June 3, 2020

I stood for George

I didn’t plan to protest that day. But I’m so glad I did.

Just the night before, I was up until 1AM watching videos of the protests in America, which were occasionally interrupted by actual footage of police brutality against African Americans. I just stared at the screen, not really knowing how to process it. I didn’t feel anger exactly, more helplessness at my own situation and my inability to provide any aid whatsoever; tiny, insignificant me at the bottom of the Pacific. As if there was anything I could do.

I woke up the next day feeling the same way, but I kept it at the back of my mind and went about my day. Through breakfast, the gym and finally sitting down to work, images and footage of the events in the States just kept pouring in; I couldn’t not watch it. A friend in Auckland began sharing events for a march on Queen Street. Seeing that made me feel like at least someone was doing something. Then at quarter to 3, I get a message from my friend, sharing an event happening in Palmy: ‘Palmerston North Black Lives Matter Solidarity’. I stared at the message asking if I’d like to go, not knowing how to respond. I’ve never been one to discuss politics or my own view, so my initial reaction was to wish her well for it and carry on with my day. But I asked myself why I wouldn’t protest, and I couldn’t come up with anything better than, ‘I’m scared’, which was utter bullshit. So, I layered up for the dismal Palmy day that it was and left.

I drove to her house where she was in the middle of making a sign. I grabbed some cardboard as well, struggling to think of something to write. I tried masking my nerves with humour, but I still couldn’t answer the question of why I was scared. And then it hit me. I was going for George Floyd. I was going for all the African Americans that were being assaulted and discriminated against. I was going for any person of colour who has been abused on the basis of their race. I never ever talk about it, but I experience racism every day. Not always explicitly, but it’s in the side eye or the way people talk to me; one way or another, I get it every single day. Growing up in New Zealand I felt the need to conform to the norms of Western society, so much so I would feel embarrassed of my Indian heritage. Even though I am unapologetically me, I still find myself changing the way I walk and talk to just to fit in. So, I was protesting for that and for George and for anyone who has felt like that. Because fuck white people for thinking they made the rulebook.

We made our signs and joined up with a group in the Square, just a handful of young people wrapped up against the cold but eager to be heard. We stood at the intersection of Fitzherbert Avenue and raised our signs. Nothing happened at first but as the lights turned green and the cars began driving past, the honking began. The noise was invigorating and steadied our resolve. You could see the occasional head shake or disapproving look, but we weren’t here for them. We were here for the raised fists out the windows and the ones that slammed their horns all the way down the street. It was thrilling to be standing there for a cause that I really believed in. As numbers grew, we took a knee and raised a fist, chanting, ‘no justice, no peace’. The mixture of our chanting and the honking and the cheers from drivers really moved me. My friend began to sing a waiata and those who knew it joined in. Our collection of people continued to grow, people from all sorts of backgrounds and age groups - even a Palmy North city councillor. At one point a reporter from Stuff came and interviewed the person who had organised the protest. There were photos taken and then they disappeared, and we carried on. As time went on we returned to standing and the chanting stopped and started. After one last hurrah we called it an evening. We shared hugs and the organiser said some parting words before the group scattered. While walking back to my car I stumbled upon another group protesting on the opposite side of the square. They had a megaphone and a banner, and their chants were loud. I stood with them for a while as well before returning to my car.

I got in and sat for a bit, reflecting on my evening. Staring at my sign on the seat next to me I felt full. Full with knowing that even if it was the bare minimum, I still had the courage and used my voice for the undisputedly right thing to do. And now I know to tape your signs so they don’t get wet.