The system must fall, read one of the writings on the walls of Westminster Underground Station – the ink still fresh, the letters vividly shouting their message. I’d passed by a million graffiti in my life, each one of them telling a story, usually someone else’s story from someone else’s time. I’d always wondered what it would mean to live in a time of upheaval, until I got thrown into it; the system seemed to have been crumbling down for months now, with prime ministers all over the world desperately trying to make it look like it still stood on its feet. They kept reassuring their people that everything was going to be alright – words stolen from a Bob Marley’s song which definitely wasn’t referring to the system. Bun Babylon was written on the wall opposite the system must fall, the two graffiti looking like a mirror reflecting the same concept in different languages. British, Jamaicans, Nigerians, Italians, Turkish, Spanish didn’t want everything to be alright again. The veil of Maya had been torn: there was no more above and below, black and white, right and wrong. What was going to be alright? Who for? What did alright even mean? Maybe that was alright, the realisation that we all were part of the same system, and that it wasn’t working. Who was man to decide what was what if a simple viral cell had proved to be able to control him, change his lifestyle, and turn his views upside down? And yet, what could man do now that he’d acknowledged that the silliest of his actions, like drinking from a friend’s cup, could completely alter the course of things on the other side of the world? He didn’t have control over the world, but there’s no doubt man could control what he could do with the world.
It was 10 p.m. of the first Sunday of June 2020. I got out of the station walking through a corridor filled with cardboard signs left there by Black Lives Matter protesters. That morning I’d joined them in a march towards the US embassy in London, following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many others, committed during this century and the previous ones. Or, at least, that’s what the media said the protests were about. But the protests were not just about the killings, they were a scream in the night. In the blankness in which the world had been plunged during the pandemic of Covid-19, man had finally been able to see things that had always been there. Proof of this was the fact that me and many others had got out in public for the first time in months to join a crowd marching for a basic human right: the right to breathe. This seemed almost ironic, if we think that the virus that had spread all over the globe at the beginning of the year caused respiratory problems; people had started to wear face masks and gloves, and they kept social distance in supermarkets and in the streets, lest they catch the fearsome Covid-19. Only a few months later a video had emerged of a black man being suffocated by a police officer’s knee in Minneapolis. That’s when the motto if one of us can’t breathe, none of us can breathe had come out. And that’s when man had to choose between staying home and fight for his own breath, and taking to the streets and fight for black people’s breath, everyone’s breath. The streets had been flooded with people.
Outside of the station that night the atmosphere was the same as when your house party’s over and you’re left with the remnants of it. And yet, you probably sit in a corner instead of tidying up. You stand there, thinking of the highlights of the evening, how it went, and you wonder what’s gonna follow – because a party is always the start of something new. I could feel the tension, in the air, between what had just happened and what was about to. From the corner where I stood I could see Churchill’s statue covered with cardboard signs, which I hadn’t noticed when I’d taken a photo of him farting pink smoke that morning from my perspective in Parliament Street. Now he gave me such a grumpy look that I could hear him say “look here, look what they’ve done to me!”
That guided my eyes down to the pedestal where his surname had been crossed off. Right below someone had sprayed the words “was a racist”. One might wonder why they’d crossed off his name if they were about to add something to it. But to them it had never been Churchill’s statue, it was just a racist’s – so they’d crossed off a name and replaced it with a noun. Nothing had been taken from or added to that statue and to history, everything had just been exposed and admitted.
Statues of slave traders were being torn down all over the world, and the names of centuries-old institutions and departments were being changed and temporarily replaced with blank spaces. As if that silence could make it up for all the years a plaque outside a building had been honouring the name of some slaver. As if all those who had baptised those places and erected those statues didn’t know those were the faces and the names of slavers. As if people all around had known nothing about it up till then. Everybody knew, yet no one was aware.
Thankfully, though, Churchill was still there, defaced. And I thought this editing of history was better than the censorship that was being imposed on it all around. Churchill said “courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen” – so I sat in Parliament Square and listened to what was being said, looked to what was being manifested.
I wondered “is everything gonna be alright?” And I felt like it would, because the world just needed people to become aware of things and let things act upon them, as I let Parliament Square tell me its story that night. Maybe man didn’t control the world, but he could listen to it. The silliest of his actions, like listening, could change the course of things on the other side of the world.
After all, what we need is to turn on and tune in before dropping out.