“Why didn’t you ask me if I wanted to come?”
“Well, I didn’t have to. I knew you wouldn’t,” my sister said as she perched on the stairs to double-knot her shoelaces. “I don’t know why you’re making such a big deal out of this. You hate both crowds and rustling people’s feathers. Remember last week when you wrote that strongly worded letter to your school principal? What was it doing in the wastebasket?”
“It had served his purpose,” I said defensively. “Obviously I never intended to send it. Anyway, of course I’m interested. You know that I’m a huge activist for human rights.”
“Do I?” She said, raising an eyebrow. “When was the last time you went to a rally? Or joined a demonstration.”
I bit my lip. Truth be told, It had been a while and Clara knew it.
“Whatever, that doesn’t make me less of an activist. I write letters for Amnesty International all the time,” I take a deep breath. “I’m coming with you.” Not giving her time to reply, I scooped up a nearby hoodie and shrugged it on, shoving my keys in my pockets. I’d have loved the luxury of grabbing my mobile phone and running a hairbrush through my hair, but I knew Clara wouldn’t wait for me. She really was more of a ‘be ready or be left behind’ kind of person.
“Fine. Let’s go,” she said with a twinkle of excitement in her eye. I took a deep breath and closed the door behind me. I guess we were going to a rally.
Okay, as much as I hate to admit it, Clara was right - I hate crowds. It’s just so hard to feel safe in a tightly packed sea of bodies, all squished together like sardines. They smelled a bit like sardines too, or was that just me? I give my armpit a curious sniff. Yep. Definitely me.
Attempting to wiggle into a more spacious spot, I clutched at the corners of my sign and held it above my head. Yep, my arms aren’t getting tired. Not at all. Even so, I was quite proud of my sign - it was the resulting masterpiece of our stop at the sign making station earlier. Clara and I had both spent a good 5 minutes crudely painting messages on white cardboard squares. Now, mine had ‘Black Lives Matter’ printed boldly across it. Clara had opted for the message: ‘We will not stand for oppression. We’ll stand for George Floyd.’ Witty. I wish I could think of something like that.
The past hour or so in the city square had been loud and things didn’t look like they were getting any quieter. A man at the front of the crowd stood on a bench with a megaphone, leading a chant that everyone else echoed back. Part of me wanted to join in, but I couldn’t quite make out the words. Still, I cheered along with my sister and clapped when the crowd did. The police stood back, monitoring the situation from horseback as they glared out at us. Nearby, a man started yelling and pointing at a nearby officer. Unbothered, the officer stared ahead, unfazed.
“You alright there?” asked Clara. It was about the third time she’d asked me that question since we’d arrived and she kept getting the same answer.
“I’m okay!” I said back, raising my voice so she could hear me over the crowd. “Bit claustrophobic.”
“You know I won’t judge you if you want to go home. I know this isn’t really your thing.”
“It is though.” I said, biting my lip. Why did she keep saying that? I cared, I did. Why else would I be here? I cared about this issue and wanted to do whatever I could to make a difference. I was just feeling a bit... woozy, that’s all. “I’m fine, honest. I just need to sit down for a bit. See you soon?”
She nodded kindly and moved back a little so I could squeeze past her. The benches nearby had all been claimed by protesters, standing and screaming into the crowd with endless enthusiasm. I kept moving. Not sure where to go, I wandered through the crowd, looking for a patch of grass or something to sit on. No such luck. Sighing, I reached for my phone to call Clara, but my hands came up empty. Dammit.
That’s when I heard the gunshots.
Silence gripped the crowd with the exception of a single blood-curdling scream. A split second later, the crowd dissolved into a panicked mess of feet and smells and pushing and running movements, dragging me with them. Instinctively, I scanned the crowd for Clara. Nothing. Well, there were lots of things, but none of the right ones. So I ran.
Coward. Yep, that's me. Before succumbing to the long walk home, I stopped to sit for a moment. I was tired. The city was in chaos and I had no idea where my sister had gone. I bent over and pushed the heels of my hands into my eye sockets. Sometimes, in a world that’s so busy, it helps to be still for a moment.
Clara was out there, somewhere, wondering about. I was on the route home, so she should have had to pass by me… unless she’d already gone on ahead.
“Excuse me. Are you okay?”
I looked up. A girl, around my age by the looks of it, was standing over me. She looked a bit uncomfortable, but something else too. Curious? Concerned?
“I’m fine,” I said, a broken record with a new listener.
“Did you come from the protests?” She was looking at my sign, now bent at an odd angle and lying forgotten on the seat next to me.
“I was. I… wanted to help today.” I said, emotion fighting its way up my throat.
“You don’t think you did? I mean, you went didn’t you? That’s a lot more than some people would do. It’s something.”
“I hated it,” I admitted. “I’m not made for stuff like this. The loud or messy or the running away from the gunshots... I’m just not. I wish I was.” I take a deep breath. “I know there are people out there who have it worse than me. I know I’m sitting here, in the best position possible…. with my white privilege and working vocal cords and I want to help. I want to USE them, but I have no idea how. I’m scared, you know, of getting shot or in trouble. I know that’s stupid though because Rosa Parks wasn’t. Martin Luther King wasn’t. Or maybe they were, but they still did what they thought was right. Why should I have the privilege of sitting at home while everyone else marches? Just because I’m scared.”
I plopped my face back into my hands. The girl shifted awkwardly for a moment, then perched herself on the other side of the bench, nudging the sign gently to make space.
“There were gunshots… in town? No one was hurt were they?”
“I don’t know. I hope not,” I said, thinking of Clara. “I really hope not.”
We sat in silence for a while. I wasn’t sure whether it’d be rude to stand up and set off home again. I was about to say goodbye when she turned to me.
“You know, maybe there’s more than one way to protest. I once got arrested in a department store for no reason at all,” she grinned at me. “It was great.”
I laughed, despite myself. “What? Why?”
“Well, they thought I’d been stealing from them, and I had a pack of lightbulbs in my bag that I’d bought elsewhere but didn’t have the receipt for. They insisted I’d taken them, even though they had no proof or a reason to believe I had. Well, nothing except my skin colour.”
“That’s messed up,” I said, shaking my head. “I’m sorry that happened to you.”
“Don’t be. The way my mum told them off when she came to get it made it all worth it. Anyway, the best part was, she didn’t lose her temper, or yell, or scream at them or anything. She didn’t need to. She knew what had happened was wrong and told them so. The next day, she managed to get the regional manager on the phone and made sure she knew exactly what had happened.” She smiled at the memory. “I don’t think protests always need to be loud. Don’t get me wrong, I think being loud is important too. It’s great that the world is finally waking up. People who’ve never faced discrimination a day in their lives are finally raising their voice for people like me. But we all have a voice, no matter how quiet. It seems to me that you’ve gotta find yours, that’s all.”
I smiled at her. Her words were kind, and she did have a point. Perhaps there was another way I could help.
“I write letters sometimes. To my MP, you know, about issues in the community and stuff. He usually writes back. He’s a pretty great guy.”
“That’s amazing,” she said smiling again. “I didn’t even know we could do that. Maybe I could write one too? What kind of things do you tell him about?”
“Oh loads of stuff,” I said, getting excited. “I've written about anything from the refugee crisis to the broken lamp posts on my street. That’s a small thing, I know, but I still think it’s important. If only because it makes walking home at night that little bit more stressful.”
“Well, maybe we could meet at the library sometime and you can show me how it’s done.”
“I’d love that,” I said, and meant it. “By the way, thank you for the chat. It’s helped.”
“No worries. Hey, maybe this was my moment of activism for the day.” She said, striking a superhero pose. “Helping you discover the fight was in you all along.”
I laughed. It was nice to talk to someone who understood, and I'd even made a new friend. We switched numbers and said goodbye. The walk home was long, but made immediately better when I saw Clara sitting on the steps up to our flat.
“THERE you are!” She said, glaring. “I’ve only been worried sick. Did you hear those gunshots? I was calling and calling, but of course you left your phone at home like an idiot.”
I shut her up with a hug, a big one. It was good to be home, but the day was far from over. Because for me, the real activism was only beginning.