Johan Lu’s former girlfriend was having dinner with a few friends in her native Paris Friday night when everything went wrong.
They were dining in a popular restaurant when terrorists attacked it. She and her friends were among the lucky ones. She was able to let her friends back in Boston know, via a series of text messages, that they had escaped unharmed, though not unshaken.
Lu, a Boston University student, was telling their story Sunday at a rally on Boston Common in support of Paris, as the city grapples with the aftermath of the deadly terrorist attacks. The event was organized by the French consulate, in response to an outpouring of sympathy.
The governor, mayor, and senior US senator were on hand. But it was, at heart, a people’s protest of terrorism. They came bearing flowers, draped in tricolor flags. Small groups burst into spontaneous renditions of the French national anthem.
And they had a message.
“They’re trying to instill fear into the population,” Lu said. “For a lot of people coming out here is an act of defiance, showing that we’re not afraid of them.”
The rally was an expression of solidarity between two cities that have known the shock of terrorist acts. Though the circumstances, and the death toll, were very different, Boston and Paris share a feeling that their city may never be the same again.
The rally began with a brief speaking program at the bandstand. The consul general of France in Boston, Valery Freland, seemed a bit overwhelmed by the crowd and the attention. He thanked the people of Boston and Massachusetts multiple times, and accepted bouquets from well-wishers.
A procession of public officials, led by Governor Charlie Baker, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and Mayor Marty Walsh, walked a short distance to a monument honoring Lafayette, the French hero of the American Revolution. As the group walked across the Common, Baker pulled Freland close and offered any help he could give.
“I can’t help but think about the fact that between 9/11 and the Marathon bombing, the people of this community have felt this very first-hand,” Baker said later. “And it’s hard to find any collection of folks around Boston or Massachusetts generally who doesn’t know someone who was directly affected by one of those terrorist attacks.”
He spoke of the seminal role France has played in American history. “I think it’s really important for countries that believe in democracy, and liberty, and freedom of speech, and freedom of religion to stand together at moments like this.”
At a State House press conference, Baker and other officials said security measures will be tightened, though they added that there was no indication of any threat to Massachusetts.
There is, instead, a deep sympathy. Well after the politicians had disappeared from the Common, the crowd remained, clearly still digesting the horror that had brought them together.
Justin Benetreau, a Newbury College student from Paris, arrived at the rally with a huge sympathy card that people were lined up to sign. It was adorned with a peace symbol with the Eiffel Tower in the center, and the hashtag #prayforparis. He said Boston’s expression of solidarity was helping him to cope with the attack on his city.
“It’s hard to be away, not being able to give a shoulder to a friend who’s crying, or help your mom who’s having a hard time,” he said. “It is a real help to know that all the way over here people care. My professors have been sending me e-mails, people in my building have been checking in. It provides a tremendous amount of comfort.”
In a matter of hours, just another Friday night in Paris became one of the worst in its long history. It joins New York, Boston, and so many cities attacked unaware, their calm shattered forever.
They stand together not merely in solidarity, but in shock at just how suddenly peace can turn to madness.