Our friends went ahead into the crowd toward the yellow-lit intersection where young men shouted and others threw rocks. Some were on bicycles or walked with shirts tied around their faces holding sticks and bottles. My stomach was in a knot. The tension in the air was thick on my skin as it mingled with the light film of rain that was settling on everything.
The riots are for fair prices in Reunion and they seem to be headed by men, mostly young men. I looked at Richard who had stayed back with me while the rest moved toward the action; his eyes were focused ahead, alert, and waiting. He turned his head to look behind, away from the riot, and my eyes followed. We saw people begin to scatter, begin to move, running across the street in masses thirty yards up. They were hurried and looking behind them in quick flashes, their shoulders up and their bodies staying low. My stomach got tighter. I looked back to the right and saw our friends, their backs to us, still watching the riot. I felt my feet shifting my weight beneath me when Richard put his hand on my shoulder as his mouth opened, “Ivan!” he yelled as he whipped his head in their direction.
They didn’t hear. I looked behind me and through the bushes I saw armored vehicles jolting over grassy hills, through the playground, toward the riot. Police. Police with shields, with tear gas, with guns. Both hands were on my shoulders now, steadying himself on his tip toes, stretching his neck and back to peer over the bush behind me as my head whipped from left to right deciding which way to go: away from the police and into the riot or away from the riot and into the police. He grabbed my hand and pulled me up the street toward the police. I turned as we ran and yelled “Chaz!” who was still watching the riot, his back to us. They were on the edge of the crowd as if watching a festival. I took one more quick glance as Richard hand propelled me forward and I saw the mass in the intersection begin to move. My face was forward but I don’t remember seeing anything when I felt the loud blast against my back.
Richard’s hand kept pulling me forward despite my fear, my shock, my want to close my eyes, my need to look at everything. Then I heard Becky yell my name from behind, and as I turned my head Richard changed directions and my Keds almost slipped out from under me in the wet grass. I didn’t even have time to catch myself because his hand pulled me fast, over the curb into a parking lot. We shot quickly between two parked cars that sat so close I had to shift my hips sideways to slide between the mirrors. Then I saw them. I saw Becky again looking frantic and Chelsea running with Ivan and Chaz. We all moved like darting fish until we saw an apartment building with an open door.
A mother had her baby in a stroller stopped in front of the entrance stoop. The child was maybe a year old and was sitting straight up with his little chubby hands holding onto the bar in front of him; his head craning to see in every direction like mine had moments before. Richard picked up the front of the stroller, speaking quick French, and she pushed her baby inside while we pressed our backs against the glass listening to the quick pops and explosions, watching the clouds and light. My stomach stayed tight and my eyes wide.
The claps and booms were getting closer and clouds of tear gas billowed from the street and blew sideways in the breeze. We decided to move and we made our way back to the street that lead to our university. Despite the fires that burned in the streets, cars still whipped past.
A Reunionais called to us in cool French, “Students! How kind of you! But why are you leaving? Did you get scared?” Richard said it was the girls. To that, Chelsea and Becky quickly spat that he had stayed behind and that they were brave and went ahead into the riot. They were arguing as if they had ridden the roller coaster that he was too afraid to approach. My whole abdomen was still tight from fear, and the tension of just moments before was still thick in my blood. I meant to keep quiet but the words swelled up into my mouth, “I don’t think it’s brave to put yourself in a riot.” The conversation ran quiet as Ivan chuckled and said, “That’s a good point.”
Now I have an odd cool scratchiness at the back of my throat as I sit in my room. I watch from my balcony --watch the orange smoke pushing toward the sky, the helicopter spotlighting the chaos for the police-- trying to swallow the cotton in my mouth and reality of what I just witnessed. The hazy ginger lighting and the misty rain that continues to fall adds just a touch of Hollywood to the whole hot, passionate affair between angry citizen and police.
The papers are saying this will continue until the French government caves and begin to cut prices and increase pay. It’s all about money. Always is.