When we were young

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Protesters at Black Lives Matter rally in Trafalgar Square, July 2020. Image credit: john crozier/Unsplash

We took the subway, the same route we used to ride to the student nightlife, watching the West End get drunk on its beautiful diversity. London was always like that: changing colours.

We were lawyers, historians, philosophers, poets, at the start of our careers -- respectable, or so we thought -- filled with the promise of our higher education.

The cause? Does it matter? Some march for the oppressed. There were so many those post-9/11 days.

One in our group came fresh from chambers and walked more dignified than the rest, as if rehearsing the steps that loomed before him as a judge. The rest of us had signed onto the city law firms, not knowing that jurisprudence meant boozing with bankers and billionaires or that one day the penthouse parties would dry up and we would witness the Lehman's tower collapse and one of our own jump from a rooftop with a glass of champagne in hand.

I was nobody -- impressionable and uncut, fresh from constitutional law and letter writing. I still believed I could change the world.

Back then the rallies were so frequent I knew exactly what to expect. I had been going ever since I saw the picture of those two boys in the newspaper. Eight and seven, their perfect symmetry photographed in my mind. I remember thinking how pretty they were, like a pair of smiling cupids; how handsome they would have grown if they had been allowed to live.

They had been running for their lives when they were shot like rabbits. For a long time after, whenever I ran, their faces came back to me. I imagined running like them. I cut the clipping out and left it in our common room beside a copy of the Daily Mail. At a school reunion the teachers laughed, "you always were so political."

"That is not what I meant at all;
               That is not it, at all."

-T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Perhaps that is why the ones like me were always so self-conscious, so insecure, so afraid our convictions might be turned against us, weaponized, that we might actually mean something. We left our trim suburban lawns not making any noise, travelling to protests in disguise like commuters with our headphones on.

I learnt to spot them, the ones like me. Prufrock-esque. They had a certain look -- carrying their tear-stained ideals in bags.

"Deferential, glad to be of use,
... cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence ...
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous--"

-T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

We trod carefully, staying close to the shadows, waiting for a safe moment to transform. To be swallowed into anonymity. We could never be heros.

Not like the ones who were loud and beautiful in their brazenness. The kids from the estates who didn't skulk in the backdrop or shy from the limelight. Who embraced the daybreak, the cameras, the reporters and dared to dream, skipping the turnstiles, fearless and passionate perhaps because they had nothing to lose -- already judged, already damned -- their bodies draped in bright colours, trainers scuffed. They were the first to scour the walls, to climb the telephone poles. To rail against the world.

Next stop, Embankment Station. From the tunnel you could always hear the voices, the whistles, the heaving drumbeat of humanity converging on the Thames. Outside we joined the sea of bodies, swaying 10,000 strong like Moses and the Israelites. A bunch of lawyers sandwiched between Rastafarians, veterans, socialists and priests. Collectively absurd.

Already the students had taken to the fountains in Trafalgar Square, riding aloft Sir Edwin Landseer's stone lions, shirtless with sweat dripping down their necks. In the corner of my vision I caught sight of the first-timers, holding hands like lovers, all large pacifist eyes, their furtive glances whispering to one another: l will protect you until the end of time. I always imagined Judgment Day would look like this. Every temple, every tribe.

A man with a beard called out to God in a foreign language and a woman in a headscarf nearby quickly shushed him: "English, only English." In short, she understood. We were all afraid. Why else did we gravitate towards the mothers pushing prams? Around the rims you could see the police twitching behind the rails.

And then the chorus began. Someone on a  loudspeaker starting up a chant, simple and childish at first, like a nursery rhyme.

"1, 2, 3, 4.
We don't want your phoney war…"

The sun shone, basking the city in its full glory as we coursed down the porticos and colonnades of the capitol, violet bougainvillea draping over the awnings of the white stucco homes. Abodes of the high and mighty.

Our dulcet tunes serenaded the balconies of Belgravia, a mass of pink and white petunias spilling out from hanging baskets. Cyclists stopped. Cars honked. Tourists took photos. Some joined in, waving from the double-deckers. London. Beautiful London. Once again I was a student leafing through the pages of Malcolm X and Baudelaire, debating the philosophy of Franz Fanon and John Stuart Mill from a terraced patio.

"...the mere example of non-conformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service. Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric..."

- John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

Somewhere in this song is truth. Hypocrite lecteur, -- mon semblable, -- mon frère!

I felt our spirits rising heart-shaped to the sky, vessels still open and expectant, the silken threads of promise streaming in the breeze. In a moment of loveliness, breathtakingly beautiful, the heavens responded. The sun dipped and a soft light broke over the rippling crowd, gold-plating the scene.

But like the stuff of dreams, it vanished.

At the corner the police were already mounted and waiting. Their horses bridled, braying in the heat. Batons and barricades warning us like a siren: no allegiance, no protection. The day ripped in two like a broken promise.

Our band pressed together, all of a sudden feeling naked. I wanted to tell them it was okay, we were lawyers, but the world looks so different when you are staring up at a half-tonne stallion. In truth I was afraid.

We linked arms like a congregation in prayer but a voice in my head rang out in alarm: they will come after you. They will put you in a box, in a box, in a box. They have done it to others. They have done it before.

Yes, I was afraid. The law is fallible, man-made like us.

They will desecrate your words and distort your deeds. They will call you a traitor and try you for treason in a kangaroo court. And when they interview your teachers they will say, "You see -- she always was so political!"

A howl for the voiceless! A desperate anguished human cry. For those who cannot speak. Or are too afraid to speak. Outlawed. Gagged. Muzzled by the Main.

Riot shields raised. Hoods went up. I saw my future unearned self lying bedraggled, tattered in the dust.

A howl for the voiceless! For the Wretched of the Earth. The forgotten, the oppressed. For the ones who lack courage. The ones who falter. Hiding behind the arras. What good can we do?

Glass smashed, shattering hopes like Krishetlnact and the police rushed in. I witnessed people run in every direction, anarchy booming all around, emotion with nowhere else to go. There in the midst of it,  like some hallucination, a prophet emerged, flooded in neon light -- the same man whose prayers we had silenced -- beard flowing to the ground, arms outstretched in the poise of Christ, trying to save us. The burden of life is love.

O Mama I am tired of marching. Tired, so tired. Tired of these funeral processions. Tired of this dream that keeps coming without climax. I wanted to close my eyes and soar away, flying higher and higher, to free myself from this eternal sorrow and return only when the fighting stopped. When history had vindicated us from the gates of the Villa of Peace. From miles away, someone called out my name. "Don't leave, we need you."

I hesitated, watching the confusion spread out across the city streets, not knowing where to turn.

And then from the corner of my eye I saw them coming -- the men from the newspapers, descending from the hills like a swarm of flies, their cameras yackety-yacking, click click clicking. Armed like assassins. So in the end, I ran. Afraid. So very afraid. Running for my life like those two boys in the sand. Running into silence.

Shama Naqushbandi is a writer, lawyer and executive based in Toronto. Her first novel, The White House, won Best Novel at the Brit Writers Awards and explores the challenges of finding identity in an increasingly globalized world.

Image credit: john crozier/Unsplash

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