“Follow the pencil!”…today’s historic Paris unity march

By Caitlin Kelly

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They came in wheelchairs and on crutches.

They came carried in baby slings.

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They came — like Richard Smith, former editor of the British Medical Association Journal who I randomly met this morning at the cafe at St. Pancras Station as we were both about to board the 8:19 Eurostar to Paris — from other countries to show their solidarity. He decided, last-minute and spur of the moment, he had to cross the Channel to lend his support in person.

They came in six-inch stilettos and black leather trousers, teens to seniors, a river of humanity that started flooding across the city by 1pm heading to Place de la Republique.

I am Charlie, I am Arab but not Muslim, I am Jewish, I'm a cop, I'm North African...
I am Charlie, I am Arab but not Muslim, I am Jewish, I’m a cop, I’m North African…

I joined them today — although to say that I marched would be inaccurate. There were far too many people to do anything that energetic or forward-moving.

We shuffled. We stood still.

We sang the French national anthem, La Marseillaise.

I left the Ile St Louis at 2:00 pm with no clear idea where exactly to head — or if there would even be any room for me anywhere near the planned route. I got to the nearest Metro station, (all free for the day), but started to see a river of people streaming east through every narrow street and every wide boulevard.

It was very clear they were all heading for the march, and were heading there en masse.

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It was extraordinary to see so many people literally flooding every street with such determination to join one another.

It’s said that 1.5 million people were out on the streets of Paris today.

I believe it! I am so lucky to have been one of them.

I ended up thronged on a boulevard with the Place de la Bastille maybe a mile south of us; we could just barely see its distinctive gold statue gleaming in the sunshine.

It is ink that should flow, not blood; says this poster
It is ink that should flow, not blood; says this poster

A group of people carrying an enormous fabric pencil, (sagging in the middle a bit), started walking nearby and we all wondered what to do.

“Follow the pencil!” someone shouted.

People clapped.

Mohammed has a fit: "I hate being worshipped by assholes"
Mohammed has a fit: “I hate being worshipped by assholes”

People shouted “Char-lie, Char-lie, Char-lie!”

People stood in their windows looking down on us in amazement, one group of guys unfurling a banner that read “Liberte”, which was greeted by cheers.

People wore French flags and European union flags and one man had painted the French flag on his left cheek.

Many many people wore badges or buttons saying “Je suis Charlie” and many store windows held signs saying “Nous sommes tous Charlie” — we are all Charlie.

Despite the unprecedented volume of people, the mood was calm, quiet, committed.

Even though I avoid all large crowds in the U.S., here, today I never felt scared — security helicopters buzzed low overhead all afternoon and the streets nearby were lined with police and police vans, both local and national.

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There were dozens of journalists and photographers, as it was a historic event.

 

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What struck me most was how relaxed and pleasant the crowd was, at least during the time I was in the very midst of it, from about 2:45 to 4:30 p.m. when I peeled off and headed home.

No one pushed and shoved. No one showed rage or fury or any sort of anti-Muslim fervor. We simply wanted to be there.

There seemed to be no organizing principle or bullhorns or leaders.

Just millions of people of every ethnicity and age and sexual preference who cared enough to come out on a cold, sunny January morning to show their solidarity with one another, with the French journalists shot dead this week by terrorists and to remind the world — as many posters said, in French and English:

I am not afraid.