizi’s death ignited the Arab Spring and sparked copycat self-immolations across the region. Similarly, in 2016, a young Iranian refugee self-immolated in Australia’s detention center, Narau, after he failed to seek asylum to Australia, which caused a national uproar in the country. However the nucleus of these self-immolations resides in Tibet, where there have been over 150 self-immolations since 2011 to protest the Chinese government’s rule over Tibet’s autonomy.
If you take all these numbers together, on average, a person has self-immolated as protest every 15 days globally between 2009-2016.
While a few of these self-immolations materialized in America over this past decade, they have not received the same attention as their international brethren.
For instance, in January 2017, a man attempted self-immolation outside the Trump Hotel in Washington in D.C. While he didn’t die, many news outlets failed to emphasize his act as protest. Similarly, an elderly man in Ohio lit himself on fire in Akron to protest then President-elect Trump but did not receive much news coverage outside of local media. Outside of these recent Trump protests, a white preacher, Charles Moore, lit himself on fire in 2014 as a way to protest racism in his hometown of Grand Saline, TX (my hometown), but his death did not garner limited national coverage until a month after the fact because people were quick to label him as “crazy.” (As a means to preserve his memory, I recently produced a documentary, titled Man on Fire, with director Joel Fendelman, that attempts to better understand why he found his fate in the flames and how Grand Saline reacted to his death.)
But do people even know about these self-immolations? It seems we can find coverage about self-immolations in Tibet, Tunisia, and India in major U.S. news publications and understand the reasons behind their deaths, but the discourse surrounding self-immolations in America focuses more on mental health than anything else.
We often don’t differentiate between suicide and suicide as protest in America, which dramatically alters the discourse surrounding these acts. While others regions across the globe see value in giving up one’s life as a means to help others, a form of solidarity, or an act of transcendence, in America, we more likely to dismiss such as acts as “crazy.”
In the research I conducted for my dissertation, Preaching behind the Fiery Pulpit: Rhetoric, Self-Immolation, and Public Memory, and the documentary “Man on Fire,” I found that labeling a self-immolation as an extension of someone being “crazy” often occurs because we as a society believe that one’s life in America is too valuable for any cause or social issue. Though many of us look to the regimes in other countries and see self-immolation as a medium for oppressed peoples to gain a voice, we assume America’s problems cannot be that bad–or could not be perceived as that bad in relation to the rest of the world. That’s why when stories like Buckel’s death garner headlines, the issues at the core of the self-immolation, such as environmental concerns, racism, and Trump’s presidency, never produce a national conversation: We believe none of these problems could ever warrant someone killing themselves.
In light of Buckel’s death, we need to reconsider how we talk about self-immolations in America. Those who choose the flame don’t often have histories of mental illness (which is too easy of an argument and too dismissive of the act anyways). They usually embody a national pain or important cause, and their deaths deserve more than sensationalized headlines and undeveloped commentary about mental illness.
In the case of Moore’s death in Grand Saline, he was quickly referred to as a “Madman or Martyr?” in the news and issues of racism in town never became the focal point in local and regional coverage. Why not reframe this conversation and question what heinous of acts of racism drove this man to light himself on fire? While the headlines surrounding Buckel’s self-immolation have been more empathetic, we still need more of a conversation around environmental destruction and how societal stagnation compelled Buckel to react. The impulse to delegitimize is easy, but if we ever want to come to terms with self-immolation as protest, to better understand what is captivating people to choose the flame around the globe, we have to reframe these conversations to look at self-immolators as products of an environment, not people who are “insane.”
Timothy Dickinson, a scholar based in Washington D.C., once noted on self-immolation: “Fire is the most dreaded of all forms of death…The sight of someone setting themselves on fire is simultaneously an assertion of intolerability and, frankly, of moral superiority….It’s not that [the self-immolator] is trying to tell me something, but that he’s commanding me.”
Instead of moving back to commonplace arguments against those who self-immolate, let’s allow their symbolic deaths to command us–to listen and reflect on the pain endured literally and figuratively–so that these deaths receive the attention they brutally deserve.