A Vigil for Nabra, on this Longest Day of the Year

On the Summer Solstice, Nabra Hassanen was laid to rest. Close to two thousand people gathered to pay their respects in sweltering heat. It was so oppressive at least three people fainted, and church fans fluttered throughout the crowd. Shuttle buses were deployed to fetch even more people from overflow parking miles away.

A Rabbi, an Imam, friends and family spoke about the unforgettable brilliant light of this young woman. Several people in the crowd and at the podium remarked on the historic proportions of this coming-together. For many of us longtime residents of the area, we struggle to think of any other occasion where people of so many walks of life held space together with such love.

Some were comforted by the hope that her light now shines someplace more beautiful. Though many in the crowd appeared totally dumbstruck by the senseless loss and unspeakable inhumanity of her death.

Nabra’s assault and murder have gotten to me in a way that typical daily violence does not. Something feels different about this, and it’s been keeping me up at night.

Like everyone else, I’m always deeply saddenned to hear about the most recent mass shooting, bombing in Syria, misogynoiristic violence, killings of trans women, or police brutality… But Nabra’s death just feels like a whole new level of shocking.

Many people are, tragically, becoming accustomed to police killings, bombings in Syria, and mass shootings, among other atrocities. Such inhumanity is not normal — but the desensitization is only human. It happens so often that feelings can lock up in response to the trauma — especially for those of us who are most at risk.

To some, it becomes a blur of despair, and the trauma comes at you too fast to recover from the last one, before the next one strikes your heart.

Nabra’s killing is part of a trend of escalating anti-Muslim violence. What feels so different is that a new level has been breached.

A man nearly runs over a group of Muslims, chases her down, sexually assaults her and beats her to death with a baseball bat before dumping her body in a pond.

She was 17 years old.

This is not normal. It is a dark turn. But it is the logical progression of the rise in hate crimes disproportionally targeting Muslim women.

And by all accounts, this is the trend. More frequent violence of more intense brutality, disproportionally targeting women, folks of color, trans people, Latinxs, and Muslims.

To that point, some may argue that there is also a trend of coalition and community building, of intersectional allyship and liberation bound up with each other’s struggle. True.

You might say there’s more, well — togetherness — than ever before among these communities. And you might even argue that such a trend works to undo the other trend of hatred and violence.

I don’t know if that’s true. But after experiencing the vigil tonight, I have a bad feeling. I’m afraid of what happens next.

chalk messages at the vigil

I did walk away feeling moved by the hundreds, or even thousands of people who came together. But I left feeling terrified of what’s to come.

As an empath, I possess a unique sensitivity and intuition about the feelings of others. And today, sharing space with dozens of friends and family of the young woman, the prevailing emotion was that characteristically flat, ice-cold crush of pure shock.

People appeared beside themselves — as in out of their own bodies. Not in hysterical grief, but in a strained daze. Person after person, aside from a few tears here and there, looked like they just emerged from the trenches of a battlefield. Children and adults alike had soldiers’ faces of shock and disbelief. I also felt stunned — suspended from myself.

I’ve been to a few other public gatherings of grieving, memorials for those unjustly and violently killed. There is no one right way to grieve — and there is little precedent guiding people in how to process such a tragedy. Though at some other vigils for those martys of justice, folks usually appear, at least sometimes, rather outraged. It leads a community in catharsis.

The cathartic processing was very different today. It was a deeply reserved pain, carefully protected by a general sense of disbelief.

The question seemed to be, “Did this really happen?”

I imagine that question was on a lot of minds this week. And my fear that I can’t shake is that there will be many more Nabra’s. And then, many people may move from shock and disbelief to being desensitized.

There are daily police killings of people of color, mass drone assasinations of Muslims abroad, weekly murders of trans women, and escalating violence against Muslims in our communities. But we must not lose a sense of outrage.

We must not allow Nabra’s death to become lost in the dizzying blur of savage daily violence. Her brilliant light and love are her legacy, as she reminds us what we stand for — and what is at stake.

If that trend of desensitization continues, and people lose their sense of outrage while outrageous events increase in frequency, then we may surely be lost to a terrifying new way of being. That is precisely how the most horrible things began throughout history.

On this longest day of the year, this is a watershed moment.

If what is unacceptable today becomes tolerated tomorrow, then what will become of us in the 11th hour? What happens when we are faced with a grave situation, like interning communities in camps, or declaring full-scale war?

That would be a very dangerous place to be indeed. The future may be uncertain, but if we can come together more often like we did today, we may yet avoid such a fate.

Please give what you can to help Nabra’s family + community recover. Visit https://www.launchgood.com/project/for_nabra#/
Evin Phoenix is the Founder + Facilitator of Soulspace.io, an Intersectional Feminist Healing Community of Empathy + Empowerment in Washington, DC.