Continental Drift

December 21, 2009

if you tired of the killing and blood spilling you only wanna be chilling then tell me if you willing…I’ll take you there*

Filed under: Uncategorized — unaleona @ 7:21 pm

I always imagined that my first time getting almost trampled in a rioting mob would be in pursuit of a just cause.  Any of those honorable things for which people march and then get beat up for marching about: an anti war march on Washington, a sit in for climate change, a student strike in Paris.  Until yesterday, the closest I had come to such an experience was mere geographical proximity to major riots in Oaxaca back during the teacher’s revolution there in 2006.  That, at least, was a real crusade for fair wages and against corrupt governance.

Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that my first taste of the riot police baton would be in pursuit of…reggae.

That’s right, reggae.  Sean Paul came to Mali to give the concert of the year, and then it turned into a rioting mess.  Now I’m not saying concerts in Mali are usually laid back affairs.  I’ve only been here two months but I’ve already been convinced THREE TIMES by overeager fans that it is necessary to arrive at the ridiculously early hour of four o’clock to get into a concert that starts at 8:30 or more likely 9:00.  Malians seem to take their concert going seriously.

But so does the Malian government.  I can’t say I’d ever attended a concert policed by riot police in full gear complete with batons and shields.  But after about an hour and a half of standing around on the grass (these were the middle level of expensive tickets, mind you, at about $10 apiece), it quickly became clear that these police officers were going to be busy.  Every few minutes, someone would jump the fence dividing the lower priced seats in the stands from the coveted spots on the grass.  An epic chase would ensue, while the policeman tried to keep the perpetrator in view long enough to catch him and forcibly remove him.  This, though somewhat disturbing when it threatened to bowl you over in the process, was mostly comic relief for an otherwise utterly boring wait.  We had arrived at the “incredibly late” hour of 6:30, compared to those who had been waiting since 11AM, but still the minutes till the concert started moved terribly slowly. It didn’t help then, that when the MCs came onstage to announce the beginning of the concert, it was for a terrible opening act who not only was not Sean Paul, but rapped so quietly as to be nearly incomprehensible.

The crowd was understandably restless during those interminable openers, and started to drift away from the barrier line that divided those of us with places on the grass from the VIPs in front who had actual plastic chairs.  But when Sean Paul finally appeared onstage, everyone crammed themselves up to the rope to dance, sing along and get a good luck at the man  himself.  And then, maybe the riot police got mad that they were turned around facing the crowd and missing the action? For whatever reason, suddenly they were rushing towards us, batons raised shooing us away from the barrier.  But when we moved back, did they stop? No, the mad rush continued, as did the rush of spectators trying to avoid those angry batons.  And so we were all pushed but running backwards away while people stepped on every possible foot, tripping me as I turned around to run leaving me grabbing at shirts to avoid falling to the ground.  Which I did anyway, while people stepped on my shoes, ripping them off my feet while I tried to get up and keep running to avoid trampling, which I finally did.

As I escaped the danger zone, searching blindly for a glimpse of white people who might be my friends, I was shoeless, and surprisingly for a country as observantly Muslim as Mali: apparently covered in beer.  Aside from a few bruises from hitting the ground, though, I was okay, and seemingly trample free.  And bizzarely enough the disturbance seemed completely over.  In this one-way kind of riot, once the police stopped marching on the rioters, they were no longer rioters but were transformed back into mere concert-goers again.

So no, we didn’t leave immediately.  We stood back from the dividing line and assessed the damage.  I was missing both shoes, Devon was missing one, and Alex was missing her new cellphone.  Our Malian friends, possibly better prepared for such an occurrence, came out unscathed.  And the party went on.  I was shocked to discover that not only were Malians ready to get beat-up for Sean Paul, they knew all of the (English) words to his songs. Songs which, if you think about it, have very non-memorable lyrics.  Let me remind you, that Malians who speak a second language speak French, not English.  And no one in attendance, not even we the Americans, speak Sean Paul’s American-Jamaican English.  Nonetheless, every time he shouted out “This one goes out to all the ladies!” the crowd erupted in cheers. And each time he waved a towel around as the ultimate imitation of a dance move, they completely lost it.  So we stayed to enjoy the energy to make up for our anger at the wait and the mob scene. It was safe to do so while we remained back far away from the rope line, entering the fray only on search parties for our lost objects.  Devon magically located first one of my shoes, and then after we had already given up, the other. Sadly, no one found Alex’s phone or Devon’s singleton shoe. But I celebrated the return of my shoes and the sound of the familiar party songs.

But then we noticed that Sean Paul kept saying things like “I came to start the party, not a riot.”And then he kept stopping his singing to interject “Be cool people, be cool police.” And then we saw the first chairs start to fly, and realized that while our area had calmed down a bit, the mess had moved up to the VIP territory. Shortly after the MC came up to shout at the crowd and the police in French to “Stopp-ez! Juste stopp-ez!” the whole mess of chairs and flying plastic bottles and angry people came exploding out of the VIP section into the grass, breaking the flimsy rope barrier.  We figured it was about to get ugly, and started to book it towards the door, when we realized that Sean Paul had left, and without him the riot had stopped as quickly as it had started.  With no more concert to fight about, the police had stopped trying to beat people up in the name of crowd control, and the fans had stopped trying to get up on stage, and there was nothing left to be angry about except the fact that a perfectly good concert was ruined.  People left the stadium in a leisurely, orderly fashion, stepping over the chair debris that somehow suddenly littered the entire field.

We heard a lot of explanations of how the whole thing started, but none of them really made sense to me.  I’m still not sure what happened, except what I could see myself: which was utterly unnecessary provocation on the part of the police.   If that’s how they react to screaming concert fans, a staple of American concerts since time began, I’d hate to see how they react to actual protesters–let alone rioters.  On the other hand, I have learned two important lessons about Malian concerts.  Never arrive before 8PM, and always buy the cheapest tickets. Everyone up in the stands had bleacher seats in a riot-free zone while we stood for hours amidst the angry people.  As they say, never again.

*Lyrics from Sean Paul, I’ll Take You There

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