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Our Three Winners, Eight Years Later

Halfway through Asian American/Pacific Islander Heritage Month, some thoughts about a Tar Heel tragedy that feels to have been overshadowed

Our Three Winners Foundation

Author’s note: I wrote this in February, but it was already a little late for an anniversary-type post so we didn’t publish it. Now that it’s AAPI Heritage Month, it seems relevant again. Accordingly, some references to “today” and “recently” are applicable to this past February rather than when you’re reading this article.

I was a sophomore at UNC in February of 2015. I wasn’t writing for this site yet, and while I know that this is true of basically any 27-year old talking about when they were 19, I truly had absolutely zero clue that I’d be who, what, and where I am today. Getting to the point — I, along with most of my fellow Tar Heel undergrads, knew Coach Dean Smith through history rather than through experience — he retired from coaching when I was not quite 2 years old, so I never watched his teams play but certainly did understand what he meant to the teams I did get to watch, and the culture I’d happily enmeshed myself into.

By the time I’d started college, Coach Smith wasn’t making public appearances anymore. He was reported to be struggling with a kind of dementia (I don’t think the specifics were ever made public) and when Roy Williams or somebody else brought him up, it was clear that they — and we — were on the verge of losing him. When we did, on the 7th of that February, it was extremely tragic, and we as a campus and I as an individual mourned the way you do for somebody who’s a part of you without you being a part of them. But — and I want to be clear that I don’t say this to minimize the event or anybody’s feelings after it — it wasn’t a shock. Rather, it was an outsized reminder of that part of the human life cycle we are constantly trying to forget.

Around this time every year since, through social media, broadcast commentary, and written coverage, Smith is eulogized as part of the job for people who write and talk about Tar Heel basketball and culture, as he absolutely should be. But this article isn’t about him. It’s kind of about me, but mostly it’s about what happened right after, and how and why it’s been left behind. Because three days later, we absolutely were shocked. A couple miles off campus, three young Muslim Americans were shot and killed in their home by a neighbor. It wasn’t an active shooter situation, so it wasn’t the kind of thing that students at UVA and Michigan State have had to go through recently. We learned about it on our phones, or through email, or by word of mouth, as a tragedy rather than as a threat, and then, very quickly, as a political event. The shooter turned himself into the police that day, so he was able to tell his side of the story right away: things had gotten heated over a longstanding argument about parking spaces in the neighborhood. It definitely wasn’t about their brownness or Muslimness, no, absolutely not, at all.

There was a vigil at the Pit, at the center of UNC’s campus, the next day. I went. Deah, Yusor, and Razan’s family members all spoke, but even though their voices were the only ones in the air, there were enough people between them and me that I couldn’t hear what they were saying. Later, I’d read that they talked about how the three of them were lovers, not haters, and that even though they died in an act of hate, we should memorialize them by doing the opposite, by responding to ignorance with care rather than hostility. Immediately afterwards, the shooting was a Big Deal nationally, a tragedy that inspired the establishment of scholarships in their name at N.C. State (where all three had gone for undergrad), donations to Deah’s charity, and Steph Curry to send his family a pair of personalized shoes, and also a flashpoint in the national discourse of hate crimes and Islamophobia. Everywhere I looked, local police, media and the internet commentariat were running interference, trying to dissuade us, especially the Brown and Muslim people among us, from the obvious truth that the three of them were killed for being visibly Muslim, and from the subsequent implication that it couldn’t have been anybody, but it could have been any of us. His Facebook comment history was way more anti-Christian than anti-Muslim, they’d point out; he was a militant atheist in the vein of Bill Maher or The Amazing Atheist, not an Islamophobe! (For the record, both enormous Islamophobes). Some whackjobs really do just get so angry about minor things like parking they’ll shoot somebody, they insisted. “Hate crimes” are barely even a thing, some complained; of course murderers are hateful people, what’s so special about it? Nevertheless, the FBI opened an investigation, and that was more or less all that could be done.

My friends and I talked about it every now and then in the weeks after, about the blurred line in this country between Muslim and Brown and how any explicit threat to one is a threat to both, about me later learning that I was even closer to the victims than I’d thought because I knew some people who’d played basketball with Deah a few times at State, about what it felt like to be planning to move off campus with this shooting in the back of my mind. In the larger context, though, it faded out of visibility, as these things do. The victims’ family members memorialized them as “Our Three Winners,” and that’s how they’ve been remembered since, with the silhouette that’s the cover image for this article usually accompanying those remembrances in annual posts from places like UNC and State’s Muslim Student Associations, and occasionally from the universities themselves. Their deaths became part of a national lineage of anti-Brown violence that August, when a domestic terrorist shot up a Sikh place of worship in Madison. I think I remember UNC leadership saying something about the shooting on the one-year anniversary of it happening.

What I remember a lot more is the kinds of silencing that followed. In the wake of a spate of murders of Black people (I can’t remember if it was Freddie Gray and the victims of Dylann Roof, or Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, and Alton Sterling, or maybe others in a seemingly endless list), the voice of Carolina Fever, a Black man, wrote his email subscribers a thoughtful, emotional letter about how he and other Black people on campus needed overt support from the rest of us, about how scary it was to be Black at that particular moment, and tied that fear to the violence that had happened on campus not long ago. Fever emails, which had previously been bursting with personality, became rote recitations of upcoming sports events immediately after.

At my graduation in 2017, multiple speakers, including the keynote, mentioned that ours was a class that had undergone tragedy, referring, of course, to the passing of Dean Smith. Our Three Winners, and the effects they might have had on our class’ psyche, were left out of that remembrance entirely. I hate so much that to this day, I can’t read or hear or think about Coach Smith’s death, through no fault of his own, without an ugly side feeling of resentment.

In the summer of 2019, four years and change after Our Three Winners were murdered, their killer pleaded guilty to three counts of murder and was sentenced to life in prison. He wasn’t charged with a hate crime, but evidence that came up during his court hearing laid it bare. Chapel Hill’s police chief apologized for his department’s careless rhetoric and refusal to name the murder a hate crime at the time. I don’t know if UNC said anything, internally or externally, at the time, about the closure of the case, or about the continued charitable and community-building work their families had been doing in their name since — Nothing’s on the school’s Instagram, but I know that’s not definitive, and I’m not nearly as plugged in to the school’s communications as I was when I was a student. What I do know is that the larger Tar Heel community has left the event behind nearly entirely. Maybe it’s because only one of the victims was actually enrolled at UNC, and in fact all three of them were State grads, and the community cares more about UNC than about Chapel Hill. Maybe bigger national movements have captured public attention; UNC and North Carolina have certainly been touched by Black Lives Matter and the fight for bodily autonomy. But it’s hard not to feel like it’s not at least a little bit because of their Brownness and Muslimness, especially when, anecdotally, I see a lot more references to Eve Carson’s death six years earlier as a UNC tragedy than to the 2015 shooting.

UNC’s been lucky enough, to my knowledge, to not have had any incidents of interpersonal gun violence or terror on or near campus since then. I don’t have to tell you that they’ve happened steadily on campuses throughout the nation, most recently at Michigan State just the other day, which is part of the reason this has all been pushed back to the forefront of my mind. The conversations around those events are a little different than the one around the Chapel Hill murders; nobody, and probably rightly so, ever talked about Our Three Winners as victims of the Second Amendment. I’m not sure why, then, the two feel connected to me, other than through the simple fact of untimely death. I think it’s more than that, though. All of those tragedies, as little as they seem to ever mean in some respects, become part of the fabric of academic communities. Colleges have enough cultural name power to not get immediately tagged as “that place students were shot” the way that Parkland, Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Uvalde have been. But still, UVA, UC Santa Barbara, UNC Charlotte, Michigan State, and plenty more have made and will make the healing processes from those tragedies part of their identity as institutions. The same has even happened recently at UNC, which now schedules semesterly Wellness Days in response to a space of deaths and attempted deaths by suicide in the fall of 2021. Ultimately, it just saddens me that for Tar Heels, healing from the murder of three Muslim members of the community seems to have been left out of that growth, and if it’s not too late, I’d like for that to change.

The Our Three Winners Foundation, established by the victims’ family members in their name, was created with the mission of helping eliminate systemic bigotry and bias, though I’m not sure how active they’ve been lately as far as activism and programming. You can check them out here. Thanks for reading.