University of Rhode Island French Professor Lars Erickson received a communiqué from the U.S. Department of State cautioning American citizens about participating in mass demonstrations after the massacre at the Paris satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo.
Erickson, who arrived in Paris by train the day after the Jan. 7 attacks, considered the notice until he spoke with the four URI students traveling with him as part of URI’s J Term program, which allows students to take classes during winter break and to travel with professors for unique international experiences and academic credit.
“But my students said, ‘We are here at a historic moment, and we want to take part in the Sunday (Jan. 11) rally,” Erickson said. “I was deeply impressed that they wanted to express their support for free expression and the French people. Without a doubt, it was the most moving public event I have ever been a part of.”
As Erickson and his students marched with the more than 1 million French citizens, he knew he made the right decision when he observed a conversation between one of his students and a local citizen.
“This older French gentleman was asking my student, Ian Kanterman about his GoPro camera and how it worked,” Erickson said. “He was telling Ian about the importance of the moment.”
And then as the man finished his remarks, Kanterman, a URI French International Engineering Program student, shouted out, Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, the slogan of the French Republic, which means Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood.
“The man was so pleased with Ian’s response that he just beamed,” Erickson said. “He was just so impressed that Ian said it in French with such passion.”
The gray-haired, mustachioed man can be seen waving in the video shot by Kanterman.
“It was mind-blowing,” Kanterman said, “to see so many people come together at once. My French was a bit broken, but everyone valued that we were speaking their language.”
Kanterman, a sophomore from Brick, N.J., will join fellow students, Alyssa Pietraszek, David Kehoe and Andrew McBride, and Erickson Wednesday evening for the discussion.
Pietraszek, a URI French and geology major from Wesport, Mass., said it was her first time in France. Asked if she sensed any anger or potential violence during the rally, Pietraszek said not really.
“I saw signs that said in French, “I am Muslim. I am Charlie.”
East Providence resident McBride, who is majoring in medical laboratory science and French, said the number of people participating was overwhelming and at one point, he and his classmates climbed on top of an outdoor toilet to get a better view.
Kehoe, a French International Engineering Program student and resident of Wakefield, said the walk started in a somber fashion. “What impressed me most was that people of all walks of life and religions were walking together. As I watched a typical French citizen walking next to a man in Muslim dress, I saw one sign, that said something like, “The attack is not part of Islam; it is blasphemy.”
The trip to France started with a typical itinerary for a trip based on the goals of the International Engineering Program, a stay of three nights in Compiegne, France where the students toured the Université de Technologie de Compiègne, and local businesses. The class was open to any URI student but the target group was International Engineering Program students.
Then, the day after 12 people were gunned down at Charlie Hebdo, the group arrived in Paris. That day, five more French citizens died at the hands of terrorists before they were shot and killed by police.
“But overall, I felt very safe because of the security, and because that was a very targeted attack,” Erickson said. “I didn’t feel like a random attack was likely and my students felt the same way.
He added, however, that it was a bit unsettling seeing all of the security personnel out in such large numbers armed with semi-automatic weapons.
When the students and Erickson joined the rally, they weren’t close to the start but he said there “was this wall of people moving through the street. It was an odd mixture of somber reflection and joyous celebration. There was the acknowledgment of the horrible loss of life, but almost a sense of victory that the terrorists had been killed.
“People would just start clapping together, and pretty soon, the entire rally was clapping as one. It was as profound a sense of unity as I have ever felt.”
And he said he could not be prouder of his students.
“They were great diplomats,” Erickson said.