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The Color of Paris: May '68

You say you want a revolution. Well, you know, we all want to change the world. You tell me that it's evolution.

Well, you know, we all want to change the world.

But when you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out?

—The Beatles, “Revolution,” 1968

I stood on the balcony of the Roberts’ apartment overlooking the Boulevard de Strasbourg, watching students and riot police face off against each other, students to the left, police to the right. On this mild, sunny afternoon in mid-May, the scene felt surreal, like a bewildering moment in a Buñuel film. I don’t remember who charged first, but suddenly the two groups were on each other. Students hurled rocks, wielded tree branches, and yelled obscenities. Riot police fogged the air with tear gas and swung their nightsticks as they charged forward in a bloc.

I had my Kodak Instamatic camera in hand and started snapping photos. Two of the riot police knocked down a protester, and while one held him down, the other slammed down on him again and again with his nightstick. My stomach lurched as the student raised his hands to try to shield his head, and blood flowed from his nose.

When I raised my camera again, I heard a cry from behind. My French mother, Madame Robert, was yelling for me to get back inside. I had never seen her so upset, and she had never once spoken to me in anger in the more than six months my roommate and I had been boarding with her family during our junior year Paris. After getting me out of sight and back into her living room, Madame Robert started to cry. What if the riot police had spotted me? She was sure they would have stormed upstairs, smashed my camera, arrested me, and punished the Robert family.

Usually calm and reserved, Madame Robert had grown increasingly anxious as the street violence in Paris had escalated and the blare of sirens had become the soundtrack to our nights. After hauling me in from the balcony, she told me she had been suffering terrifying flashbacks to her childhood during the Nazi Occupation, when sirens had raged all night throughout the city, and she’d cowered in her parents’ bed. Her son was out there with the protesters, she reminded me, and even at home during the daylight hours, she didn’t feel safe.

I hugged her hard and said I was sorry. For the first time since the riots had begun in early May, I felt connected emotionally to what was happening around me. At 21, I was in Paris with the Hamilton College Junior Year Abroad program mainly to have fun and grab a bit of learning on the side. Most of our university classes had been suspended by then, and my American friends and I felt justified in not cracking our books. As we told each other repeatedly, history was being made in front of our eyes. The slogans scrawled on walls bore us out: “Power is in the streets!” “It’s forbidden to forbid!” Many of the males in our group enjoyed playing at being rebels. It wasn’t really their fight, so they could join the nightly mobs lobbing paving stones and debris at the riot police when they felt like it and stepping away when they didn’t. We women were more cautious, but we couldn’t resist getting out there to see for ourselves what was going on.

For weeks, our tendency to treat the street riots as performance art had kept me immune from the dark side of these events. But witnessing the reality of the violence and seeing Madame Robert so shaken changed all that for me. I felt her fear and hated that what was happening in the street below was causing her to relive long-ago trauma. And I still have the Kodachrome reminders of what it looked and felt like to watch brutality up close and be powerless to do anything to stop it.

I’ve always felt I came of age during that year in Paris. Though I didn’t feel any wiser and certainly had more growing up to do before I could call myself a fully-fledged adult. But something in me did change, and I have come to believe that the true pivot point for me was that month of May. It’s true that I was at times bewildered by all I was seeing and hearing, but it was better than being oblivious, as I had been before. The hyper-realism of the May ’68 events—the in-your-face rhetoric and maddening contradictions—awakened me to the world outside myself and opened my eyes to the fragility of the social contract.

A big factor in the way I experienced those weeks was the fact that I wasn’t sharing them on social media. I had no cell phone, no email, no Twitter, no Instagram, no Internet. There was no such thing as a 24-hour news cycle, and the little TV I could watch aired selective, sensationalized coverage that often contrasted with what I was seeing for myself. I wrote to my parents once a week, sometimes enclosing rolls of film they could have developed into slides in order to chart the high points of my year. It took five days for an airmailed letter to cross the Atlantic. International calls were hard to manage and very expensive, and I didn’t call home once all year. Out on the street, I was on my own. I couldn’t text a friend, my French family, or the director of our Hamilton program with a question or an update on what I was doing. There was no crowd-sourcing, no online alerts to show up at such and such a neighborhood for that night’s clash with the police. I was living the experience for myself, discovering what was going on day by day, getting out there where it was happening, talking to people in person, and seeing their reactions in their eyes. Today, the joke is, “If it’s not on Facebook, is it really happening?” It was really happening.