This morning, I was paging through the local Democrat and Chronicle, when I noticed a small article at the bottom of page 4, that is, the backside of page 3. The article said that a man had poured a can of gasoline over his clothes and set himself on fire in the grassy mall in the center of the Capital District in Washington DC, near the White House, the Capital building and the Lincoln Memorial. Passers-by put the fire out and called an ambulance. He was air lifted to a hospital where he later died.
When I was a teenager, Buddhist monks in Vietnam self immolated on the steps of the temple to let the world know how they felt about the war. At the time, the act seemed pretty desperate, or maybe kind of magical. The monk would sit in meditation as his body burned away. Who could do such a thing? In the context of my adult understanding of certain meditation practices, the monk may have had some pretty serious training for his moment in flames, and believed that he would return to a new life with some good karma that might translate into improved prospects for himself and his country.
A few years ago, a street vendor in Tunisia doused himself in gasoline and lit the match to protest his desperate economic situation. This event, we are told, was the beginning of the so called Arab Spring. He was lionized as a shahid, a martyr, as people took to the streets in a revolutionary protest, following this catastrophic act of revolutionary fervor. Every discussion of the ‘Arab Spring’ revolution began with a tribute to this intrepid revolutionary. I thought of the monks in Vietnam so many years ago when I first heard the story, their still forms, like the Buddha himself, unmoving as the flames consumed them. Later, I read somewhere that the desperate Tunisian street vendor had run down the street in flames, screaming in agony. Perhaps he wasn’t trying to be a hero, or maybe he just had no idea of what he was buying into when he lit that match.
Despite the fact that the United States is currently on hard times, with high unemployment and increasing inflation, the self immolation of a man in the center of the capital was empty. No message was heard;; no protesters flooded the streets; few people know of the event and fewer have shown any interest. There is no information about why the man went to the public mall in the center of the nations Capital to visit such a terrible fate on himself, nor any information about him whatsoever except that he had self immolated on the plaza. There were people there. We know because they used their cell phones to call an ambulance. But if he had a message, they weren’t listening.
How different our perspective is here, when a violent act of frustration occurs in our own central space. The only times I have ever walked the mall in DC have been during political protests. One can only speculate, but it might seem that this man’s choice of a location for his flaming suicide might indicate that it was a sacrifice with a message. We may never know. If we do find out that his action was a protest against conditions many of us can relate to, war, poverty, joblessness in a thankless society where you are either on the bus, or off the bus, will we be encouraged to take our own stand? Will we take the signal to resist, or will we shake our heads and pull up our collars to resist the wind as we trudge off into the sunset?
——— Update ——————
It seems that the gentleman, who remains nameless has died. His story remains in the shadows, but one source has taken the trouble to cover it. Carl Gibson writes, on Reader Supported News, that before setting himself on fire, the man set up a tripod of sorts in front of him, and made a speech about Voting Rights. And it isn’t like no one noticed at the time. Men took their shirts off and tried to put out the flames.
But all the same, there is no mention of Voting Rights in the minimal coverage of this event in the mainstream news, and so far, disenfranchised black voters from the deep south have not converged on the mall to demand better access.