Before I even get into this subject, I feel the need to make it known that these thoughts and opinions are purely based off of my personal experience living in the Paris metropolitan area during the terror attacks that occurred last week. In no way am I a political expert or trying to push my opinions upon anyone. But this is an incredibly unique time to be living in France right now and I felt like it was worth sharing.
One of the last pieces of advice my father gave me before leaving for Paris last Fall was to stay away from political demonstrations. A witness to the 1968 uprising in Paris and other manifestations in the sixties and seventies, my slightly overprotective but well-meaning father felt it was important to send me off into the world with this precaution. At the time, I said “Of course, Dad,” and kissed him on the cheek before heading off through airport security. And it wasn’t a lie; I had no intentions of getting mixed up in anything of the sort, mostly because I don’t love huge crowds and I have never been particularly politically outspoken.
Then, on January 7, two gunmen entered the satirical magazine headquarters of Charlie Hebdo and killed journalists and policemen, unleashing a series of events that included two hostage situations where members of the Jewish community were killed as well. At first, I was simply shaken to be in geographical proximity to these attacks. Coming from North Carolina, I have never really experienced the fear of being a victim of terrorism. Of course I am old enough to remember 9/11 and I am aware of the violence that seems to preside over people’s action (on both sides of the equation, I might add). But I have always felt far away from this reality, protected only because I happened to be born in the “right” country, under the “right” religion, and with the “right” color skin. Suddenly, however, the thought of “Should I take the train into the city today?” and “Is it safe to ride the metro or should I just walk?” have become real questions. While Parisians have continued on with life more or less as usual, there is a tension lingering in the air.
Then there was the fact that the first victims to be targeted were writers and cartoonists. This struck a nerve for me. Earlier that morning I had just published a blog post, blissfully taking for granted my right of free speech. Once again, the idea that voicing one’s opinion publicly can lead to such violence seemed unfathomable. As some have pointed out, the cartoons that Charlie Hebdo published could be viewed as inflammatory and insensitive during a time of unrest and suspicion between Christians and Muslims. But that was a choice that they made while knowing the risks, one that everyone has the right to protest but not over which to kill. In discussing the issue further with family and friends, I also realized that freedom of speech goes so much deeper than just what comes out of your mouth or what you put down on paper. It encompasses all of who you are and *in theory* protects your right to be yourself without fear of retribution as a result. And whether or not you agree with their approach, I think that’s exactly what the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo tried to show in satirizing those who kill in the name of Muhammad or any other institution.
I wasn’t sure if I was going to go to the demonstration in Paris on Sunday until a couple hours before. Dad’s voice in my head, I worried about how safe it would be to go. But as the time drew closer to the start of la Marche Républicane, I told myself I had to go. I have been fortunate enough to never know what it is like to have my freedom of speech taken away and that is precisely why it was important for me to march on Sunday. Because so many others have died defending that right for me and because others still don’t have that right. Once I made up my mind to go, my anxiety quickly dissipated. At the train station in the suburb of Paris where I live, the platform was full of people with banners and “Je suis Charlie” pins on their coats. At each stop on the twenty-minute ride into Paris, the train kept filling up with people until every seat and standing room were occupied. As we filed out of the train at la Gare St. Lazare, it seemed as if the entire crowd had the same purpose as opposed to rushing off in a million directions as usual. I knew the general direction I needed to take in order to make my way to Place de la Rebulique, where the march was to begin, but I soon found that no map was necessary, as I fell into step with those around me until we all converged onto Boulevard Haussmann and headed east. Haussmann turned into Boulevard Montmartre and then into Boulevard Poissonière. There were families with young children, students, old people, people on crutches, people of all different nationalities and religions, people hanging out of windows along the boulevard. The weather was on our side as we walked block after block until finally we could no longer move forward at Porte Saint-Denis. Only about half a mile away from Place de la République, the cheers and songs passed through the crowd like a wave of sound. “La Marseillaise” rang out punctured by moments of silence and applause.
I don’t know how else to describe it other than incredible and historical. Over 1.5 million people marched in the streets of Paris and I got to be a part of it. To go from witnessing hatred’s capacity to twist the human spirit to experiencing humanity’s greatest qualities of lifting one another up in times of sorrow in less than a week was a powerful testament to what we are all capable of, depending on the path we choose to take. Now that the agitation of the rally has passed, the question has become where do we go from here? When tragedies such as these occur, people come together and leaders make promises but they never seem to dig deeper and challenge the very systems that are in place that make it so that an entire sector of the population feels isolated and oppressed. On Sunday I experienced one of the most empowering moments of my life but its meaning will become tainted overtime if we, as citizens, and our leaders fail to really question what parts of our society lend themselves to such dividing violence. Somewhere along the line, whether within society or their own culture, maybe those three men also felt like they had lost their right to freely express who they were too.