The Boulder, Colorado man who set himself on fire in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on Earth Day apparently acted in protest of inaction on climate change.
Wynn Bruce, 50, a climate activist, died Saturday, a day after his actions in front of the nation’s highest court in Washington, D.C. He was airlifted for treatment but did not survive.
Kritee Kanko, who described herself as Bruce’s friend and a Zen Buddhist priest in Boulder, said on Twitter that Bruce’s actions were a planned protest.
“This is a deeply fearless act of compassion to bring attention to climate crisis,” she said in a tweet.
She declined to comment further when reached by The Denver Post on Sunday, saying she needed time to grieve.
However, she told The New York Times she was not completely sure of Bruce’s motivations, the newspaper reported, saying that “people are being driven to extreme amounts of climate grief and despair” and that “what I do not want to happen is that young people start thinking about self-immolation.”
There are indications that Bruce had contemplated this action for some time.
On his Facebook page, Bruce posted in October 2020 about a free educational course about climate change. A year ago, on April 20, 2021, he added a comment to that post: “4-1-1,” an apparent reference to the directory-assistance telephone number people used to call for information.
Then, in October 2021, he added a fire emoji to that comment, according to a publicly visible edit history. Earlier this month, on April 2, Bruce added the date that he would set himself on fire. The final message read: “4-1-1 (fire emoji) 4/22/2022.”
His family did not return requests for comment Sunday.
Bruce, who had lived in Boulder since 2000, identified as Buddhist and had worked as a photographer. He referenced and shared the teachings of Shambhala Buddhism, founded in Boulder, on his Facebook page.
Jessie Friedman, executive director of the Boulder Shambhala Center, did not return a request for comment Sunday. Shambhala International is now based in Canada but maintains deep roots in Boulder.
Brianna Burch, a spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C., said Sunday that, to her knowledge, investigators did not find any sort of manifesto or note with Bruce’s body. She said police were still looking into his motive.
Bruce set himself on fire in an apparent imitation of Vietnamese monks who burned themselves to death in protest during the Vietnam War. His Facebook page commemorated the death of Thich Nhat Hanh, an influential Zen Buddhist master and anti-war activist who died in January.
Thich Nhat Hanh, in a letter he wrote in 1965 to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., had idolized those monks. Kritee cited that letter in another tweet on Bruce’s death Sunday morning.
“The press spoke then of suicide, but in the essence, it is not. It is not even a protest,” Thich Nhat Hanh wrote of the monks, adding that “to burn oneself by fire is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance. There is nothing more painful than burning oneself. To say something while experiencing this kind of pain is to say it with utmost courage, frankness, determination, and sincerity.”
The U.S. Supreme Court had heard arguments in late February on an important environmental case that could restrict or even eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to control pollution. The court’s conservative majority had voiced skepticism of the agency’s authority to regulate carbon emissions, suggesting that a decision by the justices could deal a sharp blow to the Biden administration’s efforts to address climate change.
Bruce’s Facebook page frequently spoke of climate change activism, as well as Buddhism.
Kritee told The New York Times that the last time Bruce had communicated with her was in a Facebook message he had sent in January, asking if she had seen his post praising climate activist Greta Thunberg.
She added that if she or any other Buddhist teacher in Boulder had known of his plan to set himself on fire, they would have discouraged him from doing so.
There have been previous instances of public self-immolation over climate change. David Buckel, a prominent civil rights lawyer turned environmental advocate, set himself on fire in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park in 2018 to protest climate change and died. In a letter beforehand, Buckel alluded to the spiritual roots of self-immolation in protests, including in Tibet.
And in Washington, Arnav Gupta burned himself in front of the White House in 2019 and later died of his injuries. A motive, in that case, was never determined. Mohamed Alanssi, a Yemeni-born FBI informant, set himself on fire outside the White House in 2004 in protest of his treatment by the government, but he survived. Norman R. Morrison, a Quaker man, burned himself to death outside the Pentagon in 1965 in protest of the Vietnam War.