The perception and reality of the peaceful Paris was shattered last Friday night forever, it would seem. Western Europe which has enjoyed real calm for more than two generations, shifted on its axis. The war in Syria and the Middle East came home in a shocking way, as a combination of French nationals and possibly foreign fighters attacked soft targets at cafes, restaurants and a concert hall. In the end 129 people were killed with hundreds others injured. My response to this was to pick up my camera and hit the street.
I felt as if I was in a bubble that burst with responses being a state of shock, fear and a new sense of bewilderment that was etched into many folks faces and body expressions. I spent significant time at the murder sites and at Place de la Republique which became the rallying point for mourners. Place de la Republique is fascinating because it became an almost sacred site with a large scale informal memorial being created at the feet of the statue of the Republic. I was also impressed by the many forms of personal expression and art that people used to express and deal with their grief. The public offering of music, painting, poetry, personal rants, free hugs, drawings and many others was powerful and perhaps missed by mainstream media.
I live on the South Side of Chicago. Social violence is an everyday reality for those of us living in the community. More than 370 people have been killed in Chicago this year with several thousand more being wounded by gunshots. Shortly before I left, nine year old Tyshawn Lee was gunned down, in broad daylight in an alley on the South Side. This shocked all of us. The ongoing street wars and structural violence that exists in Chicago takes its form in many ways – substandard housing, poor schools, lack of decent supermarkets and food, abandoned properties and intense disinvestment. These realities echo the inequality in some of the poorest Paris suburbs where many of the young people who join ISIS come from. I’m not going to make direct comparisons but I do believe that extreme ideologies and actions are often taken by the most marginalized in society who feel they don’t have a voice or other options. They can turn this on themselves, which is generally what happens in Chicago as young black men overwhelmingly kill other people in their communities, or it can turn outward, as in the case of ideological and extreme terrorists here in Paris.
In the past when I’ve thought of Europe, especially Paris, I’ve always seen it as a place of peace, of culture, of cafes and lovers. I had only visited Paris before last week for one day in my life. I came to Paris the week before with my fiancé to enjoy the Paris of my dreams, the Paris of long walks through foggy streets, of museums that never end and of café talks. I spent the week doing just that. Enjoying a week of unfettered walks, museums, cafes and the like and then I put my partner on the plane Friday morning and went to work at Paris Photo.
Everything changed that night. The first email came from a journalist friend in Chicago at 10:15 pm – It read Paris Shooting Breaking Now. I clicked on the BBC link and I was slightly alarmed. I had no idea how serious this would be but of course I then jumped on Twitter. Time went fast as the news kept on coming in. Soon it became clear that this was going to be a large scale attack. It turned out to be the largest attack on French soil since WWII and sent France into a new type of war which it has never experience before. We are in a new time in Europe. The relative peace we’ve experienced is gone, replaced with the uneasy feeling that anything can happen at any time. It’s truly a new day.