We were in Des Plaines, IL at the Fourth of July parade–July 4, 2002. Being Independence Day, there was about as much patriotism as you’d expect, but it seemed heightened, almost unreal after the events of 9/11. Everyone stood together, everything was in unison. We waved our flags together, waved at floats together, it seemed like we damn near breathed together.
I was nearly twelve at the time, and so my interest in candy was waning just a bit, being replaced by my interest in all the cool cars and illicit fireworks. And man, was it a parade. The music was in our bones, the Jesse White tumblers were performing acrobatic feats that you could only dream of, candy and Super Soaker spray were launched in equal abundance. I even managed to sneak away from my parents a few times and hang with my friends, which is always pretty cool at that age.
But I wouldn’t be telling this story if everything went perfectly according to plan, and you know that. I can almost sense you waiting for that complication, that moment when everything went wrong.
I don’t remember what the float was called, or what their banner said exactly. It’s funny how those pertinent details can be lost like that, just barely out of reach right when we need them. But I can tell you the gist of what it said, so I will. It was a sign of solidarity between the Muslim-American community and the rest of the United States. A gesture saying, “Hey, we’re not all like that. We’re hurting about this too.” The float was filled with the young and old, men and women, Muslim Americans from all walks of life. And they were smiling and waving, just like all the rest of the people in the parade. At least at first.
It was like a fog came over all of us, synchronized our movements just like with our choreographed waving and breathing. It came from the crowd closest to the parade’s beginning at first, from the people who’d already seen the float. And before the float had even made it our way, our little section of the crowd had already hushed up in anticipation.
It was judgment. It was fear. There’s no other way to say it. The men, women, and children on the float smiled and waved, and we did nothing. We didn’t cheer like we did for all the rest, didn’t wave. Practically ignored their existence.
I was young, but I knew this was deeply wrong. Hated the feeling with every fiber of my being, wanted to cheer and wave and be that one person to show support, but I didn’t. My mom and dad were silent, so I was too.
The adults on the float held out the longest before giving up the act entirely. The kids caught on the quickest, as they always do, and their faces said it all. Put their hands down in dejection, stopped smiling. Just wanted to leave.
I don’t remember when we started cheering and waving again. I know we did, we had to have, but I just don’t remember. For me, all the fun was gone after that.
Many years have passed since that moment, but I still think about it with each Fourth of July that goes by. Still wish I would’ve waved, smiled even.
All I can do now is tell this story and hope that something like it doesn’t happen again.