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San Antonio activists mourn Aaron Bushnell, others denounce self-immolation as form of protest

Grassroots organizations, including one that Aaron Bushnell reportedly belonged to, hosted a vigil March 2 for Bushnell, a San Antonio-based member of the U.S. Air Force who self-immolated last month to protest the Palestinian “genocide.”

San Antonio Collective Care (SACC) and the San Antonio Democratic Socialists of America shared invitations for the candlelight vigil, which took place at San Pedro Springs Park in front of the San Antonio Public Theater on social media. 

Organizers said Bushnell was a member of the SACC, a community organization that gathers and distributes aid to homeless people. Bushnell declared he would “no longer be complicit in genocide,” before dousing himself in a flammable liquid and setting himself on fire in front of the Israeli embassy in Washington D.C. on Feb. 25. Bushnell succumbed to the injuries sustained during the extreme act of protest and died later that night. He was 25 years old.

Following the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on southern Israel, 30,000 people have been killed in Gaza as of Feb. 29, the Palestinian Health Ministry reports; Israeli officials report at least 242 Israeli soldiers have been killed since the start of the ground invasion of Gaza. 

Alansa Delgado, a history student at Texas A&M University-San Antonio, said she found out about the event through Snapchat and decided to attend the vigil “to support Aaron.”

“He had such a strong connection to San Antonio. I think that what he did was brave and it took courage to go out there and support Palestine when so many people aren’t,” Delgado said. “He took the most extreme measure.”

Bushnell’s LinkedIn page says he had been working in San Antonio since the end of 2020. At the time of his death, Bushnell was a DevOps Engineer with the Air Force.

People who said they knew Bushnell on a personal level spoke at the vigil. 

One of the speakers who went by “Moon” said Bushnell was steadfast, principled and strong-willed.

“He taught me so much about how to build my position and the importance of building your own position,” Moon said. “I love Aaron. He was my friend and comrade. Do not forget his message.”

Members of the SACC chose to use pseudonyms or give their first name only in order to remain anonymous. The group’s Instagram account features images of members and other individuals with their faces blurred providing food and aid to homeless people in the community.

Armando Menagarcia, an Air Force veteran, didn’t know Bushnell personally, but shared a few words with the crowd saying Bushnell courageously, albeit tragically, lost his life in the line of duty.

“But this was different than all the stories I’d heard before about soldiers dying for our country. Aaron Bushnell wasn’t killed by insurgents in a foreign land he gave his life for the truth,” Menagarcia said. “He took that uniform seriously.”

Hundreds attended the vigil; many lit candles in honor of Bushnell while others brought flowers. One woman, who declined to be interviewed or named, brought postcards for attendees to write messages for the deceased service member.

Incense burned, Palestinian music played and pictures of Bushnell hung on makeshift tapestries around the park. 

But not all viewed Bushnell’s extreme actions as an effective or practical form of political protest. 

Despite its history in the realm of political protest, self-immolation is considered by many as an effect of mental illness and a cry for help, as seen on the San Antonio Express News’ Instagram post sharing its coverage of the event and in other spheres online.

Instagram user @theshow5150 commented that Bushnell was not a hero, and denounced Bushnell’s supporters.

“To set yourself on fire isn’t an act of bravery. It was a cry for help. All those people are encouraging mental illness,” the comment read.

One New York Post headline read “Reckless lefties celebrate Aaron Bushnell’s suicide – and don’t care if it prompts copycats.” 

An opinion piece by Brad Polumbo warned readers about the danger of glorifying Bushnell and his actions.

“Other troubled, mentally distressed young people could see Bushnell receiving this adoration and be pushed to take their own lives in a similar manner,wrote Polumbu. 

The city of San Antonio is in a “Friendship City” agreement with Tel Aviv, Israel. Despite several protests demanding for San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg to denounce Israel for its war on Gaza and call for a ceasefire, Nirenberg continues to stand by the friendship city pact. 

During an Oct. 12 city council meeting, Nirenberg introduced a proclamation denouncing “Hamas terrorists’ acts of war” and calling for a “peaceful, just resolution.”

“Elizabeth,” another community activist and speaker at the vigil, said she met Aaron through the SACC and wanted mourners to know Burnell’s final fiery moments were not the sum total of his life.

“Aaron was a very silly guy,” Elizabeth said, describing his community involvement and the moments that they spent together as friends. “Aaron had a wild imagination for something better.”

About the Author

Xochilt Garcia
Editor in Chief
Xochilt Garcia is a junior at Texas A&M University-San Antonio majoring in communications. In her downtime Xochilt enjoys reading anything she can get her hands on and listening to music in all forms. Xochilt hopes to become a full-time reporter, traveling and bringing light to the stories that matter to the community.

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