Wednesday, November 13, 2013


Somehow, the parade and the block party of the President's Inaugural evoked in me a deep-seated, irrational fear.

At first there was the excitement, the thrill that came with trailing the jolly band, the colorful procession of trumpets, whistles and drums. President Salovey was in high spirits, waving to his bevy of followers, the faculty clad in full dress and regalia were prancing away, the whole scene was one of and joy and jubilation. I scrambled after the marching company, snapping away on my smartphone, tailing them like the paparazzi.

Then this overwhelming sense of deja vu crept in, like a raw egg cracked over a bare heart, the liquid coating it in an eerie coldness of life lost. It was not the first time I was doing this. I had been in this situation before, the intrepid, excited reporter seeking a snapshot of the band. The chasing after a marching company, the noises and beats of drum and fanfare, the beautiful chaos of the moment: these were familiar to me.

I had experienced all of it during my time in the protest movement. The excitement, the joy of seeing so many turn out to support the cause of free and fair elections, to see people power in the making! I had been there, documenting everything in my mind and my camera, running frantically after the tails of this or that prominent politician or activist. I still think about it and my heart swells with joy.

But such joy was always temporary. Something would always turn ugly. The police would crackdown, someone would be trampled by the crowds, a horrific car acccident would occur. I often thought of that momentary joy in the odd lens of tall building suicide. Jumping off a building, there is perhaps a moment when you feel the gust of wind against your cheeks, your arms spread like an eagle ready to soar, and maybe, just maybe you think ironically by descending you ascend the heights of ecstasy. But such a moment is always fleeting, and then you hit the ground and your body splatters against a hard concrete ground or somebody's Lamborghini and it's all over, you're literally brought back to a blood soaked earth.

As I followed the president's procession, a mounting sense of urgency overtook my joy. As I looked to President Salovey and the smile on his face, I had this sudden feeling that all was not well, and that at any moment shouts of joy would turn into screams of terror. My "Spider-Sense" went on high alert.

I tried to reassure myself nothing could possibly go wrong, walking backwards to capture the scene. Then I turned to walk forwards and was confronted with the sight of a police car. The officer smiled and lightly tapped my shoulder to direct me to the sides. I recoiled slightly from his touch.

It felt incredibly odd to see a smiling police officer. When I had been working in the protest movement as secretary to an NGO coalition, the police were people you avoided. They represented the authorities who were looking for any crack in your defenses, any excuse to clamp down and end it all.

I had witnessed with my own eyes police dragging people out on the streets, beating them to a pulp and narrowly escaped such a fate myself. I had evaded trailing police vans in the dead of night, trying to rendezvous with my colleagues just released from detainment for voicing their dissent, at one time even switching meeting points 3 times to slip out under the watchful eyes of the police. I had choked on tear gas, been bruised by a stray canister, run frantically away from them in a cat and mouse game in the narrow street alleys of Kuala Lumpur.

And now they were the good guys.

Trying to ignore the storm of emotions I turned to my usual refuge, food. Food trucks galore presented themselves and for the first time that day, in the midst of Snowcones, kettle corn and fried dough everything seemed better. Free food always makes me happy.

Despite it all, the specter of ruinous protests still lingered in the back of my mind. It was so ridiculously irrational yet it was something of an instinct I had developed. You needed to be constantly on high alert to survive. Surveying the scene, I couldn't help but notice how calm everything was. It was organized chaos. Images of destruction and mayhem flashed in my head in stark contrast.

The giant inflatable bulldog stood tall as a monument to the nature of the block party: full of a festive air, way over the top and comical.

I thought about the other "monuments" that I had encountered in protest. There were the barbed wire fences, hastily set up to prevent citizens from gathering, ironically enough, in Freedom Square. There were the ominous black vans, complete with cages in the back that transported away many a friend. And then there was the smashed up, overturned police car pounded to bits by angry protestors, and left as it was for hours into the aftermath, like some grotesque monument attesting to the ugliness of the mob, the chaos of what became a riot, the blurred lines between right and wrong.

I didn't have much time to ruminate as I was pulled along into a line of fawning students wanting a part in the event I called the SSS: Selfie Sunday with Salovey.

It was good fun and when I got back I thought about making it my profile picture, just for bragging rights and all. I'm not a fan of selfies so I don't take many photos of myself, I prefer to be the guy taking the photo or if I am already wielding the camera I prefer to take monochrome shots of inanimate objects like buildings or leaves or some abstract act piece.

So I looked through my previous profile pictures and stumbled upon one from a long time ago. There I was, getting my shot taken in front of a line of riot police. The two photos with two very different figures of authority.

I reflected long and hard on the day, and it's taken me weeks to be able to pen down some of the feelings I felt, and even then I don't feel like I'm doing them justice.

It took me a long while to realize I had nothing to fear. The police were not going to pull out a gun and start shooting into the crowd, the only smoke that appeared was from a fog machine not a tear gas canister, and President Salovey certainly wasn't going to go berserk and choke me with that  flashy looking necklace thing (though I can imagine such a scene in a future YSO Halloween show). As I calmed down and the ridiculousness of it all dawned upon me, I felt something else.

At first, I was confused at what I was feeling. It was a sensation alien to me especially at such events, when always I had to look over my shoulder, evaluate every street to assess its viability for a swift escape, or keep a wary distance between a police officer and myself. Then I realized what it was I was feeling.

For the first time in the longest time, I felt safe. I felt welcomed.

I felt free.

"Horizon Beyond Chains" Taken November 2011. Milford Sound, NZ.
Click to view higher quality photo.

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