A couple of weeks ago, on a grey, rainy Sunday, I walked up to my front door to find a little crowd gathered outside. There was music coming from speakers on the pavement and two young men stood on ladders, painting on the wall beside the Indian restaurant below my apartment.
A few hours later they were finished. People stopped and looked up as they walked past and pointed it out to children who tilted little heads back to take in its scale. People stood and talked and took photos with their phones.
The painting shows a mass of people and faces, in orange, yellow, black and brown. Around the people there are outlines of houses, or maybe they could be tents, and on those in thick black capital letters it says “Refugees Are Welcome”, “Support Calais Jungle”, and “Homes for Humans”. That last one is repeated several times.
I Instagrammed it, hashtagged StreetArtLondon, and felt a pride that I knew was unjustifiable. I ignored that bit. I basked in the easy, cosy warmth of virtue by association, as though the coincidental proximity between this painting and my home said something fundamental about me as a person. As though those artists had done me a favour by painting words I believed in on a wall to save me the trouble of being brave or strong or smart enough to paint or say or defend them on my own. I could just Instagram theirs, shut my door behind me and enjoy a self-satisfied pat on the back.
On the Sunday after the U.S. election I walked out into the grey November drizzle pulling my hood down over my eyes. I turned to close the door behind me and stopped. Pushed my hood back off my face. I stood and stared and felt a deadweight drop painfully into the bottom of my stomach. I assume it was my heart.
Black paint blocked out the words Refugees Are Welcome. And the words Support Calais Jungle. Black paint also blocked out, specifically, the word Humans in Homes for Humans. That bit made me feel nauseous. I stood on the pavement for what felt like a long time and let the anger spread through my body because I liked the way it was thawing the numbness I had felt all week. In my inability to comprehend or make better what was pouring from the TV, the radio, newspapers, magazines, Twitter, my Facebook feed, people’s faces, I had shut down. Disengaged.
But there in the rain I stared at the black paint over the letters and felt myself wake up a little. Reignite. I spent that entire Sunday watching people look up at the wall and then straight back down. Pull their hoods a little further over their eyes, walk a little faster. Tug their children’s hands a little harder.
So I Instagrammed it, hashtagged RefugeesAreWelcome and felt a disgust that I knew was inadequate. Each day since then I have walked past the painting on my way to and from the bus stop and battled with what it means to do so. What it means to walk on. By my own lazy logic I am hateful by association and the coincidental proximity between this vandalism and my home says something fundamental about me as a person.
Now, and always, silence is acceptance. Inaction is an invitation and complacency is complicity. This is no time to disengage. It’s no time to opt out or shut down or avoid discussing what is complicated and uncomfortable. It is time to be emboldened by the realisation that politics is not something that happens in far away countries or behind closed doors or on the news. It’s something that happens on your doorstep, regardless of whether or not that’s inconvenient for you because you’re about to miss your bus.
I am still reeling alongside much of the world and there’s a lot I don’t know or understand. But I know that I vehemently reject the notion that any people are Humans. I know that I am unwilling to look up and straight back down, to pull my hood further over my eyes, and merely to walk on. And that knowledge is enough, for now at least, to be my starting point.