My First Protest

Bodies bumped and jostled my head, stray elbows smacking my cheek bones and large shoes crushing my tiny toes. I couldn’t see over all these people, looking up was like looking into a mass of skyscrapers, the lone hole in the air was just above my head, where the only light shone through. Looking straight up blinded me, and turned these strangers into silhouettes, which seemed more appropriate given how unknown they were to me. I couldn’t stare that way for long, so I kept my eyes to the ground, examining shoes instead. Converse, dress shoes, sneakers, I even saw a pair of heels clack through the grouping of legs. The roar of the chanting overtook my ears. I could follow the rhythm of the words, but I didn’t comprehend what was being said. I hoisted my sign above the crowds and flapped back and forth in time with the rhythmic shots. I thought of myself as the metronome, keeping everyone together, so that the message got through without any stray yelling muddling the hearing of those in the buildings above us. Before long I grew tired and dropped my sign back down to my level. I checked to make sure my mother was still to my right, and my step-father to my left. They were my only marker that I was in the right place, and sometimes I had to fight not to get washed away by this sea of people. Growing bored, I focused on my sign, nothing but a wooden plank with two pieces of thick, white construction paper mounted on cardboard stuck to either side. It wasn’t much to look at, my mom hastily threw it together that morning before we set out, but it carried a powerful message that wasn’t lost even on me, because of who was on it staring back at me. My cousin Katarina and my cousin Mihailo were four years and seven years younger than me, respectively. I was ten, which made Katarina six, and Mihailo three. Their innocent, expressionless faces stared back at me, the products of professional photography that their parents had taken them to get for correctly focused prints with vague, blurred backgrounds. Katarina’s blond hair was cut short, with small bangs dabbing her eyebrows and curling up over her ears while Mihailo, his hair long and wavy, covered his blue eyes and spread over his collar. It was probably combed out of the way several times before the photographer gave up. Both of them seemed curious at what they were seeing, looking not quite at the camera, but off at some non-existent point of interest in the distance, just a bit to the right of where the camera must have stood. I studied them before looking adjusting my vision to see the big black targets that were painted underneath the photos, covering their names. NATO TARGETS was printed in large boldfaced letters at the top of the sign. KATARINA STOJKOVIC – 6, MIHAILO STOJKOVIC – 4. It was very dramatic and it made me worry that something would happen to them. When carrying the sign around Chicago, I would be stopped by protesters and passersby alike who noticed the sign. They would look at it grimly and ask “Are they dead?” To which I would always shake my head no. This seemed to lessen the impact for them, like the message wasn’t as true, or meaningful. Maybe it would have served greater purpose if they had been blown up; I could read the thought on the faces of these people even though they never said it. They would simply say “That’s good.” or “Oh.” before moving on through the crowds or away from them. Eventually I decided to test it, and the next few people that came to ask, I told them yes, they had died. The difference in response was considerable. A wash of sadness and sympathy exuded from these souls for me to soak up. They patted my head or apologized profusely on behalf of NATO though they themselves had done nothing wrong. I noticed this change and learned something that news media probably holds as one of its Ten Commandments of Reporting: always use the dead to sway opinions in your favor. Nobody is interested in someone being in danger. They become interested when it’s too late, when that someone is beyond help. The protest was one of many that happened in Chicago during the 1999 bombing of Belgrade, Serbia by NATO and by extension, Bill Clinton and his administration in opposition to the way Serbia was dealing with its crisis in Kosovo immediately after the wars that tore Yugoslavia apart. Serbs took to the streets to voice their opposition. I know that some may have disagreed with the validity of my sign, saying that they weren’t the targets and that NATO only bombed military installations. All I know is, whenever the air raid sirens went off, my cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents all took to their cellars to hide and wait, not knowing whether their homes would be there when they came back out. Hospitals were destroyed (including the one I was born in), radio stations, homes with children, schools. Whether these were mistakes or purposeful is irrelevant. Using the threat of civilian death as coercion to curb government action is wrong. NATO did target my cousins, and my whole family. Them living through the whole ordeal doesn’t lessen the message on the sign, and shouldn’t lessen the impact it has on people. I never forgot the looks people gave when I shook my head no, and it changed the way I view the world.

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