Episode 4: Breakfast Conversations

May 5, 2016

Was the Chapel Hill Shooting a parking dispute or a hate crime? In this episode of Stories with a Heartbeat we talk about apologies and personal connections with two people at the heart of this question, reporter Reema Khrais and Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue.

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Host Will McInerney
Credit Jackson Hall / WUNC

On February 10th, 2015 Deah Barakat, his wife Yusor Abu-Salha, and her sister Razan Abu-Salha were murdered in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. All three young American-Muslims were shot and killed execution style in their home. Their neighbor, Craig Stephen Hicks, turned himself in, was arrested, and charged with three counts of first-degree murder.

Reporter Reema Khrais
Credit Ghezal Rashid

Two clear narratives started to emerge immediately after the crime. On one hand, family, friends, and community members saw this violent act as a clear hate crime targeting the three young Muslims. Reporter Reema Khrais, a member of the local Muslim community and a reporter covering the story for WUNC, recalls the morning after the murders vividly. 

I was at my family’s house that morning and I remember walking down stairs and my dad was reading the news and he said 'Reema did you hear about this.'

And I remember my brother was over his shoulders also reading the news article. My brother is 13. And I remember my brother asking, 'Baba, why did this happen?' And I remember my dad saying, 'Ahmed, you know some people just don’t like us.'

And I remember my dad saying, "Ahmed, you know some people just don't like us."

But another narrative emerged that morning as well. Chapel Hill Police released their first statement on February 11th and concluded, "Our preliminary investigation indicates that the crime was motivated by an ongoing neighbor dispute over parking."

The news media, locally and globally, stirred up a firestorm. Social media lit up. The phrase “parking dispute” reached its peak Google search status - ever. And it also trended on twitter and Facebook. Muslims and non-Muslims alike, called foul.

A year after making the parking dispute statement, Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue has some reflections, some regrets, and a story to share.

I think what we said was factually correct. But I don’t think we added a lot of value by putting the parking dispute part in there... I really do think that in a tragic way, what was intended to be informative was really hurtful and a distraction.

Chief Blue remembers the morning after the crime vividly as well.

So the morning that statement went out, probably 6:30 in the morning... I talked to my wife a little bit about the content that we would probably put out that morning. And my daughter overheard. My oldest daughter overheard, and she said, 'You can’t say that.' And I said, 'What do you mean?' She said, 'You can’t say that, that sounds terrible.' Well, you know we said it anyway.

"You can't say that, that sounds terrible." Well, you know we said it anyway.

Chief Blue makes it clear, he wishes he had listened to his daughter that morning. A few days after Deah, Yusor, and Razan were killed and their neighbor Craig Hicks was arrested, Chief Blue went to the Barakat’s house where he met with both of the families. He said they were candid. They were angry about the parking dispute comment. They wanted hate crime charges.

Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue
Credit Chris Blue

This is a couple days after the tragedy. It’s raw and unsettled. This conflict has ballooned from a small town murder scene, to a global outcry. But at the end of the day, it boils down to three kids not coming home. Two families with empty chairs around the dinner table. And here they are, sitting across from one another, the police chief and the parents.

After hard conversations that night, Chief Blue said his goodbyes. But before he left, the families gave him a full plate of food to take home. A full plate of food, to take back to his family.

In Islamic culture, even in moments of conflict, you always treat guests and neighbors, with respect and hospitality. 

As the episodes wraps up, host Will McInerney reflects on the complexity of the simple question this episode sought to answer; why did this happen?

Parking or hate?

Before a crime takes place, it rests in the mind.

A thought is a seed in a field of potential.

Actions are rooted.

Motive is water.

Motive is pumping through your veins.

So who poisoned the well?

Was it parking or hate?

Does a crime’s name even matter?

Is the result all the same?

Does motive have a rolodex of aliases these days?

Is parking dispute just a pen name?

Is hate a ghost author?

Is Islamophobia committing identity theft?

Did parking dispute fall on the sword?

Motive masked in doubt, the truth, locked behind closed doors.

Did they die for a slab of concrete?

Will we ever know?

Motive is the water.

But who poisoned the well?

Parking or hate?

Who poisoned the well?

Who's still drinking?

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Music on Stories with a Heartbeat is created by Stephen Levitin aka Apple Juice Kid.