The murders of three Muslim Americans, Yusor Abu-Salha, Deah Shaddy Barakat and Razan Abu-Salha, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, may not meet the legal definition of a hate crime, but the killer was surely motivated by more than frustration over a parking space.
When National Public Radio’s StoryCorps visited Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in the summer of 2014, then 20-year-old Yusor Mohammed Abu-Salha accompanied her elementary school teacher to the mobile story booth. In the interview she says, “Growing up in America has been such a blessing.” In spite of standing out because of her hijab that covered her head, she explains, “There’s still so many ways that I feel so embedded in the fabric that is our culture. That’s the beautiful thing here . . . It doesn’t matter where you come from. There’re so many different people from so many different places of different backgrounds and religions. But here we’re all one – one culture.”
Young Yusor Abu-Salha couldn’t have been more wrong. On Tuesday, February 10, 2015, just after 5 pm, she, 23-year-old Deah Shaddy Barakat, whom she had married just six weeks earlier, and her 19-year-old sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha were shot dead in their home, allegedly over a parking spot dispute at their condominium complex. Craig Stephen Hicks, a 46-year-old gun-toting, self-professed atheist, turned himself in to the police for his crime. The Chapel Hill Police Department says that though they do not rule out hate as a motivating factor, their “preliminary investigation indicates that the crime was motivated by an ongoing neighbor dispute over parking. Hicks is cooperating with investigators and more information may be released at a later time.”
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So we collectively wait. Do the deaths of Yusor Abu-Salha, Deah Shaddy Barakat and Razan Abu-Salha meet the legal standards of a hate crime? If not, what does that mean for hate crime statutes in our country? And what sorts of protections against violence can communities of color and other targeted groups expect from the US government?
This was not Craig Hicks’ first interaction with the young Muslim couple. Deah Barakat had complained to friends about being harassed by him about parking, but they believed they had worked it out because Barakat had not spoken again about it. Research shows that hate crimes generally involve serial attacks and harassment, most of which are unreported. As in the case of the Chapel Hill slayings, hate crimes encompass multiple victimizations that escalate over time. Yusor and Razan’s father, Dr. Mohammed Abu-Salha, steadfastly maintains, “This was not a dispute over a parking space; this was a hate crime. This man had picked on my daughter and her husband a couple of times before, and he talked with them with his gun in his belt. And they were uncomfortable with him, but they did not know he would go this far.”
The Chapel Hill Police Department, however, assesses that the deaths are not racially or religiously motivated – and are therefore not a hate crime. From a legal standpoint, they may very well be right. A closer examination of the deaths in Chapel Hill do not map closely onto what is legally understood as a hate crime. The US Department of Justice defines a hate crime as “the violence of intolerance and bigotry, intended to hurt and intimidate someone because of their race, ethnicity, national origin, religious, sexual orientation, or disability.” Because Craig Hicks complained equally about both Christians and Muslims on Facebook, his murderous acts can’t be attributed solely to hate for Muslims.
Hicks held no explicit biases. And he was not overtly bigoted; such extreme emotions are attributed to individuals sporting Nazi tattoos on their arms, professing affiliation with supremacist groups, spewing out hate speech, and inciting harassment and collective violence against individuals belonging to targeted groups. Instead, he is posited as a reasonable guy, an average hard-working American who strongly believed in his Second Amendment right to bear arms. His soon-to-be ex-wife, Karen Hicks, says that her husband “champions the rights of others,” and the killings “had nothing to do with religion or the victims’ faith.” The killings, in her opinion, were “related to long-standing parking disputes my husband had with various neighbors regardless of their race, religion or creed.” Her divorce attorney, Robert Maitland, concurs that, “It was a simple matter . . . It has nothing to do with the religious faith of the victims, it has nothing to do with terrorism, it has nothing to do with anything but the mundane issue of this man being frustrated day-in and day-out with not being able to park where he wanted to park.”
Yet, Hicks has had other parking conflicts. His various neighbors at the condominium complex even speak of his anger at the various real or imagined infractions of which he accused them. Why had Hicks’ prior conflicts with non-Muslim neighbors not led to their deaths? Maitland alleges that Craig Hicks has mental health issues, yet why do his ostensible mental health issues manifest as murderous intent against three young Muslim Americans, and not anyone else?
Samantha Maness, a neighbor, reveals that Hicks was “unfriendly to a lot of people” in their community, and that he displayed “equal opportunity anger.” Yet, we are unable to explain that in spite of his equal opportunity anger, where he lashed out at everyone, Hicks decided to shoot three young Muslim Americans in the head, killing them execution-style, in their home.
Craig Hicks is not a hater in the eyes of the law. In one of his Facebook posts, he says he is “not gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, pansexual, intersex, or asexual,” but he is a supporter of “this crazy thought that everyone should have equal rights.” Yet a mere parking dispute, Hicks’ right to a parking spot, led to him shooting three young Muslim Americans in their heads. As long as the content of the law focuses on overt acts of demonstrable discrimination and not the effects of discrimination, as long as we accept the circulation of hateful speech and overt biases in the media and everyday conversations, and as long as we posit all members of a group, specifically Muslims, to be inferior simply because of their faith, we will continue to remain puzzled as to why someone like Craig Hicks, who ostensibly stands “for the rights of many individuals, for same-sex marriages, abortion, race” will shoot point-blank, execution-style, one young Muslim American man and two young Muslim American women, all unarmed, in their own home.
The Mohammed Abu-Salha sisters’ and Deah Barakat’s deaths are not hate crimes by law. But given the images and speech that circulate about Muslims in general and the systematic derogation of the Islamic religion, cultures and peoples, what happened in Chapel Hill on February 10, 2015, is not just a mundane issue of a man being frustrated by not being able to park his car where he wanted either.