I knew it was just another of Zadie’s crazy ideas. So why didn’t I stop her?
“A peaceful gathering”, she said, her tone light, eyes fixed on her laptop screen. “Nothing big. Just a show of support, you know.”
Maybe I was curious. Or bored.
We were young.
We were reckless.
Zadie and I shared something raw and honest and messy, an instinctive and uncordial bond. Our friend Ezra would always tell us, wryly, that we’d known each other long before we met. I was the realest thing in her adolescent world of angst and uncertainty.
That night I reread a post that had appeared on her blog a few days earlier:
Stop hurling the phrase ‘check your privilege’ at me. Are you aware just how hollow it rings? Contrary to popular opinion, I am neither male nor white – my privilege takes a more ‘external’ form of which I am hyper-aware. Yes, my parents are rich, my country is free, my education is excellent and my shoes are designer, but all is not right in the world, in MY world. Do you think I don’t despair over the violence, oppression and injustice that pervade so many levels of so many societies? Do you think I don’t feel imprisoned by my sheltered existence? Lately, I find myself drowning in bourgeois guilt, shaking with silent rage at the indulgence and ignorance of my peers. Readers, I am constantly, desperately checking my privilege, and it hurts.
“I was drowning in the city heat, the kind that mingled with the exhaust fumes and hung heavy and sour in the evening air. But it seemed to kindle a spark in Zadie.”
We arrived at about nine. It was a sleek, affluent part of London, like Belgravia or Knightsbridge. We turned down a cobbled side-street, littered with wrought-iron tables holding bottles of wine and delicate silverware. Soft music, overlaid with the buzz of equally harmonious conversation, drifted through the open doors of a restaurant.
I looked at Zadie. “Here?”
“Here,”she said, with grim determination.
The street was a cul-de-sac. At the far end was a building blockaded by grey crowd-control barriers. A mic and speakers were set up on the balcony. There were no press, no police, no burning effigies. It all seemed so mundane.
But as the crowds began to gather and the light began to fade, the comfortable air of normality began to fracture.
I was surrounded by attractive twenty-somethings, expensive t-shirts clinging to their damp skin, clutching iPhones and bottles of Evian. They were rowdy in a harmless, apologetic way. But there were others – people in plain, unstylish clothes, sporting sinister black and white masks, carrying protest signs, speaking in low, urgent voices. They pushed to the front of the crowd, pressing themselves against the flimsy railings. There was something restless about them, something that hummed with potential energy.
I flapped my hand in front of my face, attempting to generate a cool breeze. I was drowning in the city heat, the kind that mingled with the exhaust fumes and hung heavy and sour in the evening air. But it seemed to kindle a spark in Zadie. She moved quickly from one group to another, eyes bright, laughing loud, almost bouncing off the walls of the impressive but nondescript buildings that surrounded us. Before long she was grabbing my wrist and dragging me into her new circle of cool student friends.
“This is Victoria, Auden, Kai.” She gestured to a wide-eyed girl with cornrows, a skinny guy in hipster glasses, and a dude in heavy and somewhat melting eye make-up. “They read my blog.”
“I loved your latest post,” said Auden. “It was just so honest. People are so scared to be honest nowadays.”
“This privilege thing, I just, like, I don’t understand”, said Kai, carefully adjusting his jacket so the image of the rock band on his T-shirt was clearly visible. “I mean, like, why should I censor myself just because of who I am? That’s just regressive, you know?”
“You are so right,” said Victoria.
“Exactly,” said Auden, nodding sagely.
I bit my tongue and looked to Zadie, hoping for a non-verbal acknowledgement of these people’s terminal vacuity, but she was making eyes at Auden and gushing “This is great, right? This is what it’s all about. A chance to meet people who actually care, who really believe in what he says and what he does.”
“Absolutely.” said Auden. He flashed a disarming smile at Zadie, who was all but fluttering her eyelashes at him. “We just had to see him speak.”
“It’s like, the government is lying, the media is lying, and that’s why they hate him.” said Kai, attempting to stem the flow of purple eyeliner down his powdered cheek. “They’ve taken his freedom, like, that’s the price of truth, you know?”
“You are so right,” said Victoria.
“Yeah,” went Zadie.
I don’t know why he addressed us from a balcony like Evita bloody Perón. I don’t know why everyone seemed so enthralled. He said a lot of stuff about freedom and democracy and power to the people, but all the while he was looking down on us, his loyal subjects. There was an air of righteousness about the whole thing; it felt hollow. He was like a teacher reading an Aesop’s fable, attempting to instil some morals into a class of unruly children.
Then the clock struck ten – it might as well have been thirteen– and all hell broke loose.
Shadowy figures in masks shoved their way ruthlessly from the back of the crowd to the front, wielding signs and banners. People jostled and elbowed and swore violently as toes were trampled and drinks were spilt. A chant went up, rhythmic and aggressive, but there were too many voices and I couldn’t make out the words. Zadie was pumping her fist in the air, mouth working, face shining. Masked protestors knocked down the barriers, the crowd surged forward, and Zadie went with it, all too happy to be swept away by a tide of adrenaline. I grabbed her arm. “We’re going home.”
In the cab I asked her if she wanted to see Auden again.
“He didn’t know who Chelsea Manning was,” she said, gazing out of the window.
“You didn’t answer my question.”
We were silent for a few minutes, watching the streetlights fly past in streaks of neon. Then she turned to me. “Didn’t you feel… something? There, with all those people?”
“What’re you on about?”
She sighed. ”I don’t know. It felt like a revolution.”
“No. It felt like a shit party. Hot, sweaty, boring people, violent at the end. I can’t believe you made me go.”
Her foot tapped out a rhythm on the grey carpeted floor. “We’re such typical teenagers. Talking about how it felt rather than what it was. Living inside our heads.”
“You think too much, Zay.”
“I know.” She reached out and took my hand. “Best friends?”
I hooked my little finger through hers like a kid.