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Protesters at NYC vigil hope Aaron Bushnell's death inspires moral reckoning on Gaza

Attendees of the vigil said Bushnell's death was a call to action to demand that no more lives are lost in the war on Gaza
Hundreds stood in the rain to pay homage to Aaron Bushnell at a vigil in New York City, on 27 February 2024 (Azad Essa/MEE)
By Azad Essa in New York City

The extreme act of protest and self-sacrifice by a US air man who set himself alight last weekend outside the Israeli embassy in Washington DC was a call for all people of conscience to take direct action to end Washington's support for Israel's "genocidal" war on Palestinians in Gaza

This was the call from protesters and observers at a New York City vigil outside the US Army Recruiting Office in Times Square on Tuesday night, where hundreds of people paid homage to Aaron Bushnell, who self-immolated in protest against the US's role in the ongoing war in Gaza.

The war on Gaza has now killed nearly 30,000 Palestinians, maimed and injured tens of thousands of others, and left an entire population on the verge of starvation.

The 25-year-old officer — who reportedly served in the US Air Force’s 70th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing - said on a livestream moments before he set himself on fire - that he refused to be complicit in genocide. He yelled "Free Palestine" as he was being engulfed by flames.

Bushnell died from his injuries later on Sunday.

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Under the bright lights of the digital billboards of Times Square and the unrelenting rain, protesters and observers huddled under umbrellas draped in keffiyehs and ponchos, held candles and chanted for a ceasefire and an end to the occupation of Palestine. 

Organisers unfurled a long banner of the names of tens of thousands of Palestinians killed since 7 October, along with flowers and a photograph of Bushnell, at the foot of the US Army recruiting office, as a contingent of NYPD police in riot gear watched on. 

Protesters said they had come to show respect to Bushnell but also demand that no more lives are lost in the genocide. 

Kate Watson, a veteran of the US Airforce, told Middle East Eye that she had come to acknowledge kinship and be part of the communal grief over Bushnell's protest that had led to his death.

She described the incident as a prominent milestone in the fight to end the war on the people of Gaza and that the airforce may actually be quite panicked over Bushnell's actions because it showed they had failed to own both his mind and his body. 

"I think it's an enormous deal. It pains me to say that because on one hand, so many people are dying and it shouldn't take just one white man to die here for people to care about people dying somewhere else. That being said - I hope - My God I hope - it will have an effect," Watson added.

Aaron Bushnell vigil in NYC on 27 February 2024 (MEE/Azad Essa)
Aaron Bushnell vigil in New York City, on 27 February 2024 (Azad Essa/MEE)


The tragic death of Bushnell, protesters said, also showcased a growing wedge between American leadership and its people.

A new poll by Data for Progress released on Tuesday has found that 67 percent of American voters support the call for a permanent ceasefire and a de-escalation of violence in Gaza.

One protester, Angela De Sousa, who held a candle in her right hand and an umbrella in her left, described Bushnell's act as an act of desperation that showed the limits and failures of American leadership.

"We saw this in Vietnam with the Buddhists immolating themselves. It is a very desperate situation," De Sousa said.

"But how does that matter? The world is not listening. The people are listening, but the leaders are not," she added.

De Sousa, a devout Catholic, said that the lack of condemnation from her own local church to the US government, as well as leaders of the Arab world, had left her "disgusted".

Another protester, wrapped in a keffiyeh under a raincoat, described the circumstances around Bushnell's death as "horrifying". 

"But in the words of Aaron Bushnell himself: It is not any more horrifying or extreme than what we in the US and all over the world have borne witness to, for a very long time now. It was horrifying. But I have been seeing horrifying things at a distance and it's been so uncomfortable and I am not even experiencing them," Camille, who asked to be identified only by her first name, said.

Aaron Bushnell vigil in NYC on 27 February 2024 (MEE/Azad Essa)
Protesters held posters and placards and called for a ceasefire in Gaza, on 27 February 2024 in New York City (MEE/Azad Essa)

Since 7 October when the war broke out, there have been countless protests and rallies across New York City. On Saturday, 2 March organisers and activists say they are planning a massive march as part of a global call to action to end the war on Gaza. 

Bushnell's drastic and extreme act of protest has provided further impetus for organisers to mobilise around the city and the country.

Another protester, Eddie, who asked that he be identified only by his first name, said that he hoped that Bushnell's action would influence others in the military and government to speak out.

"Hopefully, this event - as sad as it is - would result in more dissident voices coming out to say something," Eddie told MEE.

As the rain continued to fall and puddles formed all along the corner of West 43rd Street and 7th Avenue, protesters refused to let their determination be dampened by the overwhelming grief and rage of the occasion.

"Maybe there is some optimism in me, that perhaps this incident would broaden the conversation. I mean, as much as the media continues to lie about all things about what is going on, they are kind of forced to reveal some of the truth in just reporting the story, even though the words they choose are still very propagandist," Eddie said.

"But maybe it will emotionally trigger to maybe pay it more mind," Eddie added. 

Others were more resolute that Bushnell's fatal protest had to be the start of a moral reckoning. 

Another protester who would also only offer his first name, Jonathan, carried a placard with Bushnell's final post on social media. "Many of us like to ask ourselves,' What would I do if I was alive during slavery or apartheid? What would I do if my country was committing genocide? The answer is you're doing it, right now," the post read. 

"He said it best. There is nothing else for me to say," Jonathan told MEE.

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