You always remember exactly where you were during an important moment in history.
I'm on winter break between study-abroad semesters and my January 7, 2015 started calmly like any other day. Around noon, I went out to buy some groceries, and it was as I was in line for a baguette that I received the first message from a friend also studying in Paris.
“Ten dead in shooting in Paris. Where are you?”
I quickly went to Google to verify. I’ve lived in Paris before and knew of many dangers including pick-pocketing or robbery, but shootings aren't a major concern – they are much more frequent in the United States.
Sure enough, live online news articles, one after another confirmed the horror: An attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
After hearing the news, I hurried home to research more about what had happened. I read articles from all different sources: American, French, and English to really understand what was going on.
Within the hour, there were police outside of my dorm style building, La Fondation des Etats-Unis, (The United States Foundation). They put a barrier outside of our front door and we received e-mails about how there would be heightened security from this point forward.
Now I felt scared.
There were, somewhere in my city, armed and dangerous terrorists. I sat in my room and stared out the window at the barriers and the Police and Army men walking up and down the street with massive guns, ready to fight. As I followed the Je Suis Charlie hashtag on Twitter and learned more about Charlie Hebdo, I started to feel a real connection to the ideals of freedom of speech, of the press, and of religion.
I read there was to be a demonstration, a vigil service, to honor those affected and to support the rights upon which post-revolutionary France was founded. When I asked my friends if they wanted to make the trip to Place de la République where the demonstration was being held, it seemed that they were still in shock, and concerned that going there now could be a dangerous decision.
Alone, I took the metro there.
I was a little nervous of a possible metro attack, but I knew that this “manif,” as the French say, meaning manifestation, was an important symbol of support of the right to free press. At the metro stop République, it was evident that the Parisians had banded together to mourn the losses and to express their freedom of assembly in support of the freedom of expression and the press. Just exiting the metro station took about 20 minutes because there were so many people packed together trying to get outside around the city square.
Exiting the station was a truly sobering experience.
Thousands upon thousands of people gathered around the huge monument in the center, which symbolizes the deeply rooted French values of liberty, equality and fraternity. Some held signs saying “Je suis Charlie," what we know now as the most popular hashtag in Twitter’s history.
Many had signs reading: “I am a Muslim. I am Charlie.”
The square had gathered more people packed together to mourn than the Champs-Élysées had just one week prior to celebrate the New Year. It was truly a welcoming and connecting event. The most amazing part is that although there were thousands of people all together in one area, it was one of the quietest places in Paris.
Everyone was respecting those around them and others in near silence, mourning the press workers whose lives were taken so abruptly. A somber, solemn feeling spread across the crowds. There were times where people chanted, “Freedom of expression,” and other lines about why they were there, but the silence was truly captivating.
There I felt that I understood better than ever the privileges we often times take for granted – and it was at this manif that the incredible ramifications of the attack, beyond the tragedy of the 12 dead, truly hit me.
As I approached the monument in the center of the square I saw that there were people in a line holding up glowing letters spelling: “NOT AFRAID."
I felt that from this point onward the fear of living in a city where there were gunmen at large dissipated. These people wanted us to fear their next move or maybe future attacks, if more political or satirical cartoons depicted something of which they did not approve. I decided to push this fear from my being. There was a sentiment of unity that I had never felt before.
As the days progressed, there have been more aggressions; in fact, two of them were close to where I live and in places where I have been.
Still though, I have held strongly to the idea that we cannot allow fear to change our lives, even as we live in this state where anything can happen. My friends have said that they do not want to take the metro because of safety issues, but we have decided that by allowing terror to change our everyday lives, we are allowing the aggressors to win – we give them control of how we spend our day and what is in our press. So, by standing tall and supporting my fellow Parisians – fellow citizens of the free world – I can firmly say: Je suis Charlie.